My Nightmare In-House Copywriting Gig (And What It Can Teach You)

If you’re an entrepreneur, making your way into this big, bad world, you might want to turn on the lights for this one.

Lock all the doors.

Double-check those windows.

Because it’s time for a scary story!

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

I’m going to try to tell this story as honestly as I can without exposing the company.

I’d like you to focus on the lessons I’ve learned so you won’t have to go down the same, ghastly path.

If you’re an entrepreneur, I know you want to help your clients and be viewed as a partner for their success. To receive the respect you deserve, you have to work hard gaining trust. Then over-deliver on quality and value. It’s a lot of work to be an entrepreneur and not everyone is cut out for it.

Of all the different hats you wear, I’d say the toughest is the sales hat.

You see, without a sales process in place, you’re going to go broke real fast. Entrepreneurs have to learn how to market themselves and sell their services.

Sometimes that can take up more time than actually doing the work you love.

So when an opportunity arrives that allows you to do what you love to do but commit to just one company (and forego your own marketing), the offer is tempting.

No more attending boring networking events hoping you meet someone who could possibly use your services.

No more cold calls or warm emails.

And no more online job boards.

You can wave a cheerful goodbye to clients who think paying someone $5 for a 600-word blog post is fair.

When an acquaintance told me about an in-house copywriting position, at first I wasn’t interested. I love being my own boss. But after saying “no” at first, I reasoned that maybe I should check in with my husband to see what he thought. He is, after all, the “other half” of Maguire Copywriting.

When I brought up the topic, he was supportive. He encouraged me to apply because it would bring a more consistent cash flow. I also saw the benefit of being closer to the testing ground. Although I had worked with dozens of clients, very few actually tested their marketing copy.

Now I would be able to know which direct response copywriting tactics worked and which did not.

I decided to head toward the imposing mansion with the flickering lights and escape the “dark and stormy night.”

The Spooky Company with the Strange Moaning Sound

One of my most important values — for those with whom I do business with and those I call a friend — is integrity.

I’ve learned to keep my eyes and ears open for anyone or any situation that seems dubious, untrustworthy, or downright duplicitous.

No “tricksy” peeps in my Middle Earth.

I ended up interviewing with the company — let’s call them “Rogers’ Rangers” — and got the job.

The CEO and founder struck me as a man of integrity, but looking back, I realized I wanted him to be that person. I expected him to be that person. If for no other reason, his company sold products that would appeal to those who have integrity, plus a love for independence and freedom.

I was wrong.

Very wrong.

One of the conditions I negotiated during my final interview was to increase my salary by $10K if after 90 days we both still liked each other and my copy performed well. This was a concession made on my part. My original asking salary was adjusted with the CEO assuring me that he had no problem paying the extra $10K but wanted to essentially see proof.

I will also add the recruiter presented my salary range to the CEO before any interviews happened, so I assumed they were capable of paying it. However, for the point of the story, let’s call this Red Flag #1.

I was introduced to my boss, a 29-year-old marketing manager who had no management experience.

At least that’s what it looked like after I checked her LinkedIn profile. Her background was filled with jobs where she’d spend eight, four or seven months at various companies. The most time she spent at a company was a little over one year.

And although she managed accounts, she had never managed people.

That moaning sound you just heard was me.

Let’s call this Red Flag #2.

I figured since I was working as an off-site employee, I wouldn’t have to worry. After all, she wasn’t going to constantly visit my office on a daily basis. As long as I understood the goals of my projects, I reasoned all would be well.

Six weeks after I was hired, I flew cross-country to the company’s headquarters. And that’s when I started to see that not all was as it appeared to be.

The Ghostly Owner Who Disappeared

Overall, it was a nice visit. But there were a few strange happenings that occurred.

First, I discovered that the owner was an atheist/agnostic (his description).

Now, this might not seem a big deal. Lots of atheists and agnostics are running companies.

But the reason it was odd was that this company, in particular, targeted a demographic that was comprised (mostly) of church-goers — folks who love their freedom, are self-sufficient and don’t care for the government poking their nose in their business all the time.

And “Rogers’ Rangers” gave a very distinct impression that they shared these values.

Values are important and becoming even more so in our social issue-driven culture. When you’re able to clearly identify your values, you’ll naturally attract clients and customers who are a good fit.

So when I discovered this tidbit about the owner, I was disappointed. It seemed as though he wasn’t somehow being honest. I suspected that if some of his customers knew about his lack of faith, they wouldn’t feel he shared their values and consequently, not buy his products.

I know I’m speculating but I have some experience with this demographic. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that these are Bible-believing, church-going people who understand the need to pray to God during trying times — but also prepare for them as best they can.

After I was hired, I was told that I reported to my marketing manager and she reported to the CEO. I was able to interview the CEO when I was at their headquarters, which seemed to perplex my manager just slightly. She couldn’t figure out why I wanted to interview him.

I told her that in order to write copy for the company, I wanted to understand the founder’s perspective.

I wanted to know why he started the company and I wanted details.

I wanted to know what his mission was for the company, who he wanted to reach and why it was important.

I wanted to discover what made him different from his competitors.

And I wanted to discover any information I could glean about the audience.

All of these questions were extremely important for me to write the best copy because:

There was no tone of voice guidelines…

There were no branding guidelines…

There were no marketing guidelines or an employee manual, period.

We’ll call all of that Red Flag #3.

After having dinner a few times with the CEO, he essentially disappeared, except when he’d drop by Basecamp and give a biased critique of an idea. These critiques simply exposed his startling insecurity that appeared as a micro-management style which was both stifling and unproductive.

That was Red Flag #4.

One night, my manager and I had dinner with the CFO, who had let me know in a not-so-subtle way that he was really the power behind the throne. He actually said this to me, “I wish the CEO would quit ‘promising’ a new hire an increase in pay. I’m not against raises and believe in giving them, but he needs to talk to me more about that.”

Um. Yeah.

During the meal, he and my manager also talked about a graphic designer who used to work for the company but after 90 days, was canned. I was aghast.

First, it was inappropriate to be discussing this situation in front of me (a new hire).

Second, from my cautious question about understanding expectations, the response was he knew what was expected but just didn’t do what he needed to do.

I was concerned. Communication is one of the most important parts of company culture and it seemed as though there was no formal procedure in place to clearly define expectations to employees.

That was a big red flag for me. Red Flag #5.

Speaking of culture… “Rogers’ Rangers” had none.

And I mean none. Nothing. Nada.

No “this is the way we do things around here.” No company manual. No list of rules or anything that would help a new employee gain firm footing in the company.

I worked for this company for six months. And I wrote a lot of copy.

In fact, I was most proud of the fact that before I came on board, they weren’t doing any email marketing and I got it off the ground. They had a good-sized list but didn’t send out emails on a regular basis.

Within 11 weeks, by creating a bi-monthly newsletter and alternating those with sales emails, the copy delivered $43,129.96 of new revenue. One email brought in $7,348.36. My copy was paying off my salary by almost 3x their investment on a regular basis.

But something was lurking behind the scenes… something that can only put pure terror in the hearts of copywriters the world over like nothing else.

(Now would be a good time to turn on all the lights in your home…)

The Fiendish Grammarian Who “Dexter-ized” My Copy

Worse than the legendary “Night Hag”, the harpie that taunts you by night until your soul is ripped from your body and carried off to Hades — the blood-sucking, Fiendish Grammarian cloaked me with her pitch-black shadow and set me up for the kill.

Ever watch the TV show “Dexter?”

I haven’t because I’m a scaredy-cat. But I know enough about the story-line.

Dexter was a serial killer. But instead of just killing innocent people, he’d find other serial killers and then murder them.

And he did it in some of the evilest, diabolical ways. Slicing and dicing. Stabbing the life out of someone. The series was definitely not for the weak-hearted.

So imagine the knot of fear I felt in my stomach when I realized the “other copywriter” on the team was actually a literary version of Dexter wearing a dress.

Yes, I screamed. Many times, in fact.

Because this woman had no idea what direct response copywriting was all about. No clue.

I will say that too often, a business is overly concerned with grammar when what they really should be concerned about is if the copy sells their stuff.

I’m pretty black and white on this point.

I can pick out a dangling participle with the best of them but
when it comes to direct response copy, my main objective is to
engage the reader (grab ’em by the eyeballs), and persuade them
to pull out their wallets to buy whatever it is I’m pitching.

When I visited the corporate office, I was told that we (meaning myself and the other writer) were to “check each other’s work.” We were to make sure there weren’t any grammatical mistakes and to create consistent brand messaging.

I didn’t have a problem with checking each other’s work. But here’s what happened:

I only critiqued one page of her web copy. And that was it.

Meanwhile, she was critiquing everything I wrote.

Every. Frickin’. Thing.

Sales letter copy, newsletter copy, web copy, banner copy– all of it!

And she’d gleefully stab the life out of everything I wrote.

A 600-word article and 150-word sales section would regularly receive. on average, 29 bloody comments and corrections.

I checked with a few other copywriters to see if my writing was that much off the mark.

They all told me the Fiendish Grammarian was wrong.

At one point, she actually asked if I was using any tools to check my work. Did I have Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar function turned on?

Good night.

So the revision process we established went like this: I wrote the copy, I gave it to my marketing manager to review, then after I made any changes (which were always slight), we’d pass it to the Fiendish Grammarian.

And that’s when she’d torture and kill my copy.

It got to the point where I had a heart-to-heart with my manager. I explained that direct response copy was an informal style of copy. I also pointed out that a good amount of the corrections were actually disagreements with that style.

And then I said that perhaps Fiendish Grammarian was the person who should be writing this copy.

I told my manager that I would never write like an English Lit major and never desired to do so. Besides, that wasn’t what I was hired to do. The position was for a direct response copywriter. Not the author of the Great American Novel.

My manager reassured me that she did want me to write the sales copy and that’s why Fiendish Grammarian was writing blog content and product descriptions. My manager seemed to be on my side.

Or so I thought. This situation turned out to be Red Flag #6.

The Clueless Duo Who Failed to Recognize a Superhero When He Appeared

I had the opportunity to introduce my marketing manager to one of THE top direct marketers in the world. His name is Brian Kurtz and if you’ve been in the copywriting and information marketing business for any length of time, you’d know the name.

Brian helped Marty Edelston build Boardroom, Inc. from around $3 million in revenues in 1981 to a high of $150 million in the mid-2000s. He eventually became its Executive Vice President of Marketing. He was named Direct Marketer of the Year by Target Marketing (a huge DM player) in 2007 in addition to other industry awards and recognition.

And the money was made decades before the Internet came upon the scene. He did it with direct mail, managing lists like a highly-skilled surgeon.

In other words, Brian turned the list business into an art. He has a talent for it that few will ever know.

When I was visiting the corporate headquarters, my manager mentioned that she’d like to “test direct mail” sometime. So when this amazing offer to get advice and input came my way — from one of the best in the field — I pounced on it.

I set it up nicely to my manager, giving her a few details to prove to her this was a golden opportunity.

Her response?

None.

No response to my email.

I was annoyed. So I wrote to the CEO and gave him the details, copying my manager on it but covering for her by saying she probably was busy but I couldn’t help but also share this opportunity with him and timing was a factor. (Which was true. Brian’s dance card was filling up fast.)

The CEO’s response?

He’d defer to my manager. She then responded by saying she wanted to focus on only one marketing channel at a time and from her experience, investing in such consultations usually didn’t provide any “actionable” items.

Unbelievable.

The mark of a good entrepreneur is recognizing an opportunity when it comes your way. This particular opportunity was actually served up to them on a silver platter.

