B-T-B Copy Clinic by Robert W. Bly


How to hire a freelance copywriter


            HIRING a freelance copywriter is no small responsibility. Make the right choice, and you get great copy that brings in leads, sales, and profits--in bushels.

            Make the wrong choice, and you end up pouring thousands of dollars down the drain.

            Fortunately, you can avoid that particular heartache (most of the time, anyway) simply by knowing what to look for in a direct response copywriter.

            Here are some of the questions prospective clients ask me most often. My answers, of course, represent the prejudices of one person--a working freelance copywriter and so the right answers for you may be different. But in any event, the questions must still be asked.

            "Do you have experience in direct marketing?',

            The answer should be "yes," and backed up by samples.

            As far as I can see, most copywriters trained in "general" or "image" advertising have embraced a style and approach to ad writing that is the direct opposite of what makes for a successful mailing.

            In addition, these writers are often unaware of the fundamental techniques of direct response basics such as the importance of using a reply element, or the different methods of printing sales letters. As a result of this lack of knowledge, they may turn in a brilliant creative concept that fails because of some omission or error an error a direct mail pro would never make.

            “Do you have experience in my industry?”

            I know I'm going to get hate mail for saying this, but...in my opinion...previous experience dealing with the client's industry or product is a great plus to look for in a freelance copywriter.

            Yes, I believe that my copywriter, given time, can write a great package on any topic. But often, there isn't time. Deadlines are a rush, and worse, your product managers and engineers don't have the patience or even the ability to explain things to a "lay" writer in plain, simple English. In such a situation, it helps to have a writer who already speaks their language and knows the buzzwords. Also, a writer with experience in your industry can offer valuable insight and guidance a neophyte cannot provide.

            "If I wanted to hire you, how would I go about it?''

            Freelance copywriters are highly idiosyncratic in their dealings with clients.

            For instance, some writers insist on payment up front a practice many clients won't agree to. Others get advance retainers. Some simply send a bill when the job is done.

            I know one freelance copywriter who prides herself on her close working relationship with clients: When the client calls, she's there. Another writer I know deals with clients by mail and telephone only, and will never meet with a client face-to-face under any circumstances.

            The important thing is to make sure you are comfortable with the writer's prices, fee arrangement, and working methods. Otherwise, things may fall apart once the job gets started.

            "What is your style?"

            Are you looking for a specific style or tone in your copy? Get samples from several writers, and pick the writer whose ap­proach seems "in sync" with your own. Don't hire a writer whose style you don't like and then ask him or her to write in a different style. It just won't work.

            The same could be said for marketing strategy, copy approach, and other matters of opinion and taste. If you have strong preconceived notions of how your mailing piece should look and read, hire someone whose work fits that image. Don't hire someone who is worlds apart and then try to force-fit his or her skills to fit the job at hand. Again, it just won't work.

            "The writer's reputation."

            The most widely publicized or most expensive freelancer isn't necessarily the best. Referrals are one good method of finding freelancers who can do your work for a reasonable fee. Ask your colleagues to recommend the names of several good freelancers you can talk to.

            "How well has your copy pulled?"

            Yes, it doesn't hurt to ask the writer how his copy has pulled for other clients. Just don't weigh this information too heavily. After all, most freelancers, when asked, will naturally say that their copy is successful. In fact, if a freelancer admits to you that yes, a certain package he or she wrote didn't do so well, at least you know you are talking with someone who is honest. Also, keep in mind that many freelancers do not have access to timely, accurate response figures.

            "Please send me your package. "

            Many professional copywriters publish self-promotional "packages" they send to prospective clients upon request. These packages can range from simple folded pamphlets to thick folders containing article reprints, copy samples, autobiographies, client lists, testimonials, and other materials.

            Take a good look at any self-promotion pieces the writer has written. If he can't effectively sell himself in print, how can he sell your product or service something he is not at all familiar with?

            "Who have you worked for?"

            Lack of a client list means you are probably talking to a writer who is just starting out in freelancing (not necessarily a drawback). A long client list tells you the writer has been in business awhile and is probably somewhat successful. However, keep in mind that it's easier for a freelancer to get a small project from AT&T than it is for a major ad agency to win the entire AT&T account. So don't let the client list impress you too much.

            I realize these questions barely scratch the surface. What's your view? Do you agree with these points? Disagree? What do you look for when hiring free lance copywriters? Why not write to me so I can include your comments in a future column. Thanks!


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in business-to-business advertising and direct mail. He is the author of 15 books including The Copywriter's Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Copy That Sells (New York: Dodd, Mead). For a copy of a free report, "23 Tips for Creating Business-to-Business Mailings that Work," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Bob Bly 174 Holland Avenue, Dept. DM, New Milford, NJ 07646  (201) 599-2277.