May 10, 2012If you’re not part of the solution…

I’ve often argued with my clients. Not because I’m petty, or vindictive, or because I’m used to getting my way. I argue because I want to give my clients the best possible work.

If a client is paying you to write for them, you have an obligation to give them the best you’ve got. If that means a line or an angle the client has supplied doesn’t work, you need to tell them why — and be able to suggest better alternatives.

Not all clients take direction. As Tom Albrighton notes, no matter how much experience you have, as a freelancer, you are always the junior partner. Your client has been in their industry for years and they know best. And sometimes, even though you’re sure your way is better, you’ve got to suck it up and take it. It’s part of the job.

Do you have an obligation to tell your client when you think they’re wrong? Or is the customer always right?

I argued passionately with a recent client who insisted I keep the opening line they’d supplied, “Eating begins with the eyes” (their product wasn’t food). I told them it looked odd. I told them it made them sound like cannibals. I told them they wouldn’t start a paragraph with “drinking begins with the nose” but they refused to see it my way. Eventually, I acquiesced.

Later, the client insisted on multiple uses of the word “dilemma”. I explained, politely, that customers would see the word negatively — it implies confusion, inaction, and failure. That the product solved the customer’s dilemma was not important. You don’t sell anything by telling your customers they’re a bunch of indecisive schmucks.

I even suggested an alternative: be positive, be proactive. Change the word dilemma to choice. My request was declined.

I already knew what was coming next. Regular readers will know that one of my major bugbears is the word “solution” when used to describe a product or a service. Usually, I fight the word wherever I see it.

Three reasons why you should never use the word solution:
  1. For starters, it assumes the customer has a “problem”. That’s a negative. Don’t make the customer feel inferior.
  2. Secondly, it assumes the product can “solve” that problem. As Jay McInerney once wrote, that’s an enormous leap from fact to truth.
  3. Finally, it doesn’t explain what the product is, or does. A telephone is a communication solution. Then again, so is a carrier pigeon. A bullet makes an excellent solution to depression, but most doctors are sticking to Prozac.

Naturally, my client kept insisting the word ‘solution’ cropped up in all the wrong places. When I asked for information so I could write a paragraph on their philosophy, they told me their philosophy was providing a “complete overall solution”. If that’s a philosophy then I’m Ludwig Wittgenstein. But I had already decided not to fight. I took the client’s money and wrote the words they wanted, no arguments, no attitude, no bullshit.

Copywriting Solutions: Autopilot, engage!

And it was a revelation. Suddenly paragraphs that previously took minutes or even hours to write took just seconds. I no longer had to struggle to find the right words. The right word was always there. It was a solution, a solution, a solution.

I didn’t have to spend hours agonising over how to describe the product, how to make it sound good — it was simple — it solves all their problems, of course it’s good! I didn’t need to explain why the customer needed it. It’s a solution, dummy! Of course the customer needs it! I didn’t even need to explain the reason why the client was manufacturing the product. Who doesn’t want to be part of the solution?

This isn’t a rant. In fact, I’m grateful to the client for forcing me out of my comfort zone. They got the copy they wanted and I learned a valuable lesson: finally understanding why the word ‘solution’ is so over-used. Because it’s so easy.

The word solves all your problems, including what to say. Brain: off. Autopilot: on. It’s fast food copywriting. Comforting, addictive, easy, cheap. It’s also bland and inferior. So why do we keep coming back to it? It’s quick and it gets the job done.

Beware the word solution. Like a double cheeseburger and fries, it’s more addictive than you think.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 1:23 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. It’s certainly strange to be hired as an ‘expert’ – at whatever level – and then have your expertise overruled. Why buy a dog and bark yourself?

    It seems some clients like to use their freelancer as a kind of scratching post, or testing ground for their ideas. Seems expensive to me – I wouldn’t hire a guy to paint my house, then go round after him and paint it again. I’d just paint it my way in the first place.

    I guess this is a balance every writer (every creative) has to get right to their own satisfaction. For some, it’s intolerable that the client’s ill-thought-through ideas will prevail over their carefully crafted copy. For others, it’s just a job, so they turn the handle the way it goes, rather than the way it ought to go (as Confucius advised). Somewhere between those two extremes, there’s an approach that delivers an OK result without craven compromise.

    Maybe it’s different on every job, or for every client. There are some jobs I care about a lot more than others, and I’m also aware that what delights one client may appal another.

    Returning to ‘solution’ as an example, I try to avoid it even for non-native English clients. But the fact is that, culturally, the word is much less familiar in places like South America – the English spoken there is inevitably a few years ‘behind’ that of the UK or the USA. So you could certainly get away with it, and indeed it might even be as impactful as it was here in about 1995. That’s not to patronise those cultures, it’s just an observation on the way language evolves.

    ‘Eating begins with the eyes’ certainly is weird. How about ‘You can taste it with your eyes?’ Swapping cannibalism for synaesthesia?

  2. al says:

    The client wanted the line in verbatim. I suspect somewhere along the food chain a bigger boss had suggested it — when copy becomes politics.

    Of course, we’re just generalists — and often the client does know best, but it’s always painful when your suggestions are rejected, especially if you genuinely believe they will be of benefit to the client.

    I’ll carry on arguing for that reason — but with every project there comes a time to stop and do as you’re told. I definitely agree — it would be nice to have a zen somewhere in the middle, A shame clients aren’t known for meeting us half way! :D

  3. simone says:

    first of all my hat off to you for publicly posting your rates on your blog. Quoting a day rate is the worst part of the job for me, even chasing an unpaid invoice is more fun.

    Having been hired as a copywriter on sensitive topics I have encountered this kind of behaviour all the time. The irony is that the “objector” is not the company’s medical consultant but a marketing executive. I was paid for all the rewrites so it was just annoying, but I shudder when I read of copywriters who offer a fixed rate that includes a free rewrite.

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