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The #1 mistake creative agencies make when they hire us

Or, how to test a copywriter for your next creative project

Your agency has a project. You need words to complete it. You hire a writer.

Best-case scenario: Their copy matches seamlessly with your creative direction, the client loves it, they sign off on the whole thing quickly and turn into a profitable repeat customer. Five stars.

Worst-case scenario: The copy doesn’t follow your creative direction, your junior account manager pulls an all-nighter to fix the worst of it in time for the presentation, the client hates it, and you end up hiring someone else to rewrite the whole thing — weeks or months after deadline.

In between the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario are a range of client experiences — some good, some bad, some so-so. But only great client experiences turn happy clients into raving retainers that generate big $$ for your agency.

So. How do you hire writers (either in-house or contractors) who will deliver an exemplary experience? I have a foolproof method, developed over my five years spent hiring dozens of writers in my various roles as Content Lead, Marketing Manager and Agency Owner.

A few things to note:

  1. This process will cost you a small sum of money. But that small sum is nothing compared with the pain, frustration and cost of hiring a bad writer to work on your next agency project.
  2. Every writer I’ve tested has university-level writing credentials and a fantastic-looking portfolio or resume. Less than 20% have passed.
  3. No agency has ever tested me like this before hiring me. And that is their #1 mistake.

Here’s how you do it.

First, pick a very low-stakes copy job. If you don’t have one on the books, make one up.

I can’t stress how important it is that this job is low stakes.

Think: a blog post for a retainer client. Or some messaging for a new product that isn’t due to be released for months. Or some copy for your own agency website or blog. Because, as mentioned, 80% of writers will mess this up, and you don’t want them messing up something important.

Get a quote, pay their deposit and then put together a quick brief. The brief should have a little bit of ambiguity. You want the writer to ask questions, to follow up and dig a little bit deeper to make you happy.

For example, don’t specify length. They should ask you if there are any constraints.

Don’t give them the headline or the angle you’re looking for — just the general topic. They should pick an angle, and, if they’re unsure, run it by you.

But do give them a topic, a tone of voice to write in, and a nice, fat deadline — for example, one week from commission.

See if they ask questions.

Unless you gave a very clear, exceptionally detailed brief, the writer should have a couple of questions for you.

It’s a red flag if they simply take the brief and disappear with it, only to reemerge right before deadline. Look, maybe they‘re exceptionally intuitive and will nail it anyway. Chances are, they won’t.

Take a look at what they come up with.

There are a certain number of copywriting ‘sins’ that should immediately exclude them from your roster — permanently. These sins are low-hanging fruit, so check for them first. If they do any of the below, don’t bother progressing:

  • They miss the deadline — even if they communicate to you that they’re going to miss the deadline.
  • They misspell the client’s business name.
  • You Google the headline and find the exact same angle (or worse, wording) on a competitor’s site.
  • You get through the first paragraph and you’re bored to tears.
  • You get through the first paragraph and you’re almost convinced they have no idea what industry your client is in.
  • I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this step will knock out more than half of the writers you’ll test (especially the deadline step!). Thank them for their time and never contact them again.

Give them some feedback.

Chances are, even if your writer manages to spell the client’s name correctly, the work isn’t going to be 100% stellar in the first draft. This is probably the most important step of the process: seeing how they handle feedback.

Just like the briefing stage, feedback should be a dialogue where the writer asks for clarification and then applies your revisions. However, it shouldn’t be an endless back-and-forth that leaves you both frustrated. If you’ve made it through two or more rounds of revisions and the work isn’t significantly improving, it’s time to say goodbye.

Finally, take an objective look at the work.

This final step should be straightforward. The goal is to confidently answer the question: would we be happy to share this work with our client as is?

If the answer is yes, congratulations! You have found yourself a writer.

If the answer is no, then it’s back to the drawing board for you, my friend. You might not be able to articulate why you don’t want to share the work. But you know in your gut that it just doesn’t meet the mark.

I’ll pop in here with a little personal anecdote. I reached this end stage with a writer I was testing to work with me at my agency, Heydays. She’d passed all of the above stages with flying colours, and I was allllllmost ready to start assigning her some meatier client jobs.

But when I took a look at the work she’d presented, I couldn’t help but think, I don’t think the client would love this. I didn’t want to send it through without having one of my other writers give it a once-over.

In agency land, we don’t have the luxury of passing work along to multiple people and hoping that the end result somewhat meets the brief. We’re running on thin margins, with limited time and putting our reputation on the line with every job. So every writer we hire must deliver.

Over to you.

There’s nothing more important than partnering with a gun writer to complement your design projects. If you’re an account manager at a creative agency, and you give this test a go, I would love to hear how it worked out for you! Pop into the comments and let me know.