Do good writers have unhappy clients?

Kate Toon, a successful Australian copywriter, says on her website “If the client is unhappy, you have failed as a writer.” This is true only if you equate being a writer with getting paid heaps of money. The fact is, it is very, very easy to figure out what a client wants and serve it up to him (or her, pc) on a silver platter. It is much harder to figure out what a client needs and get him (or, again, her) to accept it. Even then, salesmanship trumps true copywriting ability.

Advertising agencies exist in part because creatives need to be protected from clients. They need to be insulated to focus on the task and not the personalities. The account executives perform the salesmanship functions, walking the client down a primrose path so he will sign off on the project and understand why he should be happy with the work.

The dynamics are different between a freelance writer and a client. They work one-on-one and the real copywriter will work hard to avoid the easy way out. The client is not the true expert, the copywriter is. If the reverse were true, the client would not need the copywriter to begin with. This isn’t arrogance. It is a fact built on years of studying the best ways to use words to persuade and compel.

Clients spend years building successful companies. They know, or should know, their customers and their product features. But it often takes the outside perspective and expertise of a copywriter to find the sweet spot that links customer desires and product benefits. “I like” or “I don’t like” is not a valid basis for determining quality. If a client doesn’t like something, I need to know why. And that why has to fit into the objective framework of what a client truly needs.

Unlike Kate Toon, I do not make six figures. If I did what clients like instead of what they need, I would probably breeze through work more quickly and spend less time explaining the why behind things. She is correct: to be a monetarily successful copywriter, you need to do what clients want. But to be a successful-as-in-good copywriter, you need to stand your ground.

Think of it this way. If you were on trial for a serious offense, would you tell your attorney, “I don’t like your strategy.” Perhaps you would, but most attorneys with a professional reputation to uphold would excuse themselves from your case. You would be a difficult client who impedes their ability to help you.

The analogy holds true for copywriters. When you hire a writer, you are taking on an advisor you trust to handle your marketing copy. The writer must answer to professional standards first and foremost. In the old days, we called a writer who did “what the client likes” a hack. Sadly, hacks are more prevalent than ever because it is so damn hard to make it as a freelancer.