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How to tell a creative copywriter their work sucks – Jonathan Wilcock

How to tell a creative copywriter their work sucks (without getting blood or tears on the carpet)

A creative copywriter is a sensitive soul. It doesn’t take much to shatter his or her funny little world.

The best way to make them cry is to tell them their work is rubbish. And if you want to twist the knife, don’t tell them why.

Besides a woolly creative brief, destructive criticism is a sure fire way to get the worst out of your creative resource.

They’re human beings. More than that, they’re artistic pixie people that need buckets of TLC.

So, how do you tell a creative copywriter their work sucks and leave them feeling inspired?

The first thing is to be honest with yourself. Did the brief have more holes in it than a pound of Swiss cheese in a Wild West shootout?

Basically, if you gave them a bum steer in the first place, it’s time to suck it up and pay for more of their time.

Let’s assume the brief was tighter than a bodybuilder’s showtime pants, but the creative results are disappointing. Where do you go from here?

1) The main point of the brief, ‘the most important thought to leave behind’, isn’t coming across.

Go back over the brief and explain why this is important to you/your audience. Ask them to look at ways of pulling this message out more clearly.

2) The tone of voice is wrong for your audience.

If you have a brand language document that they haven’t been exposed to, then it isn’t their fault if they’ve gone slightly off course. If there was no such document to share, the brief should have at least defined the kind of people you need to talk to.

Go back over this part of the brief and expand if necessary – point them at other brands that are talking in the right kind of way. Explain the sort of newspapers your target might read and the brands they buy. Pick out words the copywriter’s used that particularly jar.

3) The creative execution lacks impact.

It could be the headline, imagery, colours… If you feel that it would get lost amongst the competition, say so. Show examples that have the sort of impact you’re looking for.

4) You just don’t like it.

The onus is on you to work out why you don’t like it. The absolute worst thing you can say to a creative copywriter is, “I don’t know why, but it’s just not doing it for me”. If that’s all you’ve got, don’t be surprised if by draft 7 it’s still not floating your boat.

5) You’ve seen it before.

Is it just like something you’ve seen in your sector, an idea that’s been run by a competitor or is it an obvious rip-off of a famous piece of advertising/design (but not a knowing parody or homage)? Don’t assume your copywriter knows the piece you’re referring to. Dig it out so you can show how similar the thinking is.

This is a particularly interesting area. The amount of times I’ve heard someone say, “It looks like XXX’s logo”, then when said logo’s been found, there’s no resemblance whatsoever. Be sure your memory isn’t playing tricks on you.

6) It has no redeeming features whatsoever.

Tricky one this. Your objective here should be to inspire, not deflate. Unless you know each other well enough to be totally blunt, find something that you can put some kind of positive spin on. It could be as simple as, “I know this is a difficult brief…”, “There’s some really interesting thinking here…” or “Not sure this is up to your usual standard…”.

Don’t be patronising, but find a way of letting them down as gently as possible. Then make your feedback constructive. Leave them with a clear understanding of which direction to head in and feeling fired up, ready to wow you when it comes to Round 2.

Getting it right first time every time is the ideal, but it isn’t a given.

Copywriting is an art, not a science. A tight brief, open dialogue and working with someone you know you can trust will get you 99% of the way, but then it’s down to interpretation, magic and taste – all the flowery stuff that can’t be bottled.

If you want to work with a seasoned creative copywriter, who can help with the briefing process and has a thicker skin than most, please give me a shout – but not aggressively in my face – even I have my limits.

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.
You can drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk