Why copywriting is undervalued

by Tom Albrighton 4 January 2017 Copywriting, Freelancing

Just before Christmas, I enjoyed this post at the Wordtree blog, where Liz Doig tells of a client who allocated five times as much budget to design as to copywriting. It got me thinking about the reasons why copywriting sometimes ends up in that position.

This isn’t a pity-me lament, nor a clients-from-hell rant. I just want to explore this phenomenon (I won’t even call it a problem) and what, if anything, copywriters can do about it.

Late to the party

Marketing needs both design and copy. But copy is more fundamental, because it’s about substance: what you want to say, as well as how you want to say it.

That doesn’t mean copy is ‘better than’ design. Just that it’s logical to think about it first. And that holds true no matter how much design comes to dominate the process – or the budget – later on.

Some clients fully appreciate the primacy of language, so they get the text sorted out before anything else. Copywriters love them. So do designers, because a ‘copy first’ project generally unfolds with preternatural ease, like a childhood dream of flight.

Sometimes, though, copy shuffles awkwardly on stage at the end of Act IV, waiting for its prompt. By that point, the budget may already have been set as an unexpandable ‘fixed pie’, leaving the copywriter with a sliver rather than a wodge. More seriously for the client, many issues will have been resolved that would have really benefited from a writer’s input.

Why don’t clients get a writer in sooner? Maybe because they expect to do that job themselves (see below), at least initially. Or, if they’re less familiar with their target medium, it may be because design feels closer to the final product somehow, so they gravitate in that direction. If I want a house built, I might go straight to a builder, even though what I really need first is an architect.

Does that make copy an ‘afterthought’? Well, in these Difficult Economic Times, we should probably be grateful clients are thinking about it at all. As marketers, it’s our job to fit in with the customer’s buying journey, not fight with it. We are where we are, and if we’re late to the party, all we can do is add value however we can – and suggest an earlier approach next time.

Everybody writes

Unless they’re marketers themselves, few clients will spend much time thinking about graphic layout, user experience or online functionality. Even fewer will use Github, Photoshop or InDesign. So there’s a robust technical and vocational barrier to entry around design disciplines, preserving their separation and mystique. Practitioners can choose to cultivate that barrier, or play it down, but it’s there.

In contrast, everybody writes, every day, using the same tools as Dave Trott or J.K. Rowling. And whoever writes, the output is a basic text document like any other. So the only thing upholding the copywriter’s specialness is the client’s perception of their art – which may be hazy, particularly early on.

As Liz notes in her piece, it can be irritating when people portray their need for copywriting as a problem of resources (‘we don’t have time’) rather than one of capability (‘we can’t do this’). That positions the copywriter as a mere channel of delegation, and implies that pretty much anyone could do the job. But again, I think this view is a point in a journey rather than a point of principle.

For example, I used to do my own painting. Later on, when I was busier, I ‘delegated’ it to a decorator. Before the gloss was even dry on the doorframes, I could see the clear quality argument for using a professional. However much time I put into painting, the results would still be rubbish. So I duly hung up my brushes.

As this story suggests, it’s often better if clients do give it a go, because they are rarely 100% happy with what they produce, and often realise that they do need outside help. What’s more, their work can be a valuable starting point, whether instructive or cautionary. Contrast that with my slapdash paintwork, which lacked all merit and hung around for years, confronting me in mute reproach, until we moved away.

Copy is a fait accompli

Not only are the tools of writing more universal, but the process they support can seem obscure and insubstantial too.

Working with a designer or developer can be a bit like watching Masterchef. There are so many milestones at which they can show what they’ve done so far: mood boards, wireframes, functional demos, colour ways, logo options, brand books, sample pages. Each stage generates another meaty deliverable that beefs up the perception of value.

The copywriter, on the other hand, simply serves up the finished dish. As a writer, you’re usually aiming to hit the target first time. For sure, you expect feedback, and may have queries yourself, but essentially your text is good to go. You might do a sample of a larger project first, to confirm the style, but that’s more of a polished fragment than a half-formed pot.

As a result, the grunt of writing is largely hidden. You take the brief, work your alchemy in seclusion, and reappear with the copy. All the experimentation, refinement, rejection and selection happens in your head, or at your desk. And this disparity can make copywriting look somehow smaller and less substantial than design.

You can combat this by adding some visual zing. For example, you can ask an art director to mock up your ad concept, or present your taglines in a colourful PDF or PowerPoint. The risk, of course, is that the visuals merely distract from your copy, or even take root as a viable design idea, enraging the actual designer on the job (which you would never want, of course).

The design/copy imbalance also has a knock-on effect on scheduling. While each design deliverable can occupy another stage on the project’s critical path, adding up to eons for the designers to do their thing, copywriting can end up as single-stage task, scrunched into a ridiculous two-day window just before launch.

