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The Copywriter’s Conundrum

February 12th, 2008 by Bob Bly

You are a freelance copywriter. A client comes to you with an interesting project — nice fee, your type of work (lsales letter, magalog, whatever your specialty).

Then the client sends you the product. You review it several times. But your conclusion is always the same: it’s a weak product that is highly unlikely to sell in the mail. In fact, you think it will almost surely fail.

The client is excited about it. But nothing he says convinces you that his enthusiasm is justified. You are certain it’s a dog.

So what do you do? Your choices are:

A. Tell the client it won’t work and politely turn down the job.
B. Keep your mouth shut, take the client’s money, write the copy for him, and hope you are wrong and it actually does well in the mail.
C. Tell the client you think it will fail, but say you’ll be happy to take a crack at writing it for your usual fee.
D. Other (please specify).

Which of the above would you choose — and why?


This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2008 at 12:55 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

54 responses about “The Copywriter’s Conundrum”

  1. John Hewitt said:

    I would give them a basic warning that the product may not be “appropriate for this market” but I would still do the project they didn’t want to listen. I’ve done it before, and the money spends the same way.

  2. James Erickson said:

    I would go for C.

    I’ve found that many clients consider us “production” people rather than creative sales people. In their eyes, our services can do anything and our job is to produce something to sell the product, not give our opinions about the quality.

    I always throw in a huge guarantee, and when the client backs off, I say “Well, if it works as good as you said it does…you’ll have no problems.” Then they either back down, or go for it.

  3. Michael A. Stelzner said:


    Honesty is the best policy.

    You are in a position where you can afford to be honest.

    So I select C.

    I recently had this happen with a VERY big and well known company.

    It was a major battle to say the least.

    My 2 cents. FYI Bob, saw your article in TARGET Marketing and am writing about it today on my blog.


  4. Richard Armstrong said:

    First thing I’d do would be to consider the possibility I might be wrong. I’ve had a few projects through the years that I wasn’t overly optimistic about going in … but they proved to be successful.

  5. Stacey Mathis said:

    C – Tell the client you think it will fail, but take a crack at it anyway. Why? Because that’s what promotion is; it’s what we do. People hire us to verbally SELL their stuff. Oftentimes, we are left with the responsibility of coming up with ways to find the desirability of their product, to unearth the bells and whistles of the item. For instance, we can compare it to its competitor to see what it’s missing, which may be a plus (like the person who came up with “No transfat.” Like a lot of assignments, there will be some that are extraordinarily challenging, but we should give it a try anyway. Some of the most inane things end up making money simply because a copywriter sat for a few days to discover the product’s deeply buried, but marketable benefit or feature.

  6. Brandon Watkins said:

    In my first college copywriting course (many years ago!) we were given several products throughout the semester that were the most inane, ridiculous pieces of junk and told to write solid ads for them. One project demanded 30-sec TV, 30-sec & 15-sec radio, and print ads for a soda-can-tab opener. About halfway through the semester one student asked in class, “Why do you give us the stupidest products? Why can’t we write ads for something decent?” The professor replied, “Because, if you can write good copy for this stuff you can write good copy for anything.”

    Certainly, I would ask the client what other marketing methods he had considered and encourage something more appropriate; though, not taking a negative tone about the mail-order plan. But ultimately, if you can write copy to sell cheap-plastic soda-can openers you can write copy that sells anything. And I would take that challenge.

  7. Craig Hysell said:

    C. Some clients just won’t listen. And sometimes I’ve been wrong.

    I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve got. However, I wonder who I’d give the credit to if the product proved successful? Was it my writing or the client’s belief in what he/she had?

    I suppose it’s a situational answer.

    (And I think Brandon’s teacher had a valid point. I mean, seriously, who ever thought a Pet Rock or men’s body spray would be successful?)

  8. The Freelance Writer's Blog said:

    Bob, I’ll take B for the following reason:

    (i) I’m a writer, not a product evaluator (at least not a paid one).

    I liken it to a criminal defense attorney representing a client he knows is probably guilty of the most horrendous crime. BUT, everyone (accused) deserves the best defense (copy) his lawyer (writer) can give him.

