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Is it wise to specialise?

Alastaire Allday

Allday Creative

In a little over four years as a freelancer, I’ve written about every conceivable kind of product and service, from high street brands to niche B2B products. In that time I’ve developed a very simple approach: discover what’s special about the product and find a way to explain this to the customer in a tone of voice that resonates. It doesn’t matter what I’m selling. The formula is always the same.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that like attracts like. Once I put some work I did for a South London estate agent in my portfolio, I started getting a lot more calls from estate agents. When I focused on big brands, more brands started calling. Even simple things like putting a picture of myself in a suit on the homepage got B2B enquiries ringing off the hook.

For me, the best thing about freelancing is being my own boss. Next to that, the best thing is not having to do the same old job every day. Today I might be at home writing SEO copy for a B2B telecoms firm. Tomorrow I might be in a swish London agency concepting for an ad campaign. Every day is different and brings new challenges.

Most freelancers are like me. We’re guns for hire and we’ll write about anything, anywhere our laptops take us. We follow the money. We follow the work.

But there’s a special breed of freelancer out there. The specialist.

The specialist is no ordinary gunslinger. He’s a lean, mean S.O.B. and he hits his target every time. He might specialise in one particular field of copywriting, such as SEO. Or he might target just one sector, such as medical, telecoms, or charity, knowing his market inside out.

Practice makes perfect. The truth is specialists are better at what they do because they do it a lot. This enables them to command a higher premium for doing so, as well as having the advantage of being more in demand, not just because they’re better — because they’re seen as more dedicated.

I’ve written on my blog that people expect copywriters to be passionate about the things they write about. I can’t for the life of me think why. You’d be pretty worried if your plumber was passionate about U-bends — for most of us, a job’s a job. But because most clients believe words are more persuasive if they’re written by someone who truly believes in the product, specialists are more in demand. “I’ve been writing about medical supplies all my life! Yes, I’m as passionate about stairlifts as you!”

How, when, and where should I specialise?

Perhaps the thought of writing about medical supplies until you’re wizened and grey fills you with a nameless dread. It certainly does me.

So is it best to choose a specialty early and stick to it? I don’t think so. You learn a lot by writing for different industries and develop a much more analytical mind. More importantly, you learn more about what you’re interested in. After four years, I’m slowly finding my niche. It’s B2C, it’s conceptual, it’s digital. But I’m glad I can write about a ton of other products in a myriad of different styles, too.

As I hurtle towards my fifth year as a freelancer at what feels like supersonic speed, I feel the time has come to decide where I want to be. As a specialist, I could command much more money, develop longer and more fruitful client relationships, and really start honing my skills.

On the other hand, I love going to bed each new day never knowing what tomorrow will bring. Freelancers tend to be free-wheeling types by nature, and it takes a very special type of person to be able to give that up.

Do I have what it takes to become a specialist? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’ve had the experience working on a wide variety of projects. It may look tempting, but like marriage, specialise too early at your peril. You never know what’s round the corner.

Don’t settle for anything less than your true love.

When did you decide to settle down and quit fooling around with other tones of voice? Or are you still on the scene, taking home a new client every day? Comments welcome.

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Comments

27th June 2012

simone

Being sensible and seasoned, I go where the money goes. Unfortunately the money doesn’t often go where my real interests are, but that’s the fun of it (or not, depending how I feel).

I ended up as a parenting copywriter and having worked on child nutrition for a big name on three campaigns, I have been “branded” as family writer, childstuff writer and family health. However, not every client is unaware of my versatility, so I was recently able to write fashion and sportswear copy for an online retailer, including some descriptions of London Olympics mercs.

However I lost a job on a child nutrition campaign for unknown reasons. although I suspect I was too expensive. So having done the same stuff for a competitor, knowing all the research and what the market is like were not appreciated. I also lost a job writing about sack tracks and other tools for an industrial manufacturer because I was told (this time) I am too expensive. I find it hugely frustrating so I just beaver away at my bread and butter job for a local publisher rather than boosting some mean agency’s profits with my hard work. And I’m not even a socialist or member of a trade union…

To be honest I welcome any query, provided the pay is fair and the subject is not morally dubious.

27th June 2012

Are copywriters better off when they specialise? | Freelance Copywriter, London, UK

[…] Read it by clicking here. […]

27th June 2012

Alastaire Allday

Thanks Simone!

I know the feeling. I love doing conceptual work but if I only took on these jobs I’d quickly starve — I follow the money and my fairly broad experience enables me to earn a decent crust.

In my first year as a freelancer all I got were niche B2B jobs, mostly to do with software — very technical. If I’d niched there I’d be bored to tears by now. These days when I get a job like that I relish it, because it’s different to what I did yesterday.

