By Adrienne Denaro
You’re ready to hire a copywriter. Congratulations! Or, you’ve tried over and over again to find the perfect wordsmith only to fail miserably each time. To that I say – it’s you, not them.
Ok, yes, I admit there’s some awful former marketing people parading themselves as copywriters, showcasing seemingly impressive portfolios of work that are either not their own or the result of heavy editing and committee brainstorming. But for the most part, if you are hiring writers that don’t fit your workplace, it is because you don’t know what you want, you haven’t learned to weed out the wrong writers, or you fall victim to the bamboozlement of fabulous personalities and/or portfolios. I’ve been there— both as hiring manager and as applying copywriter. Now I’m sharing my tips and tricks to better the industry as a whole because, as awful as it feels to hire a writer who doesn’t jive with your brand voice, it’s even worse to be a frustrated creative who has found themselves working for a brand that doesn’t jive with their writing style.
Step 1: Be realistic
So you love ads that have witty puns and a snarky sense of humor (or you don’t, that’s ok too), but is your personal affinity for that kind of copy actually in alignment with the brand that employs you? There are many types of writers and a gamut of voices/personalities to go with them. Are you with an engineering firm? You’re probably looking for a tech writer or a copywriter who had a former life as an engineer before they suddenly discovered they had the gift of grammar. Don’t try to swoop in with your huge salaries and steal the award-winning yet highly-underpaid copywriter at the creative agency down the street. They won’t be happy with your style of projects, and you won’t be happy with their blasé output.
Not every copy position is actually creative. Personally, I’d love them to be. Be realistic about your business and brand voice and seek a writer who fits it nicely. If your brand is creative, don’t discount a copywriter who has been pigeonholed into a more “structured” writing environment. They may have untapped creativity churning beneath the surface of their portfolio.
Step 2: A good writer can write about anything
A good writer can write about anything that they’re interested in. Let me repeat that because it is very important—that they are interested in. Your copywriter doesn’t need working knowledge of your product or industry, but interest and familiarity with it goes a long way. It will dictate how engaged they’ll be with the tedium of day-in-and-day-out repetitive writing for one company. Don’t misunderstand me though; they don’t actually have to like your product. They just need to have an interest in peddling it for you because that’s essentially what we do— sell stuff.
Too many times I see positions posted online that read, “must have fashion copy experience” or “travel copy background preferred.” I understand what these managers are thinking here: I won’t have to train them on our business model or industry lingo. Unless you are in a highly technical industry, your lingo really isn’t that hard to learn. Plus, if the jargon you are worried about is so unusual, you wouldn’t be using it in consumer-facing copy anyway (B2B is another story). Let that kind of thinking go; it’s holding you back. Plus, if you hire a solid copywriter from another industry, they’ll come with a fresh perspective and new ideas (and less burnout).
Step 3: Don’t trust writing samples
A good portfolio is a great way to get candidates in the door and weed out inexperienced people, but don’t let it dictate how strong their writing skills are. You have no idea what went into those pieces. Whose idea was it? Was an editor involved? Were there multiple writers or a creative visionary leading the charge? You just don’t know.
How do I solve for this? I give all my candidates a writing challenge. I call it a “challenge” for a couple of reasons: 1) some people have a phobia of exams and clam up when they feel they’re being tested, and 2) a lot of HR departments get itches in their britches at the thought of testing applicants, so this works out nicely for both concerns.
Now, let me go back to STEP 1: BE REALISTIC. Unless you are a huge dazzling company that every writer is clawing to get into, don’t make your writing challenge too long or involved, and give them decent turnaround time. I usually provide a week or two, depending on the challenge. That way you can see if they hit their deadline (preferably early) and how long they wait to begin the challenge (I purposely put confusing instructions in my brief and wait to see how long it takes them to reach out for clarification—more often than not it is the day before their deadline). You should be understanding though. Remember, you are basically asking someone to do homework and it can be exhausting, especially if your candidate is already employed as a fulltime copywriter.
