08 Oct

Thumbs up Vs Red flag

I’m writing this post for three reasons:

1. It might act as a useful insight for junior freelancers (in any creative discipline).
2. I’m intrigued to know what other copywriters think: whether they agree or not.
3. I’m also intrigued to know what indicates ‘Red flag’ and ‘Thumbs up’ in other industries, when dealing with clients.

So, to get to the point – I’m talking about ‘Red flags’ that say ‘do not work with this business’ / ‘do not take on this client’, and ‘Thumbs up’ referring to things that make clients a dream to work with, in blissful, creative symbiosis.

I’ll start with the negative, so that I can finish on a positive.

For me, the ‘Red flags’ are:

1. A refusal to give a full brief, or an avoidance of giving one i.e giving only snippets of information by email (or only giving details over the phone), despite several requests to answer questions on a briefing form or sign off the brief that’s been written up from the initial meeting/Skype call.
I’ve learnt from past mistakes: every project I’ve taken on where the client wouldn’t write out / sign off a full brief (in my early days or during quiet periods, when I was desperate for work) has been a nightmare.
A brief is there to protect both the copywriter and the client. It’s something they both agree to, have to stick to, and it determines whether the work produced has met all objectives.
It means that a client can’t just say that every solution the copywriter comes up with is wrong (leading to infinite edits, with no direction) or completely change the scope of the brief halfway through. It also means that the copywriter has to justify their choices (word choice, syntax, tone) in line with that brief, and cannot just go off-piste (or, if they do, the client can rightly point that out to them).
If a client keeps avoiding giving a full, written brief, it sets alarm bells ringing: I won’t start a new project without a brief.

2. Sad to say it, but any client who has tried to avoid paying me in the past (while still expressing satisfaction with my work) or has had to be chased, and chased, and chased (not over a few days – I’m not a pitbull. I’m talking about over a number of weeks) – that’s an instant ‘Red flag’, and I won’t work with them / their company again.
This may sound a tad harsh, but I’m a one-man resource – I haven’t got time to endlessly chase payment alongside working on existing projects, edits, looking for new business. It’s simply too much additional hassle.
If someone is unhappy with my work, that’s different: I’d expect them to tell me, give me a chance to rectify any errors, and withhold payment during this time (I mean if they’re really unhappy, not just asking for a few tweaks).
If they’re happy, but they just don’t want to pay or ‘things just keep coming up’… nah.
I wouldn’t go into a restaurant and have a meal knowing that I didn’t have any means of paying for it – I don’t expect people to commission me for a project, knowing that they won’t be able to afford it.

3. Any client who has, with previous work, taken weeks – if not months – to get back to me with feedback. In fact, I brought in stricter terms whereby I request feedback within seven days of presenting a first draft of work, after which point I’ll simply fit in amends when I next have time free between other client briefs.
Again, the one-man resource thing comes into play: I can’t keep endlessly chasing feedback if I’m getting no response.
That aside, if a client chooses to come back to me ‘as and when’ (maybe 6 weeks later), I can’t guarantee that I won’t be too stacked with other client work at that point, so unable to work on a second draft.
It also means that the original brief, and all the research undertaken, is no longer fresh in my mind: I’ve come back to that work completely cold. The frequent ‘back n forth’ between client and copywriter – no long gaps without contact – is what leads to better work.

However, on a positive note, the ‘Thumbs up’ are:

1. Any client (whether the business owner, marketing director for the company, or an agency) who really gets stuck into the brief, going into as much detail as possible, and coming across as genuinely excited about the project, with high expectations.
I don’t really put time limits on briefing sessions: the more information I can gather, the better.

2. Clients who give good, honest (even brutal) feedback on work – comments that let me know what they do and don’t like about the work I’ve produced, and how I can go about getting it spot on. I love feedback that leaves me under no illusion as to what’s good and what’s crap, and why.

3. Clients who work with me, almost as a creative partner: those who aren’t just hands off because they believe ‘you’re the copywriter and you know best’. I love clients who make valid suggestions and disagree with bits that I’ve presented – it makes it feel like we’re working in tandem to get the best possible result, not just ‘I pay you, you go write’.

4. Clients who I continue to keep in contact with (not necessarily for ‘repeat business’, just in general). It may be that they come back to me here and there, asking for small changes or suggestions for e.g the name of a new product or service.
I have a client who – over a year after we signed off final draft – calls me about things like their new website design, suggestions for a headline for a press ad, minor changes to content. I’m happy to help. They’re not asking for two days’ work for free, just the odd bit of advice. We get on well, and I like to keep tabs on how their business is doing. I don’t just write copy to get paid – I like to know that what I wrote helped my client’s business to grow, or helped to raise awareness of something.

Anyway, in the words of Forrest Gump; that’s all I have to say about that.

I’m still intrigued to know though – copywriters: do you agree with my lists? And those of you who work in other industries; what are your ‘Red flags’ and ‘Thumbs up’ when working with clients?

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