And still, they ignored it.

I can almost guarantee you that they didn’t even search online for Brian’s name. If they did, they would have found a goldmine of information.

So I decided to pay Brian four-figures out of my own pocket and discover what he knew. And I got a tremendous bang for my buck.

But the Clueless Duo earned yet another red flag from this one. Red Flag #7.

Let’s Bring It All Home

Six months after I was hired and after generating new revenue for “Rogers’ Rangers,” I was fired.

My 90-day review date had come and gone in April. I had to remind my manager that we needed to set up a time for the review. We finally did. Seventeen days later.

And everything was fine. We had a great conversation. She told me about future marketing plans, what we’d focus on in October and what we’d be doing during the summer.

There were no deep concerns about my performance given. No warnings. Nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed as though all was well.

Then three weeks later, I get a call and was told things just weren’t working out and I was being let go for…

wait for it…

Bad grammar.

Yes. I was fired because of bad grammar. It even said so in my termination letter.

I was stunned. On the call, as my manager was essentially reading from the letter, my mind blanked out. All I could say was, “How can this be? You never once mentioned it to me before and certainly didn’t mention it during my 90-day review.”

My question was met with stony silence. She didn’t say anything because she couldn’t. It was obviously a bogus excuse and the CFO, who was on the call and acting as the HR person, also didn’t say anything.

She mumbled thanks and good luck, then ended the call.

And that was that.

I hung up the phone feeling as though I had just been hit by a train.

The previous month, I had notified my manager that my husband just received word that he was part of a company lay-off and we were reviewing our future plans for moving. Was it really necessary for me to move to the corporate headquarters or was there an option of living elsewhere? I felt that I had justified my ability to stay focused on my projects, communicated well through Basecamp and met all my deadlines.

So now I was faced with a husband who would also be out of work soon. And I was back to being a freelancer.

Thank goodness I had kept one client on the side. That client’s projects together with some savings kept us afloat for a few months.

But I realized I had just received a series of very valuable lessons and will now pass them on to you:

If you’re hired as an in-house copywriter, get everything in writing (Red Flag #1).

All I had was an email sent to the CFO that I was hired at XXX salary and after 90 days, would be bumped up by $10K. I believe this is the real reason why I was let go. They simply didn’t want to make good on their promise.

However, the more paperwork you have that defines the hiring agreement, the better. Insist on it and if the company hiring you balks, run.

Run away fast.

Do your due diligence regarding your boss (Red Flag #2).

Some Millennials are brilliant when it comes to running a company. Others lack soft skills and management skills. They simply haven’t had enough life experience or work experience to support their positions.

In this case, my manager didn’t have years of managing people under her belt. It was a big mistake on my part to even accept the position. I had more experience than she did and within weeks, that became crystal clear.

Ask about company policies (Red Flag #3).

A company that cares about its employees will know its culture. The CEO/founder/owner will understand that if he or she is running a company, they need to establish guidelines and policies.

If you’re interviewing for a position within a company that excites you, don’t let that excitement sweep you away. Ask if they have policies in place for your role. For marketing professionals, this includes guidelines on content marketing, social media, and best practices. If your question is dismissed or met with ambivalence, take a hard pass.

Beware the micro-manager (Red Flag #4)

Many younger companies have a tendency to over-manage. It comes from insecurity. “Rogers’ Rangers” wanted to grow as a company yet insisted on perfection in everything.

Nothing is wrong with having high standards. But if you micro-manage your creative, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The need for speed in today’s market is unparalleled to what was considered “normal” twenty years ago. The Internet increased the speed of everything.

You simply don’t have the luxury of anxiously wringing your hands over every jot and tittle of your creative. If you sense your manager is like this, it will only get worse and will clog up productivity. Trust me.

Notice anything odd or unprofessional (Red Flag #5).

It was highly inappropriate for the CFO and my manager to discuss another employee in front of me. Very bad form.

