How Do You Deal with the Unimaginative Client?

Got the following note from a reader and fellow commercial freelancer:

I wrote a website recently in which I dropped the reader right into the environment of the business and took them on a tour of the facility, while describing their experience of the place. Nice flow, lots of mental imagery, etc., if I do say so myself. The client changed it all to “the purpose of,” “We do this,” We do that,” on and on. Read like a drill sergeant. Frustrating to say the least. Ever had a similar experience?

To which I replied:

Yes, we’ve all been in that frustrating place. Clients without vision and imagination are everywhere. All you can do is make your professional opinion known, but ultimately, they’re the boss, and they get what they want. I’m always prepared with an “I-did-it-this-way-and-here’s-why” rationale if they suggest changing it, and I will push my case strongly (and having been at it for as long as I have, I might push harder than someone newer to the biz). But, again, that’s all you can do.

Sometimes our job as commercial writers is just a job. You do your best, you put your best creative foot forward, hope for a client with an open mind—willing to embrace a bit of creativity—and make a strong case for your approach if they balk. But, in the end, if the client’s narrow perspective wins out, and you end up simply being paid well (even if you don’t end up with a copywriting sample worth showing), c’est la vie. There are worse things.

If they keep doing it, you need to make a decision: stay, hold your nose and collect your money; or let them know you can’t work with a client who won’t let you do your job. Guess what you’ll do depends on how much you need them…;)

It always amuses me (used to make me angry, but I’ve mellowed…) when clients hire me to do something they presumably don’t feel they have the skill to do, and then change what I’ve written to something of their own creation that isn’t nearly as effective. I could understand it better if I were being paid $25 an hour, in which case they’d consider me little more than a stenographer. But I’ve had clients who were paying me $125 an hour do it as well.

And in the example above, how our friend crafted the piece is a wonderfully effective way of doing it: making it real, letting the reader “test-drive” the experience of a product or service. Why clients can’t see that an approach like that is more engaging, and hence, more effective, is a real head-scratcher.

I suspect it’s more of a comfort-zone thing. They’re so used to thinking about business in black-and-white terms, and they’ve worked hard to carve out some market share, so they’re afraid of somehow alienating their customer base by communicating to that base in a “voice” that’s more colorful than their usual. Just a theory.

With bigger companies (smaller companies are typically far more willing to be creative), the fault can be laid at the feet of legal departments, which, trained as they are in imagining every possible worst-case scenario for every piece of material they disseminate publicly, will predictably nix anything out of the ordinary.

I talk in TWFW about a project I did many years back for that Big Soft-Drink Company here in Atlanta, working through a design firm. It was a promotion geared to their bottlers, and linking one of their products to a big golf tournament. I filled the piece with all sorts of fun, golf-related double-entendre-verbiage: “Drive for the Green!”; “An Opportunity that’s Dead Solid Perfect;” and more.

Some months later, I saw the final product. Every single one of my clever little bits of color had been sanitized out of the piece, replaced with bland, snoozer copy. Oh, well.

Why do you think many corporate copywriting clients resist more creative approaches? Have some shared their reasons?

Have you had client push back on a creative/interesting approach, and if so how did you handle their resistance?

If you were able to sway them to your point of view, what did the trick?

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22 replies
  1. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    The following does NOT mean I’ve never had this type of client, but… I try to ask:

    “If I write something that feels out of your comfort zone, how will you react?”


    “What is your vision for this piece/project/etc… ? Am I allowed some ‘creative latitude’ with that vision?”

    Their answers serve me well, as to whether or not they are a fit. I sometimes show “samples” of what I mean as well, depending on the situation.

  2. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Very interesting topic, Peter. My health care/insurance niche has me bumping into this more than once. In my niche, some fear not being taken seriously if the copy does not keep the somber tone of the serious topic. 😉

    My whole brand is about making the complex simple. I can share a story of one time I succeeded in persuading an internal customer to follow my point of view vs. another when I did not Ironically, it was on the same topic – specific health care legislation, 10 years apart. Trust me, very dry material.