However, this also indicates the solution: break down the work into chunks and charge/schedule accordingly. Briefing is a thing. Research is a thing. Interviewing is a thing. Writing is a thing, as is rewriting. Even thinking, to which we will now turn, can be a thing.

Thoughts are invisible

Rory Sutherland’s keynote at the PCN Conference was entitled ‘Behavioural economics, or what copywriters have always known but sometimes found hard to explain’.

As Rory’s talk amply demonstrated, language is by far the most powerful way to ‘nudge’ people towards particular actions. Copywriters choose the words that get the results marketers want. And they put a lot of thought into it.

However, that isn’t always obvious from the way copywriters work, or talk about their work. All the client sees is the finished copy; the thought behind them stays backstage, only made explicit under challenge. Even the writer themselves may be only half-conscious of the full complexity of their work, since they create it intuitively and instinctively, as poets and songwriters do.

As I’ve noted, the designer has many ways to manifest their thinking process, the copywriter precious few. For jobbing writers like me, it’s hard to see how it could be any other way without putting up a ludicrous wall of bluster around the work. For example, you could pen a worthy preamble outlining your strategy, or fussily comment things like ‘This overcomes the price objection’ or ‘This evokes the experience of using the product’.

Clearly, that would be protesting too much, particularly on smaller jobs. And, being ruthlessly pragmatic, it might just put more obstacles in the way of that elusive copy approval. The client doesn’t need to know what’s going on under the bonnet to drive the car.

Earlier on, however, there are probably ways to conduct the briefing that can do a similar job. A question on customer personae here, an observation on psychology there – through such deft verbal gestures, the copywriter can hint at their craft without labouring the point.

There is another way I use to foreground my thought processes, and you’re looking at it right now. By blogging about copywriting, I drag my previously unexamined thinking into the light, as much for myself as for anyone else. In fact, that internal clarity is worth the admission price alone.

Unbelievably, though, people do read this stuff. Articles I thought were utterly tumbleweed have been avidly devoured by prospects who liked what they saw and wanted copy based in the same ideas. Sometimes, clients read dozens of posts before they get in touch, giving them a window on my psyche that can be frankly disconcerting.

But I’m not complaining. It’s great to know that they appreciate how much of what I do isn’t copywriting at all. It’s copythinking.

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  • Wordtree

    Hi Tom,

    You touch on a number of good points – and you’re absolutely right not to frame it as a rant against “difficult clients” or just a “poor little copywriters” boo-hoo piece.

    At Wordtree, we’ve done a lot in the past few years to formalise – and I guess to professionalise – our process and approach so that clients can see what’s involved and why we charge what we do. We have a diagram that shows what clients can expect from us – and what we expect from clients – at each stage. This is part of a pack we kick off the majority of projects with. Throughout the project, we send regular updates, have calls and face-to-face meetings (which are all billable). And we send thorough rationales to accompany each draft. This rationale (a separate document) is sometimes longer than the piece of creative itself, but personally I don’t have a problem with this. Rather than getting in the way of sign-off, it can speed it along. For example, we recently had a project that involved partner companies who each had to be mindful of different regulations. The first draft was just a handful of sentences, but the rationale was two pages long, detailing a conversation we’d had with the FCA about a potential grey area between the two areas of regulation. So instead of getting stuck in legal, the project moved on at a pace.

    When I scaled up from being a freelancer to having premises and an employed team, the whole “process” thing felt uncreative and bureaucratic. But actually, I’ve come to realise that the process and the documentation around it is an important form of communication with our clients. We’re not rigid with it, and we don’t set the clock running the moment a client calls – but process helps us to set expectations and also, if we’re ever working with a less experienced client, it can help to educate too.

    I still think we’ve some way to go in getting the maximum value out of each of the “stages” of the process. I’m aware, for example, of one large writing agency that charges for “double braining” – its own expression for proofreading. When I found out about this, I thought, “But we’d never send a piece of work out of the door that hasn’t been proofread…” But then I thought, “Well, if we haven’t highlighted that as a benefit to our clients, then it’s us being daft.” (We won’t ever call it “double-braining” though – sounds like something that could happen to you in a playground if you failed to hand over your lunch money.)

    I think where we run into the “sliver” of budget situation the most frequently is – as you correctly identify – when we’re the last to be called in. Almost without exception, this is because a multidisciplinary has already been in and swallowed up the budget but failed to deliver one or all of the following:

    * A clear (or workable) brand strategy
    * Workable messaging (including straplines)
    * Content that shows understanding of products and services
    * Content that supports the brand
    * Content that makes sense

    In other words, over the years, I’ve come across plenty of “multidisciplinaries” that only really do design.

    I think probably the only way to stop this “sliver” situation happening is to politely turn down a project that’s already been through the multidisciplinary magle. And that’s difficult to do.

