Shoot. Crap-ola. Aaargh. Happens to the best commercial freelancers several times in their careers, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. I finished up a marketing brochure for a commercial writing client a few months back. Everyone loved it. We all looked it over probably 10 times each. How we all missed it is beyond me. Went to print – 5,000 copies. Finally got a few samples in the mail a few weeks back. Turned out nice. Then, uh-oh. Oh, man. Don’t tell me. There it was. Not as glaring as a misspelled word, thank heavens, but rather, unnecessary punctuation. Very unnecessary. Not one of those, “it-can-go-either-way-depending-on-which style-guide-you’re-consulting” kind of punctuation mistake. No, this was pretty clear cut. Though, in truth (he said, rationalizing), it seemed more prominent since I knew what I was looking at. If someone wasn’t looking for it (by definition, the overwhelming percentage of readers), they might or might not notice it.
Of course, first stop was my last file sent to them to see if the error was in there or was added after my hands were washed of it. There it was, in all its cringe-inducing glory. Ouch.
And they printed a 5,000 of them, because they got a good price. I’d emailed the graphic designer before I know how many they’d printed, to say, “Hey, hate to tell you, but I found this error that was MY fault, so in case they’re going to back to print at some time soon, you can fix it.” Course, at the rate they’ll likely go through them, I’ll be collecting Social Security before they run out… Sheesh. I didn’t feel good about it, but he and I decided on a vow of silence. You know, let sleeping dogs lie. But, I’m sure I’ll still lose a few winks over it.
Did I do the right thing?
Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did it unfold and how was it resolved?
Are you satisfied with your handling of the situation?
If you’ve never been in such a situation (you will, eventually…), how would you handle it if you were?
So, I get this email from a FLCW the other day: “I’m embarrassed to say, I have several work samples posted on my website that I didn’t get permission from the clients to use. I realize this is not good business. Do you get permission from every client, even if the piece was posted/published in the public realm?”
My reply? No. Call me crazy, but in my estimation AND experience, this is a non-issue. If I do a B2B or B2C project (virtually all my work) for a company – by definition, one created for public dissemination – I can display it in my online portfolio.
Only once in 15 years – many years ago – did I ever ask permission to use a piece. I was told I couldn’t and given no good reason for denying my request (the pieces were part of a customer newsletter!). So being, I suppose, a bit anti-establishment, what I took away from that unsatisfying encounter was NOT that I needed to ask each time, but rather that I’d never ask again. And knock on wood, in 15 years, I’ve never had a problem.
Sure, if it’s internal (i.e., proprietary and potentially sensitive, though not all internal communication is proprietary), you shouldn’t post those unless you “sanitize” the sample of all sensitive/identifying language, but you’ll know what those situations are.
As I found out, if you ask permission, there’ll be those clients whose anal legal departments have to justify their existences by making grand proclamations about what you can and cannot do with something you created for them. And for no good or logical reason other than they can. Why bother, when chances are literally nil that they’re ever going to know or care that you’ve posted them?
And what’s the worst-case scenario? They tell you to take it down. Think they’ll slap you with a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for posting a sample thousands of people saw? Not a chance. If they decide to be a—-oles about it, they’ll start with a simple “take it down” request. And you take it down. End of story.
She wrote back that she was about to met with an IP (intellectual property) attorney and would ask about it. Straining to not be a smartass, I wrote: “What do you think an IP attorney is going to tell you? Their very professional existence is predicated on coming up with every conceivable thing that could possibly EVER go wrong in a million years. That’s what they’re paid to do. Which, in our case, has virtually no relation to reality.”
She reports back later: “As you suspected, technically we are supposed to get permission from our clients to use their copyrighted material on our websites. It gets stickier if private citizens’ names are used (e.g., in testimonials) as that gets into publicity law which is akin to privacy law.
Same thing for employees featured in the pieces; they would require separate permissions in addition to the company permission. She recommends a form or a letter asking permission to host the pieces on my website to promote my own portfolio.”
There you have it. Sigh. I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say, “Well, defer to legal counsel.” But you know? I’m just not worried about it. At all. If there was ever a more textbook case of the old saying, “Easier to ask forgiveness than permission” this would be it. So, let me have it. Here’s your chance to tell me I’m full of it.
Do you ask permission before posting samples on your web site?
If you don’t, have you ever had a serious issue arise (aside from “take it down” requests)?
A year or so back, I got an email from an Atlanta gentleman that has to be a top contender for The Stupidest Question Ever Asked. I realize that’s not very nice, and I know “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” when starting out, but still…. In essence, here’s what he wrote:
“I noticed you’re in Atlanta – I am, too. Congrats on your freelancing success. For someone starting out in the same market as a commercial freelancer, that success is a bit intimidating. (Here it comes). Can I safely assume that you’ve pretty much sewn up the Atlanta market, copywriting-wise?”
(Beat). Rub eyes comically. Re-read. Drop jaw. Guffaw. Shake head. Okay, okay, maybe not the stupidest question ever asked, just one from someone with very little understanding of business in general and our business in particular.
My reply: “Joe, think about this logically. I couldn’t sew up the copywriting market in a city of 100K, let alone one of close to five million. Could one attorney, plumber, accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic sew up the market for their specialty? Rest assured, there’s plenty of copywriting business out there.” I’ve been working in this market for 15 years and consistently run across working, thriving copywriters I’d never heard of before.
