Copywriting apocalypse: 6 survival tips for when the shtf

February 1, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Business Smarts 

when the shtfNo matter how professional or experienced you are, the day will come when the sky turns dark,  the earth trembles, and the apocalypse crashes the world around you.

In other words, a copywriting project will go bad. Way bad.

Maybe it’s your fault. Maybe it’s the fault of your client or boss. It doesn’t matter. One way or another, you have to deal with it. So I’m going to give you a simple, 6-step survival strategy.

But first, let me tell you two stories. In the first, I screwed up. In the second, my client pulled a fast one. In both cases, the SHTF and I survived.

Story 1: Years and years ago, when I was just starting out as a freelance copywriter, an agency asked me to write copy for a self-mailer. It was an easy assignment to promote an award show for a local advertising organization.

So I came up with a headline, wrote a few paragraphs explaining the show, crafted a simple call to action to register for the event, and typed up a list of the various sponsors and speakers. Simple right?

Unfortunately, I made one giant blunder.

I assumed the assignment was so simple that the designer would just fill in all the routine items such as the reply form. That’s right. I didn’t include copy for the reply form in my copy. And yes, the designer designed the mailer with no reply form.

Worse, it was sent to the printer that way.

I still remember standing in the designer’s office reviewing the mailer with project manager when someone said, “Where is the reply form.”  That was right about when the agency founder walked in, her smile turning to a frown when she learned all the mailers would have to be scrapped. An entire room full of people glared at me in anger and frustration.

Doh! It was humiliating and I felt about 3 inches tall.

What did I do? I sucked it up and worked with the designer to correct the problem. When I climbed out of the rubble, I realized that part of my job as a copywriter was to assume nothing and include everything in the copy. It was a harsh but valuable lesson.

Story 2: Long ago, a marketing consultant called me. He said all he wanted was a simple little postcard to advertise a new service his client had just introduced.

So I provided an estimate. I would write the copy and hire a local firm for the design. I charged a flat fee, but the design firm worked hourly. Since it was just one postcard, that shouldn’t present a problem, right?

While I was writing the copy for the postcard, the client called and said he actually needed three versions of the card for different market segments. They would be similar, with just a couple lines different. Okay, no problem. The design might be a tad more, but not much.

So I create three versions, copy and design, and send them to the client. He said, “These are great. But I just realized that we’re doing some price testing. So we’ll need a little tweak on each card so we’ll have two price versions for each.”

Okay. Now I’m getting worried. I estimated for one card and now we’re up to six. The client doesn’t understand, or says he doesn’t understand, why that’s an issue. After all, it’s really just one card with a few little differences.

So we do six cards. I’ve warned the client that the bill is going up on this project. But he assures me that’s nothing to worry about. “Oh, and we need to color code the cards,” he says, “to make it easier for the printer to identify which is which, so we need some revisions. And while you’re at it, we need a couple more versions so we can run another test.”

At this point, the design hours are adding up fast. Plus materials. Plus shipping, because this was back in the days before the Internet made sending pdfs easy. Plus my time constantly meeting with the designer and dealing with the client. Plus, plus, plus.

In the end, what started out as a simple $3,000 project turned into an $11,000 invoice. When the client got the bill, he flipped out. I said, “I told you all the add-ons and revisions would increase the bill. We estimated for one card and ended up with eight.” He was furious.

He paid the bill. But I learned how badly a project can spin out of control when I allowed a client to do a “slow reveal,” adding seemingly little extras one-by-one until a small project turns into a bigger project.

The lesson: Stuff happens. You have to deal with it. You could miss a deadline, underbid a project, misunderstand the objectives and deliver off-target copy, or just make a dumb mistake. Your client or boss could move the due date, add on lots of extra work, give you poor direction, or ask you to do something you think is stupid.

What can you do? Here are six simple ways to survive your own personal apocalypse.

1. Don’t flip out. Keep your wits about you and keep your temper (or embarrassment) under control. Take a long, deep breath. Stay professional.

2. Shut up. Don’t say any more than you have to. Don’t promise anything or blame anyone. Your instinct will be to become defensive, but don’t.

3. Walk away and think. You need some time to figure out what went wrong. Think it through and be objective. Whether it’s your fault, or your boss’s, or your client’s, or someone else’s, it just doesn’t matter. Look at the problem and come up with a solution.

4. Accept responsibility. I know … it may not be your fault. But fault and responsibility are different things. Fault is about blame. Responsibility is about accepting a problem and fixing it. It’s hard to be the adult if someone else is acting like a child, but that’s one mark of a professional.

5. Fix it. Find a solution. Make it happen. Try to look at this as a personal challenge. That’s easy to say and hard to do. But do it anyway.

6. Deal with the fallout. You might end up the hero. You might end up looking like a moron. You can’t control this. Sometimes things go so wrong, it destroys a relationship. That’s life. When I forgot the reply form, it pissed people off, but I continued to work successfully with the agency. When the client kept adding on to the postcard project and didn’t want to pay extra, I collected the bill and canned the client. Good riddance.

Whatever happens, you’ll get through it. Life will go on.

By the way, if you’re a freelancer and what you’re facing is an angry client, here’s how to turn the anger into loyalty with one word.

Disclaimer: If the actual apocalypse comes, many of these tips still apply. Though I would also advise that you stock up on ammo, spam, and wooden matches.

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Smart Comments

3 Comments on Copywriting apocalypse: 6 survival tips for when the shtf

  1. Justin Matthews on Feb 1st, 2010 1:59 pm
  2. These are problems that I can see being almost universal in copywriting. they are very similar to problems that are encountered in almost every business. thanks for the reminders on how to handle people and how to deal with your mistakes

    .-= Justin Matthews’s last blog … Books: Audio vs. Print, Showdown in the Library! =-.

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AWAI, Sarah Turner, Dean Rieck, Justin Matthews, Susan Bosco and others. Susan Bosco said: Copywriting apocalypse: 6 survival tips for when the shtf [...]

  3. Marlene Hobart on Jun 15th, 2010 11:48 am
  4. I just found your site through the email newsletter that I receive from, and would like to congratulate you on a very well-written and helpful site.

    In regards to this article, these tips would work in any situation, business, home, socializing. Thank you for listing them together and so well.