Why Clients Rewrite Your Copy -- And How To Handle It
By Robert W. Bly

Recently the head of a large public relations agency said to me, “Boy, I don’t envy you being a freelance copywriter. That’s got to be a tough job, writing copy and then having clients make all those changes and revisions.”

To a degree, he’s right. H.G. Wells once observed there is no greater human urge than the desire to rewrite someone else’s copy. And certainly, if you’ve been in this business for any length of time, you know that most tedious portion of any promotional campaign is routing the copy around, making changes, generating revisions, and getting approvals.

And that raises a question: Namely, if the standards of professionalism in our industry have risen dramatically over the last several decades, as many experts claim, then why is there still so much revising and rewriting of copy by clients?

Aside from the possibility that the copy being submitted is simply bad copy, I think there are two major reasons why so much ad copy is revised and rewritten to the point where it only faintly resembles the original submission.

The first reason is that copywriting is one of the few activities in the business world where there is no RFP (request for proposal) -- no predefined and agreed-upon specification to which the work must conform.

If I order a computer system, part of the vendor’s selling process is to precisely define my needs and requirements. In their proposal to me, the vendor will spell out exactly what is to be delivered -- down to the dimensions of the computer screen, the size of the hard drive, even the brand and type of modem. As a result, it’s rather simple to determine whether the vendor has fulfilled my requirements.

But in the copywriting business, it’s different. It would be absurd for the client to request, in advance, a piece of copy with so many headlines, so many subheads, so many commas, so many sentences beginning with the words and or the, so many paragraphs of such and such length. In fact, one could argue that even specifying the type of copy required -- e.g., an ad vs. a sales letter, self-mailer, or telemarketing script -- is often done prematurely, without the proper thought and analysis.

And here’s the root of the problem: If we cannot define a specification or requirement for the work before it is ordered, how can the copywriter be absolutely sure she is precisely meeting the client’s preferences and expectations? She can’t, of course -- hence, the tendency to edit and rewrite any piece of submitted copy.

In a sense, ours is a business where an inherent degree of client dissatisfaction and discontent is literally built into the process.

The second reason why copy is rewritten is best summed up by an account executive from the television show thirty-something, who, when asked to defend a campaign, replied, “Nobody knows anything.”

To some degree, he is right. There is no formula that guarantees a successful ad or winning campaign. All creative efforts are educated guesses; all campaigns are tests which determine the validity of our approach to the market.

Because advertising is an art or a craft, and not an exact science, the professional advertising person’s opinion is always subject to question and debate, in part because she cannot with certainly say she is right.

Few people constantly and boldly challenge the opinions of their neurosurgeons, accountants, attorneys, mechanics, or electricians, because these professions are viewed as scientific, and the practitioners are seen as technical experts with arcane knowledge beyond the understanding of an ordinary mortal.

But, in fields where decisions are more subjective -- copywriting, graphic design, interior decorating, landscape architecture -- clients frequently question the practitioner, because the client believes his opinion to be equally valid. As writer Hugo Williams observes, “The tricky thing about the writing industry is the more or less accepted notion that everyone’s opinion, even on matters of grammar, carries equal weight.” Even if the client gives the professional carte blanche at the beginning of the project, the instant he sees something that is not exactly the way he would have done it, a revision or change is demanded.

Solving the problem

Can anything be done to correct this situation and enable advertising professionals to make their clients happier faster? I have three suggestions.

First, advertising professionals need to be involved much earlier in the marketing process. Too often, clients come to the agency and say “do an ad,” when in fact print advertising may be the least effective means of promoting the product. Agencies are treated as order-takers or ad-makers, but to succeed, they need to reposition themselves as strategists, planners, and problem-solvers. As a client, you should view your agency as a source of ideas and marketing knowledge, not a place where layouts are made or insertion orders typed.

Second, in some instances, clients and their agencies may want to establish a set of specifications or guidelines for certain projects. For instance, if I observe that all the sample pieces a new copywriting client has sent me are done in certain style, I may ask, “Are you open to a different approach, or do you basically want another ad along these lines?” If they are inflexible, and if I don’t like their approach or cannot duplicate it, I walk away from the job.

Third, a reply mechanism and tangible, measurable direct response offer should be built into all marketing communications -- not only ads and direct mail but brochures, videos, Web sites, and PR. While many clients believe they have a way with words, they are all impressed by numbers -- and if you can quantitatively show that your approach outpulled their approach, they will be less inclined to argue with you.

As for me, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of this article in Creative NJ -- mainly to see how much my client, Jim Maguire, edited it.


Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in conventional and Internet direct mail. He can be reached at rwbly@bly.com. His latest book, Internet Direct Mail: The Complete Guide to Successful e-mail Marketing Campaigns (coauthored with Steve Roberts and Michelle Feit), will be published in October, 2000 by NTC Business Books.

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138

email: rwbly@bly.com