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Stephen Marsh — ProCopywriters Member Spotlight Revisted

Stephen Marsh

What For Creative Ltd

PRO

How has your business changed since your first Member Spotlight
interview?

When we talked back in 2012, I was still very fresh. I think a lot of my goals were about proving I wasn’t a charlatan – things like working with more recognizable brands, building a reputation, and so on. Since then, I’ve done a lot more work on bigger accounts through agencies. I’ve also been lucky enough to have bigger brands come to me direct.

And with that growing confidence comes a very organic growth in the business – rates go up, I created a limited company, and the scale of certain projects means I’ve had to learn how to bring other writers into the mix. I’ve also just finished the next evolution of my own website and collateral. Today, I feel like it really represents who I am, what I do, and why anyone should care.

What’s been your biggest success since your first Member Spotlight interview?

I mean, the most obvious is working with more well-known brands. Like it or not, that’s become an incredibly powerful shortcut in winning new accounts – we’re all telling our clients that strong social proof is a powerful persuader, and I’ve put
that into practice by slapping client logos all over the place.

But I think success comes in all shapes and sizes, and you sometimes have to stop and recognize the smaller achievements. I continue to hit deadlines and do good work. The biggest success of all is that I’m still here attaching Word documents and hitting send on emails every single day.

Why did you decide to focus on the kind of work you’re doing now?

I don’t think I get to decide. If I have a brand of my own, it’s all about being client-led and ready to jump in and help with whatever clients need.

If I look at the split of my work, I’d say it’s 30% more internal-facing brand work, like tone of voice guidelines, or branding exercises. Print is probably as low as 10%. And the rest is digital – not just websites, but your PPC ads, emails, and so on. But that’s not a strategic move on my part; I think that just reflects where my clients are at and where people are focusing their budgets.

What are you enjoying most about your industry or niche?

The niche thing is never something I’ve tried, even though I hear it can be wonderful. I think I’ve developed some natural niches – for example, I’ve done a lot in tech – but I’ve never quite seen the value in pigeonholing myself.

At the same time, I guess a lot of my work has some things in common. I’ve built more of a niche in how I tackle projects, more than what the projects are. I think people come to me because they recognize from my website and other work that I strip away all the crap until something complicated becomes nice and digestible.

That’s got real value for clients and is a lot of fun for me – just being that outside force that can say ‘You are speaking in riddles, so let’s stop that now.’ If I have a niche, it’s my personality and approach.

What are you working on just now?

I’ve been doing a lot of brand work recently – businesses who need help pinning down what their proposition really is and finding a way to get their message across. In terms of output, that includes things like elevator pitches, messaging toolkits, and tone of voice guidelines.

It’s an interesting one because execution is just one part of it. It stretches beyond sitting there and deciding which words to use, because I’m playing more of a role in deciding what’s worth saying in the first place.

Describe your desk and what’s on it

Don’t judge me, but I’m working on the sofa. Right this moment, it’s home to my laptop, my phone, and a notebook because I like the idea of making handwritten notes, but rarely do.

Tell us about your side projects

There are a few! I just finished up a refresh of my own brand – an evolved version of my logo and website, updated collateral, and so on. Until now, everything except the logo was something I handled myself, but I’ve finally accepted that I don’t have time and should really pay a professional.

With that one in the can, I’m also planning something new with my designer colleague – a bit of a joint venture that’s not quite an agency, but not quite just a creative team. That one is next on the list. And, a bit further in the future, a few people have asked me to offer advice for their internal marketing teams that write. So I’m wondering if there’s a way I could package that up without putting too much of a burden on my own work.

How has your writing process evolved?

A lot more of it happens in my head. I’ve learnt to trust myself a bit more, so I won’t always plot out a structure in writing unless it’s to make sure the client is on the same page as me.

I also think it’s always evolving. You can’t help but develop habits – words you overuse or the same structure you roll-out on every piece – so I try to stay aware of them and find fresh ways of doing things. That’s more to keep things interesting for me than anything else.

What do you wish copywriters were more honest about?

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog for ProCopywriters about lies and copywriting. I think we all have an interesting relationship with the truth, whether we’re messaging our accomplishments or pretending we’re really excited about selling kitchen tiles.

An example from just last month: a copywriter in a certain niche who claims he’s ‘the number one copywriter in the niche according to Google’, because he ranks first for a certain long search term. Good on that guy for finding the spin!

So I don’t think we need to be more honest as an industry. But I do think it would be nice if we were able to be, and agencies don’t always help with that.

I work with some great agencies who introduce me to their clients as a freelancer – but one they have an ongoing, long-term relationship with. I’m not some guy they picked up on the street – I’m the guy they turn to and trust to get the job done. The agency did the hard work of finding me. And clients are fine with that.

I wish every freelance copywriter was allowed to be that honest about the work they’d done. I get it from the agency side, but I just don’t know if keeping quiet about the fact that they work with freelancers is as important as they think it is.

What advice do you often hear given to newbies, but you don’t agree with? Why?

Anything to do with rates. It’s not that I don’t agree with the advice – it’s that I think it’s widely misrepresented and misinterpreted.

When you’re starting out, you’re hungry for advice on what a copywriter should charge. But at what point are you qualified to say you’re a copywriter? I worry that sometimes when we embark on the noble cause of discussing our rates openly, new copywriters price themselves out of work at a time when just winning a project could be life-changing.

When I started almost a decade ago, I was crap. I was working part-time and my rates benchmark was ‘Is this higher than the hourly rate I get paid at my job?’. I said yes to everything. And while that was hard, it’s what allowed me to have work to do every day and, you know, get good.

My revised version of the advice is: here’s what you could be charging very soon. But if you’re just starting out, your priority has to be getting some work under your belt.

Any lessons you’re still learning?

An infinite number of them – but a pressing one right now is being able to say no. It’s more of a personal lesson than a business lesson, but when you’ve started your career with a ‘say yes to everything’ mindset, it’s hard to transition away from it.

For a long time, I used my rates as the deciding factor in whether I wanted to take a project on. Availability didn’t come into the question – if they had the budget, I was ready to help and would bend over backwards to do so. Now, I’m trying to be more disciplined with new enquiries and making sure that the project is either interesting enough or pays enough to warrant adding it into the mix. I’m just at full capacity a lot of the time – and being slightly more selective means I can still give the right clients that kind of flexible, can-do attitude.

Of course, there are also times when I’m learning how to balance my workload with existing clients. Thankfully, I’m incredibly proud of the relationships I’ve built – so I can get on the phone and say ‘Look, before break my own back by setting a deadline I think you’ll be impressed by, when realistically do you need this?’. It certainly takes the guesswork out!

What’s something about your work that makes your inner copywriting nerd happy, but you’re not able to chat about enough?

All the internal stuff – the emails to clients, the proposals, and so on. There’s no good way to show that off or chat about it, but there’s something very pure about selling your own stuff.

My business is a brand I know inside-out. The tone of voice is, well, me. And things like proposals aren’t just a way to showcase work or suggest ideas – they’re live, active demonstrations that you can sell a client on you. So you can sell their customers on them.

I also love it when newer copywriters get in touch. I like being able to share what few things I know, especially about the business side of things. That’s an open invite!

What do you think?

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