    The first time was a presentation I created for a training session that I co-chaired with our company’s attorney (back in my corporate days). I interjected humor and graphics in an era of boring bullet points.

    Now, I bet you are thinking it was the attorney partner who flinched at the idea. In fact, it was the Marketing Director who was dead set against using humor and graphics. I think only because the attorney loved it and was behind it was I able to move forward with my version.

    It was at the presentation that I received one of my most treasured compliment. An audience member thanked me publicly for taking a complex subject and making it fun and simple to understand.

    The second presentation was an evolution of the same legislation with new requirements 10 years later. To make a long story short (or shorter) ;-), the client (the presenter in this case) hated the concept of images and humor. Not enough detail – although we had discussed that they should provide details in take-away hand-outs (which they did not contract with me to do). Perhaps if I had been contracted to do the detailed hand-out they might have bought into the presentation.

    Then again, they just might prefer the layers of bulleted text. And, like you said, Peter, oh well, they are the client.

  3. Lori
    Lori says:

    Lordy, does this ever ring a bell! Several, in fact.

    I had a situation in which it wasn’t the client, but the marketing firm I was working with watering everything down. I wrote really good content that matched the client’s business tone and personality. When I saw it after the marketing firm got it, I nearly cried. It was so bland and dry! I didn’t press my point because I knew it wouldn’t matter, and I didn’t want to be labeled a diva (I was new to the company). So what happened? A month or so later when they couldn’t please the client, they let bits of my content back into the document, which the client loved. I’d feel vindicated if it had taught that marketing company anything. Alas, subsequent projects revealed more of the same controlling behavior.

    I think corporate clients resist creative approaches for a few reasons. First, they’re not willing to wrest control, or they’re unwilling to admit that someone else’s content is better. In just a few cases that’s happened to me. I had one client let his friends “rewrite” his content. He paid me, but they ended up using pull quotes as their “edits” on his original content. I’ve also had a client who sent me his copy hoping for a pat on the back instead of a rewrite. If he’d told me he was paying me to be cheerleader, I’d have saved a ton of time. 🙂

    I let them have their way, but I always tell them (in writing) what my objections are and why. No way I want them coming back saying I did a lousy job when they’ve effectively tied my hands.

    The smart clients let me lead the ideas. I like it best when I give them a place to start and then we team up to make the content a great fit.

  4. Robin Halcomb
    Robin Halcomb says:

    Great post, Peter!

    Reminds me of a rewrite I received a while back that had “we were beaten up by legal” written all over it.This is one of the many reasons I am a businessperson who just happens to supply a product called copywriting.

    Keep smiling, everyone.

  5. Rick Middleton
    Rick Middleton says:

    I think these are good moments for introspection.

    * If you have visions of winning Addy awards or Golden Quills, but your client simply wants something very good, then check yourself and give him what he wants. You just assume he knows a thing or two about his business, the type of language his audience speaks (cliches and all), and perhaps he is answering to a boss who absolutely hates surprises and flourishes, so his hands could be tied.

    * If you are trying to do good work for a person who wants drek, then it’s time to decide if you want the paycheck or if you need to bail.

    I think I’m much more objective now than I used to be. I’m better able to see where I’m full of it, and also able to make peace with myself when a client insists on the conventional and predictable.

    I was hired by a fundraising consultant who helped charities raise millions of dollars in capital campaigns. These campaigns follow a precise formula, including communications pieces that adhered to a set pattern, both in copy and design; this consultant knew what he wanted, and he didn’t want surprises. I think if you can’t operate under those kinds of directions, you shouldn’t choose this profession.

  6. Rick Middleton
    Rick Middleton says:

    Another comment: I don’t agree, at all, that small clients are more willing to be creative. Sometimes, the reason these companies stay small (think local car dealers) is because the owner wants hackneyed ads and he’s never allowed anyone to do anything better; whereas, the multinational corporation’s communications managers have all at least read through Ad Age and have pored over their competitor’s marketing pieces (so that they can produce something at least as good).

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all – great comments!