Sure, as we all know, this business isn’t a cakewalk. 5K jobs don’t fall out of the sky with minimal effort. Lucrative freelancing requires good writing skills and a grasp of business. That said, his question is similar to those I get asking if this is still a good business to get into – given the economy. Questions like these underestimate how much potential work there is AND how many companies know the value of good copywriting (and they overestimate the number of competent, reliable copywriters out there). They fail to see the reality at work:
Fact #1: Every single business has to create written materials either for marketing, advertising, or internal needs. The bigger the business, the bigger the volume.
Fact #2: There are only two ways to create those materials: do it in-house or hire it out.
Fact #3: As long as that company’s in business, those needs won’t ever disappear (if they want to STAY in business), even in lean times, when arguably, they have to do even more.
Fact #4: While many businesses don’t understand the importance of good marketing materials, those are the ones that fail or struggle eternally. Forget ‘em.
Fact #5: Most successful businesses DO understand the importance of good writing as a key contributor to their growth and success, and many of those companies hire it out – especially smaller companies (which can mean $1-100 million+), for whom it’s not usually cost-effective to have in-house creative staff.
Obviously, our challenge is to find those companies, but know, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that they’re out there.
Until and unless American business undergoes such a radical shift in modus operandi that all business books and schools have to retool their offerings, those five facts, are in my humble opinion, fairly immutable.
It’s nice to be appreciated. As some of you know – mainly those in the D.C. area – I’ve been invited back for an encore plenary speech at the annual conference of Washington Independent Writers (www.washwriter.org) entitled: THE WRITING LIFE: “Where We Are and Where We Are Going,” on June 14th. Great conference, by the way. This is a serious writing organization and they do a nice job. The venue is beautiful, the program sessions solid and meaty and the offline networking excellent. There’s still room, so check it out. Besides, I’ll be there. 😉
As an editorial aside, I work pretty hard at conferences, believing that, heck, “I’m here, I can’t be anywhere else, so you might as well put me to work.” Besides, it’s fun. Never quite “got” the attitude I’ve seen amongst many conference presenters, especially keynoters. They blow in 45 minutes before their talk, sit with the organizers at the head table, don’t talk to any attendees, do their speech – often rambling and obviously unprepared – collect their fee, then blow out. Nice work if you can get it. But I truly digress…
I was recently brainstorming a few talking points for this year’s talk with the conference organizer, and given the prognosticating theme of the conference, we got on the subject of the future of the commercial writing field. I have thoughts about my little corner of the world, most all of them positive, but I’m no oracle, and I’m one guy.
I want to hear from you, my fellow “in-the-trenchers.” I KNOW you guys are a veritable fount of wisdom (no kidding), so I’m counting on some good stuff to use in my speech (which WILL be attributed to you if I use it…). Thanks for playing! 😉
Where do you see our field going in the coming decades?
Any trends you’re spotting?
Do you think a slipping economy will help or hurt us?
What will be the attributes of those who thrive in our field in the future?
Was doing a talk about commercial writing (www.wellfedwriter.com) recently when someone asked, “Isn’t writing for business pretty dull and uncreative?”? My reply? “I don’t glorify this field and won’t tell you you’ll get all your creative fulfillment from it. That said, I’m pleasantly surprised on a regular basis at the interesting, challenging – and dare I say, at times, fun – projects that cross my path.”? And to get paid so well for it? MmMmMm. Another reason to love this life (see previous post). But, when I tell most people I write commercially, the most common reply I get is, “Oh, technical writing?” Egad, no (not that there’s anything wrong with being a technical writer…). But, as we all know, it’s MUCH more fun than that…
Recently, I landed a most interesting gig (which I’ll actually showcase a bit more in May’s ezine). This BIG firm does marketing for retail establishments – fast food places, convenience stores, supermarkets, etc. They design, build, and come up with unique marketing strategies to maximize their profitability. This job entailed creating 150+ point-of-purchase displays to highlight tips, values, recipes, and product bundles (i.e., meal ideas) with an eye toward maximizing sales. I had to create a snappy headline and one line of equally catchy body copy. Ended up being 50+ hours over 6.5 days or so, and an exceptionally healthy hourly rate.
Unusual project. NOT my typical fare. But a good example of why I like this business: such a broad variety. So, it got me thinking about what commercial writing IS. I figured if I’ve had some unusual “don’t-fit-the-mold” projects, some of you have as well. Remember, commercial writing can be anything an organization has to create in the course of doing business.
Here’s a list of commercial writing projects that have crossed my path over the years:
Marketing brochures (from tri-fold to capabilities to corporate image), ad copy, newsletters, direct mail campaigns, web sites, sales sheets, sales letters, case studies, executive profiles, speeches, video scripts, radio spots, event scripting, on-hold message scripting, CD-ROM scripting (did the commemorative CD-ROM for the Korean Veterans Memorial in D.C. – very cool), slogan/tagline concepting, annual reports, trade articles, press releases, and more that elude me right now…
So, what have I missed here that you’ve done? And what’s the most fun or unusual well-paying commercial gig you’ve ever landed?