Step 4: Create a writing challenge
As a hiring manager, I review resumes and portfolios in advance but don’t waste my time interviewing candidates until they’ve passed my writing challenge— what’s the point in falling in love with an applicant who might end up failing? Then again, I’ve had the pleasure of working for some very attractive brands and can get away with it. I don’t advise this approach if you are with a small, unknown, or less sexy company.
As an applicant, I also prefer writing challenges. Yes, they’re a great way to assess the voice of a potential new hire, but they’re also a great way for candidates to assess whether they like the kinds of copy projects they’d be assigned. If you get pushback from an applicant, give them both reasons and they’ll become a little more receptive to the idea.
What should be in your challenge? Pick three to five short projects that they’d encounter during a typical week on the job. I’ve had copy positions that included standard creative ad copy but also required knowledge in public relations, social media, speechwriting, internal communications and newsletter drafting. A writing challenge for a position like this would be vastly more diverse than a person only whipping up SEO or product descriptions.
The easiest way to quickly create a writing challenge is to pull a few old briefs from jobs that are already signed, sealed, delivered and no longer live. That way you have a benchmark for comparison— you can see how they would interpret a real brief (or poorly worded email request, we all know how things really run, right?), you can compare what you/your staff created from that same brief, and you know your candidate won’t be able to find the live version of this old job to mimic. Plus, the added bonus of this is that you can quell any concerns they have about doing “free” work for your company. Saying something like “this is an old job for a product we no longer sell, what you provide will not be used in any way” will make them feel more secure for sure. (We writers tend to be a paranoid bunch.)
Step 5: You get what you pay for
Do your competitive research. Salaries jump drastically from Copywriter to Senior Copywriter to Copy Director. There’s nothing more awkward than getting to the hiring point with a terrific candidate only to find out they currently make double what your highest offer would be. If you only have the budget for a junior-level salary, don’t expect senior-level experience or ability. Be up front about your salary range and avoid wasted time and energy.
Conversely, it’s super convenient to find a freelancer or part-timer that you can test out for a while before committing to them fulltime, but it’s not necessarily the most realistic scenario. At risk of upsetting my freelance friends and part-time colleagues, more often than not the best copywriters are already employed full-time and would never risk leaving a sure thing for a maybe, no matter how insanely amazing the opportunity may seem. There are a lot of terrific reasons why a creative may have decided to freelance or part time (raising children, was ill, liked the freedom, etc.), but could those very reasons affect their fulltime accessibility? There’s also the chance they freelanced because they couldn’t keep any of the full-time positions they had. I hear warning bells and a lot of Human Resources departments do too.
And after all this, if you still can’t find the right copywriter, raise the salary range. To put it in perspective, most copywriters I know make $20 – 30k more than graphic artists at the same level at the same company. (For the record, I don’t think this is right. Pay your artists more—they’re worth it.)
Good luck with finding your perfect copywriter. She/he is out there writing, willing and able. It’s just a matter of time.
About InSource Content Contributor Adrienne Denaro
An in-house creative copywriter for the majority of her career, Adrienne Denaro has worked for major corporations including HSN, Perry Ellis International, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines/Azamara Club Cruises, Clear Channel Radio, Macy’s, Florida International University and more. She has won multiple industry awards for her work, including campaigns for Jantzen, Axist, Perry Ellis, PGA TOUR Apparel, Savane, and Rafaella, among others.
Throughout her career she has hired, trained and managed Mid-Level and Junior Copywriters and Interns. Her work crosses a multitude of niche demographics and target markets, extending beyond classic creative copywriting and into public relations and social media.
Within her roles, national brands she has written for include: Original Penguin, Laundry by Shelli Segal, C&C California, Nike Swim, Gotcha, Redsand, DreamWorks Animation, Universal Studios Resort, Harley Davidson, Beats by Dr. Dre, HGTV Home, OPI, Coca-Cola, Applebee’s, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, University of Miami, John Deere, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, and many others. She serves as a consultant for clients including Celebrity Cruises, Daisho Creative, the Setai Hotel, DigiCloud IT Services, and Napoleon Media, to name a few.
Want more hiring advice from Adrienne? Leave a comment or tweet her at @CopyPolice.