    Joseph, good stuff, and good questions to ask, though (and I’m smiling as I type this…), we’ve ALL worked with the client who SAID they were definitely open to creativity, and urged us to go wild, only to pull back to a much safer place once they saw that we’d actually taken them seriously! 😉 But still good to ask to get a feel for where they are, AND to watch HOW they answer…

    Great stories, Cathy and Lori! Yes, absolutely helps to have a champion on the client side, willing to stand up to the dissenting voices far more effectively than we ever could. And yes, Cathy, that audience member’s feedback had to make you feel validated (not that we need to get it to know such an approach is far more engaging, and, by extension, effective…).

    And Lori, I’m sure you’re on target with your explanations for why clients pull back from creativity. The ego angle is a big deal, though it always struck me as so self-defeating: You’re going to compromise the effectiveness of, say, a promotional campaign (and perhaps even jeopardize your job in the process…) because you can’t accept that the professional you hired to do some writing writes better than you??

    Just more evidence for my contention that the corporate world and all its Machiavellian machinations bring out the worst in people… 😉

    Robin: Sorry you had to endure a trip through the “legal wringer,” but we’ve all been there!

    Thanks much, Rick! Great points, and good reality check. You’re absolutely right: In many cases, a client’s push-back is because they know their audience and what will fly with that audience. Fact is, with some audiences, humor and super-creative approaches aren’t appropriate.

    And you’re also absolutely right that if you’re not willing to give a client what they want, you should be in a different business.

    I guess it just comes down to learning how to intelligently pick your battles. If you’re working with a client doing, say, B2C promotions for consumer products, and they insist on vanilla, it’s not because that’s what their audience wants. So, you have to decide what you can deal with.

    When I talked about smaller companies being more open to creativity, I meant 50-200+ employees. And that’s definitely been my experience. Very small companies can be just as bad a very big ones, though for different reasons.

    And yes, the big boys CAN be savvier, but the committee approach to decision-making coupled with the multiple layers of approval they have to endure, including, of course, Legal, very often yields a final product far less colorful than how it started out.

    Anyone else?


  8. Laura Spencer
    Laura Spencer says:

    Excellent topic! It’s good to hear that this happens to other people. In fact, I guess this is more common than I realized. Personally, when they rewrite something that I’ve created (to make it worse), I always feel as though I’ve failed somehow. I mean, the client should be able to see what I’m trying to accomplish, right? I even had one client rewrite a web page I had created for him. His contribution to the page–adding lots of passive voice and typos.

  9. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I suppose the corollary to “You break it, you bought it” is “You bought it, so you’re free to break it.” For instance, if you created a beautiful pair of hand-crafted shoes for a customer, and the customer happily pays you in full and then proceeds to “improve them” with some silver paint… Or if you, as an expert chef, prepare an incredible delicacy which the customer happily smothers with ketchup… Well, you might die a little inside, but hey, you did the job to your usual standard, and the client eventually ended up with what he wanted (for better or for worse). There’s no accounting for taste. Just make sure you get paid.

    If you’re expected to chime in on marketing strategy as a trusted advisor, however, then you have a duty to say, “Here’s why you REALLY don’t want to do that.” If the client chooses to disregard your advice, at least you can sleep at night knowing that you did what you could.

  10. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    PB, yep, I have had “those” types… but I do try to hold them accountable for how they answer e.g. if they say “Go wild”, I try to hold them to it.

    Go wild = find out exactly what that means in the client’s mind as much as you can tell.

  11. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Peter, I love your, “I’ve mellowed” … can’t imagine you being anything other than easy-going.

    Funny thing about legal departments/lawyers. A market director referred me to her lawyer husband after having heard me present a workshop on web writing. She knew I was a lawyer, who’d changed careers and she thought I’d be a perfect fit for her husband’s website project.

    He and I discussed the project; he agreed my ideas were creative and interesting. But he added that HE wasn’t “really into that type of marketing”. Unlike his wife — remember I said she referred me to him — HE preferred a more formal approach. I knew a bit about his target market and I had a pretty good idea what THEY’D prefer.

    I guess his wife thought I would be able to change his mind, but no such luck. We never worked together.

