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Three glaring neon signs that your copywriter just derailed your design project

Picture this. You’ve just wrapped up a particularly painful design project. The budget? Completely blown. Deadlines? A mere glimmer in your review mirror. The client’s unhappy. You’re unhappy. And everyone has just paid thousands and thousands of dollars for a big steaming pile of nothing exciting.

So. Who killed this project? And how do we stop them from doing it again?

Far be it from me to immediately jump to blame your copywriter. As a writer myself, I know that we often get blamed for a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. However, in some cases, the blame is warranted.

Wondering whether it was your copywriter who blew the project? Here’s how you figure it out.

1. They missed a deadline. Or two. Or all of them.

In most agencies, copy holds up design. You need some sense of the messaging before you can really sink your teeth into the project. If your writer missed a deadline, you’ve likely had to jump back in and rearrange your entire project deadline. Design time gets squeezed, or, worse, you crack on with the design phase without a clear copy direction. Yikes.

Deadlines — especially copy deadlines—are essential to getting a successful design project off the ground. You can’t mess with them. A missed deadline at the start of the project can, and often does have the potential to completely run your project off the rails.

Now, with that said, you’d think that copywriters would be sticklers for a deadline. Not so. As fellow writer John Carlton points out,

From the complaints I’ve fielded over the years about my cohorts, the average copywriter misses approximately half their deadlines.

From rookie to top dog. It’s appalling.

Now, I could present a few different reasons as to why our industry sees a deadline as a suggestion rather than a firm date. Often we wait for the elusive muse to strike before we put pen to paper (… finger to keyboard?).

At other times, we didn’t open all of the documents you sent through and only realised — too late!—that we didn’t have access to all the information we need to begin writing. Whoops.

Regardless, if your writer missed a deadline, especially if it was early on in the project, then you can probably point a finger in their direction.

2. It appears they completely ignored the brief.

Here’s something you might not realise: we copywriters? We like to write our own briefs. You might have experienced this if you ever hired a writer, paid a deposit and then were immediately hit with a 40-question ‘onboarding form’. I can joke about it because, well, I’ve done it myself. Sorry!

Unfortunately, no one teaches writers how to apply a creative brief. I studied writing at Uni for four years without catching a whiff of an agency briefing process—this despite the fact that many of us graduated and then went on to have long careers within the creative field. When I launched my copywriting business, I had no idea how to interpret creative direction that was created for designers but also needed to carry through to messaging and copy.

In my experience, sometimes when we don’t understand something, we just… ignore it. You might be wondering why you ended up with a project that looks energetic and dynamic paired with messaging that sounds like a slow, warm hug. This is why.

Clients can sense the mismatch. They can sense when design and copy don’t quite line up. But they often can’t articulate exactly why they don’t like it. So, they start coming up with unrelated feedback like, ‘Let’s try a different shade of blue’. It’s maddening, but, in this case, it’s possibly not you—it could be us.

3. They didn’t ask enough questions.

As I mentioned above, creative briefs are usually created primarily to serve your design team. Our job, as writers, is to take the work you’ve already done and extend it into the world of words. This often involves a bit of digging to find out exactly what the client needs and how we can best serve them.

By simply taking the brief at face value, we’re doing you — and your clients—a major disservice. So, a good writer will ask follow-up questions. Say, for example, you were working on new branding for a challenger company that wanted to provide clients with a cheeky alternative in a conservative industry. Your copywriter sees that the copy needs to be ‘irreverent’ and asks:

“Exactly what do you mean by ‘irreverant’? Is *this* kind of wordplay out of bounds? How far do you want to push the envelope?”

Imagine, in this scenario, that your copywriter hadn’t asked you these follow-up questions. Instead, they simply interpreted the brief and presented you with a copy deck sprinkled with swearing and innuendo. It’s the day before you’re presenting concepts and you’ve run out of time for your writer to create new messaging. So, you have to remove all of the ‘irreverence’ from the copy, or risk offending the client.

The result? Boring, personality-free copy that will throw a nice little grenade of confusion into your presentation. It’s hiccups like these that cause the client to wonder whether you really understand what they’re trying to do.

This could have been avoided with a 10-minute phone call or a very brief email exchange. So, if your copywriter took the brief and moved straight to execution, it’s worth wondering if this was the point where your project started to come off the rails.

The good news: you can prevent this from happening again

So you’ve realised that your copywriter likely contributed to a poor client experience. Whoops.

Never fear — it’s preventable.

  1. If your copywriter missed a deadline, and especially if they ghosted you after they missed the deadline, it’s simple. Don’t hire them again. Note: this might be tricky if they’re an in-house writer. In that case, make sure they understand that copy deadlines are non-negotiable. Period.
  2. If your writer missed the brief, do a little digging to figure out why this happened. Chances are, they never learned how to apply a creative brief. Or, they didn’t feel comfortable to challenge the brief or ask you questions. Luckily, with a little education, you can probably get them up to speed.

Alternatively, hire a copywriting agency that specifically white labels their services to design firms. Deadlines, briefs and budgets are their bread and butter so you won’t be left sweating when the copy rolls in—late and completely misaligned with design. Your agency deserves to work with writers who, rather than derailing your projects, make them even better.