Copywriters in agencies never know if they’re any good

“I know I waste half the money I spend on advertising,” department store pioneer John Wanamaker said. “The problem is, I don’t know which half.”

This could be true of measuring the success of many comms campaigns, PR included. I’m not directly involved with the PR strategy and metrics business but I do know that a problem for me is quantifying how effective my copywriting is. Chris Garrett – a self-confessed compulsive tester – posts on Copyblogger about how to write effective headlines and writes about the poor results of headlines that oversell. Unfortunately he omits to tell us what these results are or how he obtains them.

The problem unique to copywriters in agencies is this: you produce material for an account manager which you never see again. The account manager handles the approval process. You honestly don’t know if people eventually read your piece and thought it was any good. The circle is incomplete.

An internet search reveals nothing on this subject. There’s plenty of content on effective writing, quite a lot about PR metrics, but zippo about how copywriters go about this.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should go by the reputation we establish within our agenciesand accept that when they say something’s good, it is so. But time and again I find that they rely quite rightly on us to tell them whether it’s good or not, and they act merely as conduits between us and the clients. So, perhaps the sign of quality is that the client reviews and approves the work. But over time, if we just don’t get genuine feedback, we might just veer away slowly from what’s really required. Again, the client relies on us, via the account manager and the account manager relies on… etc.

So the acid test – the reaction of the reader, or the commissioning editor – is still missing. How do I know if someone’s sitting back, reading my piece and thinking “What a load of old rowlocks”? How do I know someone isn’t sitting up, slapping themselves on the head and thinking it’s the most brilliant thing they’ve ever read?

It could be that we’re in a unique position, in which case we need to create a specialised solution. I’m thinking maybe I’ll add it to our copy brief, that there will be follow-up a week or so later to assess whether the work hit the right bells. How to do this? Maybe by asking the editor? Possibly by using other people within the agency as a sounding board? Maybe I could start looking into ways newspapers and magazines judge their writing effectiveness. Maybe this is where blogs could come in, to establish feedback. If anyone out there has done work on this then please share it.

In this area of uncertainty one thing’s certain: copywriters put a lot of themselves into what they write, so they’re probably inevitably going to feel exposed when having their work judged. I just wish we could think of a way of quantifying quality, to use an oxymoron.

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