  12. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    I’ve had the life sucked out of my copy more times than I can count, and I’ve learned to roll with it. If they want to be pedestrian, dull, and drive readers away, to be it.

    What gets my goat is when they sprinkle the rewrite with typos, misspellings, and punctuation and usage errors so it looks like an idiot wrote it, and then continue to claim it’s my work.

    I teach classes in business writing, so I can’t have that kind of stuff floating around to destroy my cred. But as long as my name isn’t actually on the work, I try to forget it ever existed because it’s useless to me.

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all,

    Yes, Laura, it IS that common, so trust that you know your craft, and that when a client changes it to something worse, it’s absolutely no reflection on your skills – more their ignorance of effective communication.

    Though, as William observes (great point!), if you’re viewed, in part, as a marketing advisor (and frankly, even if you’re not), speak up when you think the client is off-base with their ideas. As I noted earlier, get good at being able to explain WHY you took the approach (even if we’re talking about the wordsmithing of a small passage here and there), and why their version isn’t the way to go.

    In my experience, the good clients appreciate when you challenge their thinking. And in a perverse sort of way, even though, on some level, they may not like that their ideas aren’t accepted unquestioningly, on another level, when they’re challenged, they have more respect for the person doing the challenging, and that person’s skills. AND, sometimes not, as Mele found out (again, pretty common…).

    But, echoing William, far better to make that professional opinion known than to stay silent. It’s in the challenging that we justify the higher fees (vs. typical “freelance writing”) we receive.

    Good point, Joseph, best to try to quantify just HOW agreeable they are to your creative efforts, though sometimes they’ll just say, “I’ll know it when I see it,’ which is little help, and opens the door to all manner of back-pedaling…;)

    Karen, I had to smile ruefully at your comment. I just loved:

    “What gets my goat is when they sprinkle the rewrite with typos, misspellings, and punctuation and usage errors so it looks like an idiot wrote it, and then continue to claim it’s my work.”

    Might have to quote that somewhere. Don’t you LOVE that? Though after a while hopefully, we start developing a good radar for those kinds of folks, and give them a wide berth. They are, to quote someone old and famous who escapes me right now, “vexatious to the soul…”


  14. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    “I’ll know it when I see it.” Yep, hate that… because it really reinforces why they NEED our help.

    They don’t know.

    Depending on the conversation I’m having, and how much rapport I have, I might dig in a little… “Oh, so you don’t really have an idea of exactly WHAT it is you’re looking for out of this project? And that’s OK, good thing we’re working together, then.”

    Getting all of this hullabaloo out of the way in the beginning helps, but as you’ve pointed out Peter, no scenario is perfect.

  15. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that, since they hired you, you owe it to them to tactfully explain why you took a particular approach, and I think it does raise your stock in their eyes as someone who knows her stuff. For all the good that does, in too many instances.

    On the other hand, if they cave and follow your advice, they’d be tacitly admitting they DON’T know diddly about effective communication, engaging their target audience, yada yada. So they immediately forget what you said, forge blindly ahead with their bad copy, and then wonder why it’s not doing any better than the dry in-house dreck they used to put out. Because this time, THEY HIRED A PROFESSIONAL!

    In corporate America, tunnel vision and selective amnesia are the widely accepted, yet unspoken, rationales for why the communications budget got wasted.

    Gee, do I sound cynical?

    PS: Peter, you have my full permission to quote.

  16. Star
    Star says:

    I am laughing and half-crying remembering all the times this has happened to me. Countless. For good-gray DC, I was “out there”–people hired me because I always put in a little sass, flash, and trash. Then when they saw it, they freaked. I always concentrated on benefits v features, but I used short sentences and was punchy and sometimes punny or funny. You’d think I had called all their customers and said their product would kill them! I remember doing a whole campaign for the American Bankers Assn annual meeting–and they scotched it and got a logo from Disney World (where the meeting was) and went on from there, time, date, place. Yawn! Another time, the Building Owners & Managers Assn took my copy and let the designer stack it in skinny columns like a–wait for it–skyscraper! Art not sales! You could not read a word without your eyes crossing. For Gannett, I once did a brochure with a voice chip–it spoke! But the copy they ultimately used was so boring, no one pushed the button. My motto for years was: “I won’t be boring no matter how much you pay me.” One day a client said, “We are pretty boring.” I said, “Well, I will write it the way it should be and tell you it’s boring.” I actually got the job! I had no business getting it, I guess. Ah, good times.

  17. Star
    Star says:

    Hey, is anyone watching the AMC show THE PITCH? Two ad firms compete for a big name client. Shows some of the brainstorming, deliverables, etc. Too much on the personal stories–I wish I saw my kids more, sob sob. I like it, though. Some of the tags they come up with are so mundane I could cry. Thurs nites.

  18. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Love the smooth switcheroo, Joseph: “Oh, so you don’t really have an idea of exactly WHAT it is you’re looking for out of this project? And that’s OK, good thing we’re working together, then.” That’s using your head…;)

    And Karen, its easy to get cynical sometimes, especially when dealing with big companies. That’s why it’s good to work with the Big Boys just long enough to get those names on your resume and in your “book,” and then switch to smaller companies (who can just as easily pay for your services but are far less likely to fight you every step of the way).

    Love the stories, Star! I can just picture them – deer-in-the-headlights looks on their faces. Heck, they got INTO banking because they wanted safe, predictable, vanilla, and here you come to assault that comfort zone of theirs. They probably needed an extra cocktail when they got home that night.

    And there’s yet another quotable: “I won’t be boring no matter how much you pay me.” Hilarious. Now, Star, that’s NOT being very customer-centric… 😉

    And yes, I’ve seen the other scenario plenty of times as well: where the design trumps the copy, and they just want to turn it into an artistic element as opposed to THE key point of the piece.

    Just know – to all of you who have yet to face this one – that copy ALWAYS trumps design. Good designers know this, and will work hard to showcase your copy in their design so it’s optimally effective. Don’t ever let some smooth-talking creative dude/dudette convince you that your copy plays second fiddle to the design. NOT saying they won’t get their way (they often do), but they’re not right.


  19. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    Peter, you are so right, and I think you may have just hit on another blog topic, “What do you do when design trumps copy?” How do you handle those clients who get bedazzled by pretty colors and pictures and get sold on some off-the-wall motif before they even begin to consider the copy?

  20. Star
    Star says:

    I won’t be boring no matter how much you pay me.” Hilarious. Now, Star, that’s NOT being very customer-centric…

    Yeah, I know…Some people hated that tag, some adored it. I haven’t used it in yrs. Now that I typed it, I like it again!

  21. Nick Yong
    Nick Yong says:

    I’m a little bit late to the party, however, the nuggets of wisdom and experiences that everyone has shared I can relate.

    In addition, the company you’re working with, and regardless of size is focused on risk aversion. If they publish, then that becomes risk mitigation – which the company will hate because now they have to hire that law team… and PR teams… and…

    Working with designers – ones who don’t share or play nice, I usually say the following with client in tow:

    “What objections do you have to the words that are written?”
    “What suggestions do you have that would convey business value?”
    “Can you specify what criteria you’re using to determine your dissatisfaction?”

    The majority of designers are conflict averse; they won’t and typically don’t know how to answer those questions. They will try to pull a smoke and mirrors act, however the client, will now look at you differently. You’ve differentiated yourself.

    And for the client who nixes your ideas with a re-write; I say write away. And pay me more. I’ll simply ask, “So what else do you want me to write?” And that’s that.

    Your self-worth is not tied to whether the client loves your work. Your lifestyle is tied to the compensation you receive.

  22. Melanie
    Melanie says:

    So relieved that this appears to be a common issue. Especially the seeming preference for passive voice, typos and poor grammar.
    It is disheartening at times. Writing is such an emotional process. Well, it is if the copy does its job. If it evokes no sentiment whatsoever while writing it, why should it provoke an emotional response from the reader?
    Unfortunately, many B2B clients feel that dry, emotionless purely technical blabber is more effective than forging a relationship with prospects.

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