    (ii) Entrepreneurs tend to be believers by nature.

    The enthusiasm a client throws behind a product alone can make it successful. Passion will take you a long way. While it must eventually be married to other good marketing components, don’t discount it for getting you far, far down the road.

    So, my thinking is, who knows what this person is willing to sacrifice for his passion (actually, this brings to mind Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ).

    By all counts, this movie should NOT have been a Hollywood blockbuster. I mean, it’s a religious movie in an ancient tongue that caused a lot of controversy among some powerful Hollywood hitters. Yet it grossed over a billion dollars worldwide!

    Don’t discount “the passion.”

    Ok, I’m shutting up now.


  9. Marte Cliff said:

    Number C – with reservations. I’d probably suggest some other avenues first. The only way I’d turn it down is if I could see that I’d have to lie to sell it. I want to look in the mirror and see someone I like.

  10. Jim Phelps said:

    C. I wouldn’t presume the product would fail. I agree with Yumanda…passion can sometimes move mountains. My job is to write the best copy possible, to tell a story that will pique interest and cause people to buy. Even if the product turns out to be a dog, maybe the client will take his results, re-engineer the product, and create something great. By dong my job I will have been a part of that.

  11. Joel Heffner said:

    Unfortunately, I’d go with A. In addition to making money, I like to sleep at night. If I’m really not comfortable with something, I’d rather not do it.

  12. Peter George said:

    I would agree with A, if it were to simply turn down the job. Each of us has the right to choose which jobs we want to take. Since A includes telling the client that it won’t work, I have to go with C. Guidance is often part of our jobs, but the final decisions belong to the clients.

  13. Copywriter101 said:

    Love the post! Reminds me of when I started out as a copywriter – my way of dealing with this is D – pass it onto a fellow copywriter who needs the money & can get the enthusiasm for the job regardless! I think you have to believe in the job or you’re going to do a bad job! I love copywriters’ blogs they are turning into a really good resource. Saw these two the other day & thought yeah – good stuff:


    Keep up the good work….

  14. CatherineL said:

    Hi Bob – sorry I couldn’t find your email address. I’ve put together a resource list for business writers, and I’ve included your article on how to write an advertisment:


  15. Bob Bly said:

    CL: You can email me at

  16. Lou Wasser said:

    Hi Bob:

    In one of his unforgettable monologues, George Carlin has observed that, in America, people will buy two pieces of wood held together with a nail.

    A copywriter is paid to sell what’s there, what’s real — the naked product as is.

    Try finding a way to be candid, yet diplomatic, with the client about his product and let him know you’ll turn out the best possible copy “under the circumstances.”

    Who knows? The client may come around and let you help him put some spin on what you’re selling based on your input.

    There’s a market (and therefore a special branding) associated with Carlin’s two pieces of wood with a nail as surely as there’s a market for day-old bagels.

    Incidentally, conundrum has two u’s and only one o in its spelling.

  17. Lori said:

    I was in this position once. Awful ad and even worse, he wanted the entire envelope plastered with advertisement, as well. I told him – twice – that the copy needed work and that his envelope idea was going to land him directly in the trash. I took the job, wrote the copy, took the blame and waved as yet another clueless person refused professional help. See, he’d attended ONE marketing seminar and knew more than I did in my nearly 20 years at it. He’d heard from what he called THE authority that more is better.

    Whatever. The check cleared. He was always trying to get a freebie anyway – he’d call (on Saturday morning, no less) and start with a complaint, then ask for more work.

  18. Ted Grigg said:

    I find it hard to sell something I wouldn’t buy myself. The Client senses it and I usually don’t get the work anyway.

    So I am spared from doing things like this because I don’t have a poker face.

    I’d save my energy for something I believe in.


  19. Cymantia Tomlinson-Bey said:

    It depends on the relationship you have with the client. If it’s an established relationship vs. a new relationship, then I ask probing questions to figure out the vision the client has and find a way to interpret it. If the client is new I would just do what I’m paid for…translating any message to any audience effectively and with precision.