    The very best projects we’ve worked on have always involved a kick-off where all the parties have met each other, where the client is actively involved throughout and is open to ideas and challenge.

    The projects that have bitten us on the bum have tended to be the smaller ones where we thought, “This is just one teeny flyer… it’ll take us longer to do all that process malarky than it will to just write the thing…” And because nothing is properly documented, the thing can grow arms and legs and just become a total drain. So we now document everything. Every call. Every meeting. Every briefing. And we charge for doing so, because it’s all part of the work that gets our clients outstanding results.

    I’m really interested to hear other people’s ideas about professionalising their offer and communicating value to their clients.

    -Liz-

  • bravenewmalden

    A good piece, Tom. My only gripe is with your claim that clients who give it a go ‘are rarely 100% happy with what they produce, and often realise that they do need outside help.’ Some do, but many hold strongly to the belief that they know more than anyone about how to write about ‘their’ product. They frequently came top of the class for essay writing, after all.

  • Wordtree

    But then isn’t it up to us to gently explain that commercial writing involves a slightly different skill set? And even to coach people on the differences? http://wordtree.com/why-commercial-writing-is-so-different-to-academic-writing/

  • Thanks for the comment Liz. You give a fascinating insight into how a larger writing business approaches this issue.

    A few years ago, I dreamt of ‘businessifying’ my freelance work by developing a whole system and process around the writing, from pricing through briefing and on to approval. There were set stages for progressing projects, formulae for pricing, and so on. I actually got quite a long way with it, but finally realised that clients would probably never accept it, or see the benefit in it – at least, not from a solitary freelancer.

    So, in the end, I stuck with the flexible-consultant approach that I imagine most freelancers use. But at least it was a conscious choice to adopt that as a business model, rather than a passive acceptance of whatever the market wanted to impose. Just appreciating that you *could* nail things down, or that there can be limits to flexibility that you set yourself, is an important thing to learn.

    Having said that, I do put explicit rationale around the work when it’s needed. The obvious examples are taglines/straplines or names for products/firms. Clearly, the options can’t be put up as a spindly little document with 36 words in it. So for each option, I set out the strategy or reasoning and the pros and cons. Sometimes, I rate the options myself (e.g. with a score out of 10), to guide the client towards what I feel is the best way forward.

    This turns what might otherwise look like a meandering sequence of thoughts into a rigorous data matrix, in which the copy is only one element. As with your FCA work, the disparity between the (small) work and its (big) explanation makes it very clear how much thinking has gone into the result, regardless of its apparent size.

    Clients do appreciate this, and it’s also a good way for a freelancer to communicate ‘through’ an agency that has engaged them – the next best thing to dealing with the client direct. As you say, when your copy goes out into the world with its explanation attached, it already has the ammo it may need to fight its way through committee approval.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  • Great read. The last point particularly rings true to me, and I have tried the “This line evokes the experience of using the product” bit. It feels very much, as you say, like a ludicrous wall of bluster.

    It’s true, but it’s certainly retrospective.

    Sure, the client doesn’t need to know what’s going on under the bonnet, but they do need to feel their money was well spent… and therein lies the problem.

    I’ve just started blogging for similar reasons, so it’s heartening to read your thoughts. Copythinking, indeed.

  • One way to address the tendency for clients to view copywriting as an afterthought is to charge extra for rush jobs.

  • Rishi Dastidar made the same point on Twitter today, but his words have been lost like tears in rain. He argued that there isn’t even a basis for evaluating quality sometimes, which I suppose is true in some situations.

    The scenario I had in mind here is a direct approach from an entrepreneur or startup founder who has written e.g. their own site, but they are finding it is not doing the business for them, or they have just gradually realised that the copy needs improvement, perhaps from looking at competitors. So it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that they’ll revert back to their own text, and they’re generally quite amenable to suggestions.

    Being overridden by a client who feels they know the product better is a tough challenge. I would like to argue that the newcomer/outsider perspective gives you a better sense of what will work with ‘ordinary readers’. That position can feel a little weak – ignorance as authority? – but many clients do actively embrace it, i.e. ‘If it doesn’t make sense to you, we need to change it’.

  • Oo, I’m not sure how I feel about that Clare. For me, the issue with rush jobs is that it implies you can do exactly what the client thinks, and stuff the copy into the last few days. You’re implicitly agreeing with their assumption that copy can be quick n’ easy, but just charging extra for it.

    Personally, I prefer to set a hard and fast line. Great copy will take X amount of time, and I can’t achieve it quicker even if you pay me more. Saying that, if I was offering to shorten the deadline because of something completely unrelated – I’ll work the weekend, for example – then maybe a rush fee could work. I’ll never offer to give priority for a higher fee if I’ve already got work booked in though – I don’t think it sends the right message.