If the person hiring you says anything negative about a previous employee, you can almost be certain you’ll eventually be on the receiving end, yourself. Professionals keep everything above the board. They don’t trash former employees and they show integrity by keeping their word.

“Rogers’ Rangers” did neither and I paid the price for not listening to my instincts to run.

Ask about the revision process if you’re a copywriter (Red Flag #6).

Unfortunately, a revision process wasn’t in place until I came along. Before there was just the Fiendish Grammarian and because her perfect grammar pleased the CEO, all was well.

Then I came in with a bucketful of messy, juicy copy that splattered all over the place and turned everything upside-down.

During my very short exit phone call, I reminded my manager that we had a revision process in place to catch any grammar mistakes. We were doing what every company does with creative — pass it under the eyes of several people before publishing it.

However, somehow I got the short stick out of this deal. I only read one page of the Fiendish Grammarian’s copy while she shredded almost all of my projects. Something wasn’t right. If you can discover this on your own before getting hired, more power to you. Confront it and confront it hard. It’s a very unfair position for the writer on the other end of the whip.

Ask about the company’s heroes (Red Flag #7).

You can tell a lot about someone by knowing who he or she admires. I should have asked this question during the interview.

Specifically, “Who do you admire in the marketing world? What books have you read? Do you know [well-known name]?”

In this case, I should have dug deeper regarding the CEO’s knowledge of direct response marketing. It turned out he didn’t have a clue and neither did the marketing manager, who eventually became the CMO (interestingly enough, she left the company nine months after I left).

Her experience was primarily from an advertising agency and I can tell you that most agencies are unfamiliar with direct response marketing principles.

Or they know about them and sneer. Either way, you need to know this if you’re considering an in-house position.

This has been one of the longest posts I’ve written but I believe it’s one of the most important.

Because I’m starting to see more and more companies hire in-house copywriters.

You need to know what’s at stake.

If the bottom drops out for you as it did for me, you’re going to be scrambling for new clients and it will take some time to get back on your feet.

It took me two months but I finally did get back on track with client work. I’m now headed into a completely new direction, which is very exciting (learn more by clicking here to join my list).

I learned a lot from the experience. And like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I’ve become an even more powerful marketer because of it.

So remember this chilling tale well. And carry a big grammar book with you, wherever you go.

Because you never know when the Fiendish Grammarian will attack.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Want more juicy marketing insights that will help you grab the attention of your target market and squeeze out all the delicious deals you know you want? Sign up for our FREE weekly newsletter, “The Gold Digger Marketing Letter.” Thanks, and we’ll see you on the other side!

About the Author

Hi. I’m Mary Rose ‘Wildfire’ Maguire, a direct response copywriter, digital marketing consultant, and brand and email marketing fangirl. Tireless advocate for finding pain points and testing response. David Ogilvy is my invisible mentor, along with John Caples and Claude C. Hopkins. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn yakking endlessly about marketing. And especially on my website, maryrosemaguire.com.

--

--

--

Direct response copywriter & crack-shot email marketer. Voracious reader. Live, eat & sleep marketing. http://bit.ly/HireMaguire

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Microsoft Learn Student Ambassador program

Feeling unhappy about your job? Read my story

Seafarer Jobs & the Rise of Marine Technology

How to foster psychological safety on a remote team

Why successful teams embrace conflict — 5 learnings

New Ways to Leverage SharePoint and Office 365 to Enable Collaboration

Bourdaina Wireframe

Put Yourself out There!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mary Rose Maguire

Mary Rose Maguire

Direct response copywriter & crack-shot email marketer. Voracious reader. Live, eat & sleep marketing. http://bit.ly/HireMaguire

More from Medium

Does creating content feel insanely hard and time-consuming?

Why You Should Blog as a Business Owner

5 Differences Between a Solopreneur vs an Entrepreneur (and the Impact It Makes on Your Time and…

Become Your Own Business Coach to Master Self-Accountability