Do you think clients prefer generalists because we’re cheaper, then? I’m quite surprised, because I would prefer an expensive specialist with extensive industry knowledge and I think my clients do too, as they always ask me for my experience in their sector (and are more likely to get in touch if they’ve seen something similar in my portfolio).

29th June 2012

Jackie Barrie

For me, one of the joys of copywriting is the variety. And it doesn’t matter what the topic may be. The first part of any writing is the research, after all. After over 30 years in the trade, last week I wrote about something completely new to me. Football.

15th July 2012

Averill Buchanan

Being a bit of a chameleon is surely also of benefit to your client – you can take ideas/language/concepts/elements from one area, such as football or car sales, and apply them to another, like cookery or accountancy, to get a fresh angle on things. Interdisciplinarity, cross-pollination – whatever you want to call it – is much more restricted if you specialise.

1st December 2012

Angela McCann

I started my copywriting career as a ‘Specialist Hotel Copywriter’. I worked for many hotels in my time and knew the trade. So calling myself a specialist separated me from the rest. Hotels were happy to deal with me; they trusted me. I could deliver what they wanted, because I had inside knowledge. However, there’s only so much you can do for a hotel … you start to get bored with the same type of projects, and crave something juicier. So, I decided to open the door. I take on all kinds of projects, and as you rightfully say, it’s nice to look forward to working on something different. Something I have noticed though … being a generalist is considered by some, as being ‘weak’. Catch 22.

3rd May 2013

Liz Holt

Just read the blog and comments as a result of a tweet this morning. I feel a split reaction. One the one hand, it’s good that people can just decide to become a copywriter, go on an online course, and launch themselves into the market. It’s a free country, and sadly there aren’t enough jobs out there in ad agencies for talented fledgling copywriters to cut their teeth and learn about the whole business, including marketing, from others.
On the other, I’m astonished that you’ve only just realised that,”In that time I’ve developed a very simple approach: discover what’s special about the product and find a way to explain this to the customer in a tone of voice that resonates. It doesn’t matter what I’m selling. The formula is always the same.” Gulp. This demonstrates the danger for clients in the open market! Going freelance without an agency grounding means you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe I should write a book for young copywriters who launch themselves straight into business?

3rd May 2013

Liz Holt

My blog about how copywriting is like acting adds another perspective on this debate.
http://lizholt.co.uk/2012/04/copywriting-acting-without-the-stage-fright/

7th May 2013

Alastaire Allday

Well that was a patronising response, Liz.

Actually, I’ve never been on any copywriting courses. Not one. I’m a former journalist with two degrees, including an MA in creative writing. I started out working for small digital agencies, B2B brands and small local consumer businesses, before growing a respectable consumer portfolio as a freelancer on all manner of national and international brands through word of mouth. Perhaps cutting my teeth in this way gave me a very different perspective to you.

And honestly, five years of freelancing (hard to believe this blog post is almost a year old!) gave me an incredible insight into just how similar the process is, regardless of the product you’re selling, or the size of the brand you’re working for.

Discover what’s special about the product — why “it” and not its competitors — and push that benefit in the tone of voice that resonates with the audience.

It’s not some spectacular secret I’ve learned, nor is it unique to me. It’s the same style of copywriting recommended by many seasoned industry veterans. Take this line from the Ad Contrarian —

“No matter how complex a marketing or advertising problem seems to be, no matter how much research has been done… no matter how many planning insights have been concocted, no matter how many decks have been written and Powerpoint presentations have been made… the correct idea, when found, will be simple.”

You are free to disagree with my approach. But you’ve not offered any evidence that your approach is superior.

14th December 2013

Liz Holt

Hi Alastaire,

I don’t disagree with your approach and I didn’t intend to offend you, although I can see that it was unavoidable in what I was saying. To be more specific in what I was saying, finding out what is special about the product should be at the heart of every brief and every creative solution. If you work for an agency as a junior writer, you’re taught to take this approach from Day 1 of your career.

And, yes, the right ideas are always the simplest.

The point is, the danger for clients in the amount of copywriters out there who don’t do this because ‘they don’t know they don’t know this’, and take time to discover it, at their clients’ expense. It can happen when a client doesn’t have a marketing background and so doesn’t automatically include this in the brief.

This is such a late response because I only read your reply this morning, when looking at the search response for my website URL.

4th February 2014

James McConachie

I’ve read and liked your book, Liz. I think you’re being a tad dismissive though of Alastaire – whose book expertly highlights the importance of pushing product benefits.
In my opinion, marketing one opinion at the expense of another is always avoidable.

What do you think?

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