Writing great copy is an adventure. It can have unexpected turns, leave you lost—and yet, there’s an exhilaration that comes with penning a sublime headline. However, regardless of the mountains a copywriter has conquered to craft kick ass content, it’s surprisingly easy to kill it.
Clients and copywriters alike can be responsible for copy’s death after arrival, even if it’s unintentional. What causes otherwise healthy, sparkling copy to kick the bucket?
1. Death by consensus. Culling together a sentence from everyone in the room does not create stellar copy. It takes a clear, authoritative voice to make copy sing. This isn’t to say that no one should have input—just the opposite. The writer needs feedback from subject matter experts to ensure the words speak to the intended audience and the facts are accurate. But if twelve people are allowed to edit the copy without a designated, empowered someone making an ultimate decision, your message is going to stop breathing.
2. Information starvation. Writers aren’t shy about asking questions—it’s necessary in order to write. Clients should expect that copywriters are going to approach a project, especially a project for a new company or product, with a slew of inquiries. But those on the client side also share responsibility for ensuring the copywriter is fed plenty of information. My process usually includes gorging on information, reading anything and everything the client provides for background. If it’s not in print, that’s okay. I can record a conversation with the client. But holding back information to see if your copywriter asks for it or squirreling away pertinent data is only going to produce anemic, starving copy.
3. Lack of access. In talking with a fellow writer yesterday, we realized that the key to a series of projects we tackled for one client was an interview with a specific role. Okay, that might sound vague. More specifically, we’d both experienced significant struggles with first drafts. Before writing second drafts, we were given opportunities to conduct interviews with a key team member. That made all the difference and helped us both produce winning rewrites. To save time and money, the interviews weren’t allowed the first round. What we all realized—copywriters and clients—was that the hour interview cost less than rewrites. For future projects, we built in the interviews.
Access to key people can make a significant difference in the life of your copy. Clients, make sure your writers have it. Writers, ask for it if you don’t.
4. Fear. Before the client even opened her email, I knew the copy was DOA (dead on arrival). Why? I had been hired to help the marketing department find a new way to “twist” their email campaign headlines. For the first draft, they wanted outrageous thinking, something they hadn’t seen before. My CD, also new to the client, was nervous. Sharp and talented, she was more concerned with realities than possibilities. Her common refrain was, “Oh, they won’t like that!” Those envelope-pushing lines were edited into only slightly sassy shadows of their former selves. The client was disappointed. I failed the client as a copywriter because I didn’t take a firm enough stand with the CD. We both learned a lesson with that one.
5. Political assassination. Here’s an infamous story from a former employer. It’s lore, so the details may not be exact, but you’ll get the point. Two people in the marketing department had an idea for a campaign, but the company felt it would be better served by an advertising agency. So the two employees, managed to get on the RFP list by creating a new (but fake) agency. Cut to the end: the company chose the work by the fake agency, the work done by their own employees. There are various ends to the story, but I’m pretty sure the company hired a real advertising agency—even after the big reveal.
The moral to the tale: sometimes companies are more comfortable hiring outside resources than giving opportunities (especially “stretch opportunities”) to internal talent. As an employee, I saw more than one project I wanted be given to a copywriter from a PR or advertising agency. Now that I’m the external creative, I try to be aware that I could be writing copy that someone else believes they could write better—and it’s possible they are right.
Of course, sometimes this can’t be helped. A copywriter can try to be aware of situations, but it’s more likely you won’t know until your deliverables suffer a strange, sudden disappearance and aren’t used. Clients can help this by addressing politics before a project kicks off and keeping lines of communication open.
Your turn. Has your copy been killed? What was its cause of death? Are there warning signs you’ve experienced that aren’t listed here? Have you—or a client—been able resuscitate copy that suffered a near-death experience? Please share in the comment below.