If You Ask: Client Revisions: What Would Davy Crockett Do?
I'd like to offer my two cents on how copywriters should handle client revisions and/or criticism of their work. And let's face it, fellow wordsmithsyou can't run and you can't hide from revising and, many times, rewriting that precious prose you've slaved over, fine tuned, edited, massaged and polished until you think it's absolute perfection. How you accept and respond to these inevitable changes from your client can, over time, make or break your career.
But Ken, you say, how can that be? Doesn't willingly accepting revisions and "giving in" to the client just water down the copy and thus weaken its effectiveness and hobble my career? Shouldn't I stand tall, plant both feet firmly on the ground, cross my arms and refuse to budge? After all, what does the client know about writing?
Hey, I've been there. Felt that. Done that. But after 31 years bounding (well, actually pecking) away on the keyboard, I've come up with a fairly good formula for getting through the revision process more or less unscathed: I do whatever the client asks.
Here's the deal. The best way to minimize the amount of revisions you have to deal with is to get it right the first time. By that, I mean (and I've discussed this in earlier columns), be sure you've done the very best you can do; cover all the bases and write your copy based on a rock-solid concept.
Before you write a word, do your homework, ask questions, and make sure you and your client are on the same page in terms of what needs to be accomplished.
Case in point: I'm working on a package right now for the launch of a new magazine. Another copywriter is writing a package to compete against mine. My copy sailed through about six or seven sets of clients' eyes with minimal revisions. My competitor e-mailed me well after copy had been submitted to ask if I was going through as much "revision hell" as he was. Well, no, I replied, just a word here and a phrase there.
I'm sure that made that copywriter fume, but it was the truth. The question here is: Why the big difference "revision-wise" between the two sets of copy?
Am I that much better a writer than he is? Maybe. Did I ask more pertinent questions in the beginning than he did? Could be. Did I "get" the concept of the new magazine better than he did? Possibly.
My point here is that, generallyjust like in schoolif you study and do your homework, you'll get a better grade. But let's move on.
Let's suppose you've done all the right stuff and turned in your very best work. Yet it still comes back covered in red ink. What now? I have three tried and true maneuvers:
1) The Davy CrockettDavy's motto was: "Be sure you're right, then go ahead." If you're absolutely convinced that what you've written is the right way to express the thought, then fight for it. Be tactful. Be respectful. Be nice. (Clients are people, too.) The trick is making your case in such a way that the client feels comfortable backing off and agreeing to nix the change. You get what you want. The client can take some comfort in discussing a point he or she believed needed rethinking.
How, though, do you determine what's worth fighting for? My basic rule is this: If I feel the change will negatively affect response, I fight to not make it. If my sense is that the change is relatively harmless (that is, it won't kill the overall success of the package), I'll agree to itwhich leads us to the next maneuver.
2) The Tom SawyerIf you remember your high school literature, you know that Tom Sawyer was always making deals, swapping favors and basically negotiating his way through life. So, too, the successful copywriter. Many times I'll let the client have a particular change as long as he or she agrees to let me keep another bit of copy. In other words, I'll say, "O.K., I'll take out the second paragraph on page two of the letter if you let me keep the subhead on the outer." Most of the time it works. Or sometimes it's a deal based on quality versus quantity. If I agree to 15 little changes, then I try to negotiate the client's agreement to not make one of the bigger changes. (I can see Mark Twain grinning and lighting another cigar right about now.)
3) The Kenny RogersYears ago, Kenny Rogers had a hit song called "The Gambler." Part of the refrain was: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em ..." That's good advice when you're discussing copy revisions with a client. Sometimes, no matter how hard you argue your case, no matter how "on target" you feel your words are, you just can't change the client's mind. If you're smart, you'll back off and give in. Why use up all your "client goodwill credits" on one copy disagreement? You may need them later on, hopefully on another project. The best you can do is state your rationale for why you think the copy should stay as you wrote it.
One other optionand I've only had to do this a few timesis to appeal your case to a higher authority, i.e., your client's boss. But be upfront about it. Don't go behind anyone's back. Just say you would like so-and-so's opinion before a final decision is made. For example, I had a client once who wanted to flip a four-color slipsheet showing through a 9" x 12" poly package so that the photo and headline faced the inside of the package instead of the outside. That meant that what would show through the poly was the premium sell. This change was treated by the client with the same significance as adding the word "trial" between the words "free" and "issue." Yet the change was HUGEand I felt it would have a negative effect on the success of the package. I made my case in a lengthy e-mail addressed to about three different levels up the corporate ladder. And I lost the battle. But the point is, I tried. I held 'em as long as I could, then I had to fold 'em. It's too early to tell how the package performed.
Anyone who's serious about being a successful direct mail copywriter has to learn to handle client revisions. These maneuvers work for me. I encourage you to develop some that work for you. It's worth it.
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.