Is the Position of Dung Beetle Still Open?

I hate writing. There, I said it. My secret shame is out in the open.

Okay, so I’m being mildly overdramatic. I don’t hate writing. It just feels that way some days. When the pressure is on, I just don’t always enjoy writing professionally as much as I assumed I would before I started doing it for a living. Which is ironic because getting paid for something you like to do is the goal in life, right?

Well, the original plan was to be a world-famous author or screenwriter calling my own shots. But that plan is still a work in progress (Or a work in long-term hibernation might be more accurate, but why quibble?) Instead, after a long stint in online education as a quasi-writer, I became a copywriter after I fortuitously blundered into a job about six years ago. I didn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of the profession, but I learned quickly, and I liked it.

So, as my regular readers may know, I work for a fantastic agency with a great owner and talented crew. It is a great gig. In fact, it would be the perfect job — if it wasn’t for the clients. And yeah, they’re kind of the important part of it.

Those damned clients

Most writers don’t like having our work picked apart, but that’s the fate of a copywriter in a nutshell. Clients are paying a premium, so they want to be happy with the content as is their right. To be honest, most of the clients I’ve worked with over the years haven’t been a problem, but there is always one or two that is going to be a huge pain in the ass, either because their product is hard to market, they aren’t quite sure what segment to target, or they’re just insane.

The more, the merrier is bullshit in this case. Newsflash — your project is about to go into a death spiral.

As a writer, meeting client expectations can be nerve-racking, particularly if they don’t know what the hell they want, or I don’t know what the hell they want because they’re incapable of conveying it to me. One thing I’ve discovered with some clients is they have a budget to burn through and some vague notion of projects they want to be completed before the end of the fiscal year, but they’re kind of light on the details and other essential data. The only thing they know is what they don’t like, which seems to be everything I’ve created for them up to that point in the project.

The more, the merrier? I think not.

One thing I’ve learned — the more of the client company’s minions putting their two cents in on the project, the more I want to drink myself into a coma. The more, the merrier is bullshit in this case. Newsflash — your project is about to go into a death spiral. Get a mob of marketers and stakeholders from different departments at a big corporate client all sharing their opinions on what you’ve written, along with their edits, and good luck keeping your sanity and self-confidence. You’ll soon be the not-so-proud creator of Frankenstein’s Document, a monstrosity of marketing buzzwords and corporate gibberish that might make sense if you’re taking LSD.

…copywriters are a neurotic bunch and exist in a state of constant anxiety, fretting over 90% of what they produce…

Seriously, I once had a member from one of the marketing groups of a global organization rewrite 100 percent of one of my documents. Normally, this would have plunged me into a deep well of anxiety as I questioned my worth as a scribe, but this particular marketing group was collectively bonkers, and the subject was arcane technology I’m convinced they didn’t even fully understand, so the rewrite did not shock me. For once, I accepted the changes without batting an eye, maybe tweaked a word or two and sent it back because I just didn’t care anymore.

Then the individual submitted the document to the rest of the group for consideration. Poor bastard. They descended upon it like a flock of ravenous vultures and shredded their compatriot’s rewrite and sent it back to me with a myriad of Track Changes. From there, it was like an editing battle royale. I just stepped back and let the carnage happen until someone eventually won the corporate dick measuring contest and claimed her role as the undisputed alpha stakeholder decision maker. To be honest, it was one of the easiest rewrites I ever did (because I didn’t do any of the rewriting).

Of course, then there was the time when a group sent their edits back as five separate versions instead of in one doc because why make my life easy? I had to cobble that nightmare together, combine their edits into a new, coherent doc, accept what edits made the most sense when they contradicted one another, and point out the numerous inconsistencies. In the end, I begged the account manager to beseech them to appoint someone to consolidate their next round of edits into one doc. (She did and, of course, they didn’t.)

The curse of perfectionism

Copywriting can be tough on the psyche, particularly for me. See, I suffer from perfectionism. Now, before you think I’m being big-headed, I’m not saying I’m super talented or anything. It’s actually the exact opposite. I’m super critical of what I produce. My headlines are never as creative as I think they should be. My turns of phrase not as crisp as I’d like. It leads to lots of self-loathing, second-guessing, writing paralysis, and frenzied rewriting. (It’s one of the reasons I’ve never really pursued my creative writing seriously — well, that and being bone idle). Author Melissa Pritchard tried to boost my self-confidence in grad school when I was pursuing my creative writing degree. She told me I was a natural storyteller and to strive for excellence instead of perfection because the quest for perfection is destructive and never-ending. (Obviously, that still hasn’t sunk in.)

Anyway, I think David Ogilvy, the Godfather of advertising, summed it up nicely when he said that copywriters are a neurotic bunch and exist in a state of constant anxiety, fretting over 90%* of what they produce and reveling in the occasional home run.

Guilty as charged.

But those occasional home runs are what keep us going.

Someone’s gotta do it

Usually, we copywriters at the agency don’t deal with clients directly except for a kickoff call or a rare meeting to get more clarity. Dealing with the clients is the account managers’ thankless job (suckers!), and everything is routed through them as the gatekeepers. Trust me, I would not want their job for double the salary. Still, that doesn’t mean the client isn’t going to torture me with vague directions, ridiculous or contradictory requests, and mindnumbing revisions.

If I’m lucky, at the start of a project, I get a well-crafted creative brief from the client laying out in detail what’s expected, what to focus on, expected outcomes, and so on. When that happens, it’s a grand occasion, one I’d slaughter the fatted calf for in celebration if I had one and was more bloodthirsty. However, more often than not, what I get from the client is some half-assed document that might as well be written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. We’re talking a jumble of internal notes and half-finished thoughts or unanswered questions between team members that someone at the client’s office has thoughtfully collected and dumped higgledy-piggledy into a document for me to stare at. So I sit there pulling my hair out trying to glean some direction from it so I can start working as the relentless clock marches toward my deadline.

Yeah, thanks a lot for the giant shit sandwich you gave me. Yum, yum!

The Writers Guild

Lenny hugging a bush
Lenny has a fondness for shrubbery.

But through it all, suffering virtually at my side has been Lenny, our senior copywriter. Lenny is an all-around cool dude, talented writer and colorful character with a unique perspective and a zest for life (Lenny thinks zest for life is an inaccurate description and that he has more of a decidedly tentative interest in the future). He has seen it all and done at least half of it. He’s been through the proverbial baptism by fire as a writer and no matter the copywriting disaster, he’s always been able to talk me down off the ledge with sage advice. With his ponytail and intellectual interests, ironically, he is about as far away from the corporate mindset of our clients as one can get.

We call ourselves the Writers Guild — it’s a two-man outfit with a fluid guest membership based on who we’re drinking with at the time, their writing chops, and their personality. Lenny works remotely from Michigan and flies in every few months to hang out for a few days. We bounce ideas off each other, discuss books I should read, and bitch about clients and deadlines. We share a certain gallows humor, particularly when a difficult client’s project is trying to go off the rails, as exhibited in a recent text exchange:

Text talk dung beetle

Man down!

So, about a week or so ago, copywriting finally broke Lenny. After nine years of working for the agency, he called me to say he was burned out and calling it quits to go wander the world like Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu. Okay, he didn’t say he was going to do that. It’s what I’d like to imagine he would do if his wife didn’t expect him to get a job.

David Carradine as former monk Kwai Chang Caine in the TV show Kung Fu
Time to leave the temple.

I gotta say, I wasn’t totally shocked at his decision, but a little unsettled. See, he was handling one of our biggest clients. I’ve done some work for them and decided that bamboo splinters under my fingernails was less painful than some of their projects they sent my way, but Lenny — he was doing the heavy lifting week in and week out. So his impending departure was not news I wanted to hear because I was already fighting a battle against anxiety.

Que será, será.

So now Lenny is a short-timer, and I’m now The Man.

Arrrrgggggh! But I don’t want to be The Man! (Okay, calm down, Layton. Deep breaths.)

Selfishly, I wanted to beg Lenny to stay. The other day, I texted him and told him I resented and admired him for his move. But I get it. It can be a tough gig.

I dream of being my own master and wandering the world as I please, responsible to no one, earning fat royalty checks. (Actually, on second thought, I’d just prefer to sit around the house.)

Anyway, Lenny, I hope you find a career that doesn’t gnaw at your spirit.

So, I’ll persevere while we look for a new copywriter and grumble to myself about clients and projects.

Unfortunately, in the short run, I see a steady diet of giant shit sandwichs from the clients in my future. But how bad can it be?

Enough to make a dung beetle happy is my guess.

Lenny 5
The master of disguise. Fare thee well.

Bored? Read a sample chapter of the book I may never finish!


*I could totally be making this Olgivy fact up — I think I’m remembering it right, but I can’t be bothered looking through the book.

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