Merryn Walters

9 November 2012

Aaah, the Durante Question. You know about that, right?

It’s the unwritten rule for copywriters everywhere. We have to answer the Durante Question before we take on a job. You may not have known it existed, you may not know you’re doing it – but it does. You do.

What is the Durante Question? It’s a reference to a quote. And as we know, when we’re taking on a job, quotes can be tricky things. Pitch ’em wrong and you’ll miss your target by a country mile: it doesn’t matter if it’s blog-post content we’re talking about or the price on your next piece of work – some work, some don’t.

But if I’d written, ‘Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay… still you knew you wouldn’t be very long. Go or stay, stay or go…’ – then, well, I’d have over-run my headline, and there’s a chance a few of you would have shut the fieldgate on the way back down the lane. Stick with me. I do metaphors, OK?

The truth is, few people remember Jimmy Durante; who he was or what he did. When it comes to taking on a new piece of work though, the lyrics I’ve quoted should ring true no matter how little you know about ol’ Schnozzola. New project? Could be a dream or a nightmare; a golden goose – or a headless chicken. Do you do it? Or don’t you? There are the times you’re tempted to say ‘no’, but then you regret not working with ‘a big name’ ‘on a great project’. There are the times you’d like to say ‘yes’, but with the inherent knowledge you’re bound to be biting off more than you can masticate.

What you *do* know, indisputably, is that every time you’re asked to do a job, you ask yourself one version or another of the Durante Question. Do I say yes or no? We’ll all have our own reasons for answering in the positive or negative. If you’ve not thought about it recently, try my cheat sheet. A way of finding out the answer to Durante’s Question, as deployed by yours truly:

  • Do I *like* these people? There are some Hooman Beans on this planet whose raison d’être is to bugger up your day. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Irrespective of the impending shed bills however, you always have a choice about whether or not you work with ’em and – luckily – you can smell most of the offending individuals a mile off. Their pre-emptive calls about a piece of work are tinged with delicate, distemperous and jaundiced hints of ‘I don’t know what we need yet but it has to have all this information in it and be back by close of play tomorrow.’More evocative and pungent still are the emanations accompanying the immortal words, ‘Can you tell me how much a brochure costs?’ And tempting as it is to say that all such jobs turn out to be stinkers – well, it’s just not true. Is it. Those chaps and chappesses are working hard. Sometimes it’s a good thing to cut ’em some slack, look upon your input as an altruistic gesture of generosity on the long and winding road to Damascus … and work with ’em anyway. They’re still going to bugger up your day. But if you accept that in advance, you’ll feel like it’s a good thing – and you can concentrate on doing a great piece of writing instead.
  • Will I be proud of the work? If the subject or the brand is one I believe in, then I’ll more than likely want to work on it whatever the consequences. It may turn out to be a journey to hell in a handcart and back again, in terms of liaising with the [intake of breath][fondle of worry beads] *people* involved in the job … but that smug, ‘I did that!’ feeling is sure hard to beat. This attitude also explains why I have *that* insurance policy, and *those* investments with *this* bank. I like ’em. I like working on ’em. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve moved allegiance from one brand to another in the name of research, unlikely to be the last either.
  • Is it good for business? Is it *good* for business? A piece of work that takes time, takes some beating. I can relax. Think about it. Enjoy the creative process involved in Doing A Great Piece of Work, rather than churn out calls-to-action that’ll pump up the response numbers in a dodgy bit of DM. Over a period of weeks, or even months, that means I can get in under the skin of the beast. So I take in an all-round better understanding of the client’s aims … and long term projects are also a good way to get the shed bills paid. I like long term projects. Short term though, if I’m honest, it’s sometimes the nugget-sized beasties that are more profitable. Taking time over something, er, takes up time. So a project has to be good for me, as well as great for the client.
  • Will it pay enough money? Funny this, but it’s not the first question I ask myself. Reflexively. Because even the easiest jobs come at a price. In the forum, we’ve debated the value of our words loudly; some jobs just aren’t worth doing, no matter what the payout after Draft Number 17. There are bills to pay, after all. In honesty – and you can call it smarm, pomp or smugness if you like – I really have worked for a pie and a pint in the past. Had a blast, too. Some of the most enjoyable work I’ve done has been for businesses that were struggling to see the value of a copywriter until *after* the work had been done and the results had started rolling in to the post room. Or their bank account. It’s the advantage of being freelance: we decide, not the client, what the value of our work is. They have the option of choosing whether or not to invest in our skills as writers. What’s enough? Everyone has their own formula for working out the price of a job. Enough’s enough, for me.

There’s an addendum to my cheat sheet. For me, it’s the decider on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the Durante Question. But it’s not one you’ll hear often outside the walls of the asylum. “Is this an impossible job? Oh, good. In that case, I can’t wait to get started…”

There’s a re-occurring theme in my working life: it pops up, sticks its paws over the parapet and pokes me with the Ugly-Stick about once a month on average. A job that’s impossible to get done in the timelines set, or has an infinite number of stakeholders signing off the copy; a list of benefits so long it’s threatening a rainforest in terms of paper consumption, or a proposed tone of voice that’s so far removed from their brand identity it’s just not funny. And you know what? I Love It. The worse the outlook is, the more likely I am to wipe the drool from my chin, grab a fresh sheet of paper and a stubby new wax crayon, and ceremoniously beat my brains out as I try to deliver what’s been asked of me. Seriously, I must be a masochist – that, or I really do love my job.

What’s your Durante Question?

PS. Just in case you haven’t heard it for a while, or don’t know what I’m talking about (and need to complete your education regarding 1944 black and white classics), here’s a link to ol’ Schnozzola singing *that* song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bY-zmJ1VCQI

  • Jimmy_Durante

What do you think?

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Kimmo Linkama

November 9, 2012 at 1:23pm

Pretty much the line of thought I’m sure many other copywriters besides you and me have every time a new job appears in the horizon.

You must be the first person in at least 5 years to bring up “Short term though, if I’m honest, it’s sometimes the nugget-sized beasties that are more profitable.” Very true. The only problem is that is nearly always repeat business from existing customers. You can’t go round chasing them because the effort will negate the profit.

While I do get my share of those “How much is a brochure” type of questions, the discussion can in most cases be put on the right track by asking what the client actually has in his mind. Most of those questions – at least in my case – come from clients who have thought about the issue so long they forget I’m hearing about it the first time in my life. When we’re on the same map, everything becomes easier. And often the rush isn’t such a rush, after all. The client is happy that someone is working on the job, problem (almost) solved.

My Durante question: Do I like the job and the person commissioning it enough to want to do the impossible? If that’s the case. If the answer is YES/YES or even YES/MAYBE, the job is usually worth the effort.