From one-man band to orchestra conductor

Sue Keogh



What changes when you go from being a one-man band freelancer to running a team of copywriters? Director Sue Keogh, of content specialists Sookio, explains how she builds and motivates her team.

What are the challenges when it comes to running a team of copywriters?

Sue KeoghWell, I went from being the person who did everything – finding the work, doing the work and all the admin that goes with it – to having a team of people who were there solely to tackle the ‘doing’ bit.

The way that frees up your time and your thought processes is quite incredible. I had been getting so conscious that jobs were taking too long to complete, so it was great to have talented people around who could just focus on the copy and get the job done.

However, you soon realise how long the job will take when you haven’t got all those other tasks tugging at your sleeves. What, you’ve done that already?! So you have this feeling of needing to feed the beast. The last thing you want is someone sat there twiddling their thumbs and not bringing in revenue.

So I spend a lot more time now in trying to attract new business. I used to shy away from phrases like ‘lead generation’ and ‘sales pipelines’, finding it all a bit old-school salesy, but now I understand why people have always been bangin g on about it!

You also need to keep the workflow steady, to avoid peaks and troughs. So you might get three jobs on at once – how are you going to prioritise them? What’s the lead time? How accurately have you estimated the length of time it will take?

But all this head scratching is counteracted by the pure joy of someone coming to you with a really exciting project and the realisation that yes, you do have the capacity so…let’s go!

What skills do you need for managing a team?

I think getting a clear brief is as important as ever, so everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and what is expected of them.

You need to have various processes in place, for example we use project management software (Trigger) to allocate tasks and track our time. That helps me work out pricing for future projects, as it gives me a more accurate picture of how much time the work takes and how much we should bill. Oh, and don’t forget to keep on top of invoices – you’ve got staff to pay now.

Don’t hold baThe Sookio teamck in offering praise too. Writing copy isn’t like producing a tin of beans, you have to take a few risks rather than stick to the same formula each time. You need to instil confidence in your writers to empower them to be creative.

This praise doesn’t just have to be internal either – I love being able to credit the team when I share their blog posts on Twitter, and always sing their praises to clients.

The other thing about forming your copywriting team is to look for diversity. Employers often make the mistake of building teams of people who look and sound exactly like themselves; you need a mix of backgrounds and interests to produce better work collectively.

How do you maintain quality control?

One thing you have to learn is about giving constructive feedback. We all know how difficult it is when you put your heart and soul into a piece of writing and then have to actually show it to someone and wait for their opinion.

For people in my copywriting team, they get that twice, because everything that goes out the door gets my feedback first.

I do it in Word, usually using the commenting facility. If you do it with tracked changes, the person will just go through clicking ‘accept change’ all the way through, without really understanding why things have been changed. This doesn’t help anyone in the long run, as the writer doesn’t have opportunity to improve and you’ll find yourself correcting the same grammatical tics week after week.

Doing it this way gives you the opportunity to explain your thinking, making it a positive, helpful process rather than just being critical for the hell of it. A lot of time there isn’t a right or wrong answer; often I’ll flag something up and we’ll have a big discussion about how best to phrase it. You need to listen to the people writing the copy and trust their opinions. Being the boss doesn’t automatically make you right (sorry).

How about the client relationship?

A lot of clients were used to dealing with me and it was a bit of a step change for them to work with a different team member. But if the work is good, everyone is happy.

Having a team means we can play to everyone’s strengths. Michelle, for example, has a background in the beauty trade, which means she’s well suited to anything relating to health and wellbeing, whereas Rory is very good on music, gaming and tech. Even the fact that he has a beard was of particular interest to one client who’s working on a line of male grooming products – that’s one area that I’ll never have personal experience of!

I think you do need to make the boundaries clear about who’s doing what though. So I look after anything relating to the business side, like the contracts and invoicing, whereas the writers tend to talk direct to the client about the job itself. Having to go via me would really interrupt the creative process and slow everything down. Yes, you need to share your expertise – but it’s when you take a step back that people can really start to shine.

Sookio is a Cambridge-based agency helping brands communicate with confidence through quality content for the web and social media. Follow @sookio on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and sign up to their mailing list for a monthly blast of tips and tricks. She is also speaking at the PCN’s Copywriting Conference in October.


28th April 2015

Joanna Tidball

Thanks for these insights Sue. I completely agree about the importance of giving constructive feedback and making sure individuals get external recognition for their hard work. I really like the idea of using the Word comments function to add feedback on copy, rather than track changes – it creates an opportunity for active learning, rather than just being handed the solution on a plate.

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