    Okay, so you don’t believe in the product, so what. Let the public decide! So what do you do if you get a client who has a different belief system or culture from your own, or who is just very unpleasant? Complaining, doubting, and passing a potentially successful job along is not the way I do business. However, the great thing about being self-employed is you have the power to choose your own destiny.

  20. Ken Norkin, Freelance Copywriter said:

    D — which is a version of C that does a better job of saying I want the assignment.

    That is, I won’t tell the client I think mail marketing will fail, but I’ll ask questions about why he thinks it will succeed. I want the client to understand I think the project is challenging and that I’m counting on him to provide all the insight and information possible to help me do a better job.

    I don’t see where C makes any sense if you actually want to do the job. Imagine yourself as the client. I tell you I don’t believe the product will sell in the mail but I’m “happy to take a crack at writing it.” Now there’s a confidence-building reply. Are you really going to hire me to do something that I’ve just told you I don’t think is going to work? And if you’re going to hire me despite my personal reservations, don’t you want to hear that I’m going to do more than take a crack at it? Wouldn’t you prefer to hear that I’m going to do everything I can to make it succeed?

  21. Julie, writer said:

    Nice bantering of thoughts people got in here – great appetizer for the brains but not immensely profound.

    I’d go with C.
    I believe that the burden of making the most verbose catchphrase to sell a product falls on the shoulders of a copywriter, regardless if its a hardsell. Let’s face it, that’s what they are paid for, to make a not too good product sound as an excellent buy. Given that the client is working side by side with you, so as not to keep him behind the shadows and have a full awareness of the risk they ought to face with this product.

  22. Debra said:

    If I thought the product was benign I’d probably go for Option C, give the client my opinion but let him or her make the final call.

    However, if I thought the product was harmful or dangerous I’d go for Option A and turn down the assignment. Example: one potential client wanted me to write a brochure advising cancer patients to stop their chemotherapy and take Unproven Product X instead. I felt that giving such advice would be unethical and politely declined the assignment.

  23. Paul J. Krupin said:

    New Option or an expanded variation on Option C:

    I’d do more than just C. I’d make sure the client can accept a total failure, in spite of the best professional efforts I make. I often ask my clients, “How will you feel if you pay me $$$ and you very little if anything happens? Can you live and accept zero or even negative ROI?” I sometimes send this declaration in writing in an email and insist on a written response that authorizes a project.

  24. Bill Hilton said:

    Usually C, as long as it’s an established company that can take the hit when the product bombs.

    However, as I focus on working with SMEs, I often have to go with A. I couldn’t live with myself if any of my clients lost their homes because they put their faith in a turkey and I hadn’t warned them.

    Problem is, even if clients are very intelligent (in fact, particularly if they are very intelligent) they can struggle to see the flaws in their pet projects.

  25. Gary (aka fool4jesus) said:

    I think it would have to be B. I am just getting started in copywriting, but as a software developer you face the same conundrum all the time. Your boss – say the pointy-haired manager in Dilbert – wants you to do something really stupid. What do you do?

    A. You could say you won’t do it. Unless there are legal or moral considerations (they want you to lie, or to do something that hurts somebody), this is simply not my place. The boss is the boss for a reason: they make enough stupid decisions and they get fired.

    B. You could work to your exact job description, say nothing, and do it – but your value to your boss goes down.

    C. You can tell the boss you think it’s a stupid idea (diplomatically, of course 🙂 and that you recommend against it. If your boss says “go ahead and do it anyway,” you do it.

    I would maintain that the only one that both maximizes my value and does not overstep my bounds is C. I might be wrong, or you might be right – that doesn’t change the decision one bit.

  26. Gary (aka fool4jesus) said:

    Sorry, I meant it would have to be “C”. Call it insufficient proofreading. 🙂

  27. Dan Auito said:

    Other: D Bob could sell it even if it was a dog. Look at Marlin Sanders, the guy sucks people in like a vacuum.

    Actually it would be C for me, I would be forthright and tell the individual that the product in question could be better but it may still help someone who buys it so lets Git-R-Done.

  28. Saç Ekimi said:

    that doesn’t change the decision one bit.

  29. Yemek Tarifleri said:

    Sorry, I meant it would have to be “C”.

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