    I worry that charging a rush fee devalues what we offer, and furthers the mistaken assumption that we’re all time and no talent. Open to being persuaded though…

  • To be clear – I’m not talking about cramming a three-week job into a three-day job (unless they’re also prepared to pay for the extra person-power that would require). But if it’s doable by juggling other, less urgent jobs, or bringing in help from another writer, then I think you can and should put a price on that. And I always charge double for weekend working – which either puts them off (fine by me) or stretches their budget but makes them more organised next time. I worry that NOT charging a rush fee devalues what we offer.

  • I’d agree with the sentiment entirely. I am just now chasing clients for copy for a couple of websites. It’ll be written internally with the expectation that nobody really cares. There be lots more feedback on moving a few pixels here and there.

  • One of the most important things I’ve learned is not to increase the price when you actually want (or need) to decline the work but are nervous about doing so. Otherwise you can end up taking the job on but thinking, ‘I didn’t really want to do this, and actually the extra money does not make up for the lost weekend/energy expended.’

    The price needs to be set at a level where you would be happy to do the work – and if you really want to price someone out, best be sure they’re not going to go ahead and accept the deal!

    Higher prices as a way to influence clients’ behaviour is a bit of a blunt instrument but I suppose it works – as long as you explain the rationale behind it.

    For example, I often encourage people to aggregate smaller jobs into bundles, and offer a big discount for doing so (or I impose a premium on the smaller job, to look at it the other way). As I explain to them, that’s because the admin associated with a job (principally emails and invoicing) is the same regardless of its size. But that point needs to be explained, because otherwise it can look like I am charging an arrogant ‘getting out of bed’ fee, when actually there is a good business reason for it.

  • The sad thing is, they will never know how many customers they have lost from the site, unless they read between the lines of their bounce rate.

  • Great Article, You are right.

  • Really great and informative post Tom, thank you. Providing clients with the “wizard behind the curtain” view while maintaining a level of professionalism is a struggle, not sure that I have perfected this yet…

  • Geofrey Crow

    Good post, Tom. I think you’ve come up with a pretty good solution to the problem with this blog, Tom. That’s definitely one way to let potential clients see all the thought that goes into writing copy.

    It can also be worthwhile to show a client the prewriting process, with detailed outlines and customer profiles. Then guiding them through the editing process, so they can see that every draft makes the copy a little sharper. Thanks for the post.

  • Nadia Barlow

    Hi Tom,

    Great post! I’m still fairly new as a freelance copywriter, and originally came from TV, where writers are the most undervalued creatives in the indsutry. So it’s important to note that writers are undervalued universally. I’m not sure why – it could be because of your point that it’s something everyone can do. The upside is, few people can do it well. And while graphic designers and web developers can fairly easily be outsourced to India or the Phillipines, good luck doing the same with a copywriter. In that respect we’re lucky!

    The other question I have is if part of it is down to agencies. I have tried to develop relationships with marketing agencies, designers and web developers in my local area. On the one hand they’re crying out for copywriters because 1. projects always get held up because they’re waiting for content (clients are often unaware that this is their responsibility and believe the developer is going to do it for them and so it becomes a huge pain) and 2. they get to a point in the project where they get stuck because of the brand articuation or the messaging. But despite this it’s never really amounted to anything substantial in terms of collaborations.

    While the surface reason is down to budget, I’m reluctant to believe that is the whole story. It’s up to agencies to educate their clients about what is going to be involved in the project, and what it’s going to cost them. For clients who are paying for a $6-10k for a website, copywriting should just be part of it. I wasn’t around back in the the heyday of advertising, but it seems to me that’s how copywriting was seen within the process. And then when everything was fractured and copywriters went freelance, is when we kind of got left out of the loop. But as I said, being a bit new to all this, I’m not sure if that’s an accurate reflection.

    My personal mission in my local area has been to promote copywriting so that businesses see it as essential as a website developer’s job. Might be a bit ambitious though!

  • Hi Nadia, and thanks for commenting. As long as agencies are oriented around the design/development side of things, I think it’s inevitable that writers will tend to be brought in on an ad hoc basis, and/or late in the process. On the plus side, that does allow you to build a reputation as a ‘fixer’, which people value – but it’s not quite the same as being part of the initial creative conversation.

  • Nadia Barlow

    I’ve found the answer in Sunset Boulevard:

  • Great quote! I’m sure most non-marketing people, and particularly those who dislike advertising, see ads as just somehow emanating from ‘advertisers’. They might be surprised to learn that someone behind the scenes is putting their heart and soul into it.

  • Nadia Barlow

    I know right! And the irony is that this character, having failed at the Hollywood dream has resigned himself to going back to his “thirty-five-dollar-a-week job behind the copy desk
    of the Dayton Evening Post”. I won’t tell you where he really winds up, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out… unless you’ve already seen it 😉 It’s a great movie!