How to Select and Brief a Copywriter?

How to Select and Brief a Copywriter?

After I wrote Sales Copy That’s Too Good To be True for Affiliate KB, I started to wonder whether professional copywriters (freelance or otherwise) are properly briefed for their assignments. I have a feeling that very few clients know how to write a proper copy brief. I have a Copy Brief with 24 questions! Come to think of it, some people might not even know what kinds of briefs are required for their marketing projects. There are at least 3 briefs; Agency Brief, Creative Brief and Copy Brief.

An Agency Brief is required when you want your advertising/creative agency to be your extended marketing arm. You need them to strategize the marketing plans to put the goods into the market. You also need their expertise to transform that intangible, invisible strategy into a tangible, visible and possibly audible message to your target audience. So a comprehensive brief is essential to allow your team to conjure up the big picture and put together all the smaller pieces of the marketing jigsaw puzzle. On top of that, the Agency Brief provides the basis for testing and measuring the results of the campaign, and leaves no room for misunderstanding by either party. Think of the Agency Brief as a business plan with the usual goals, mission, go-to-market plans and forecasts in place; just top it up with your expectations about what the creatives should achieve.

When you have a watertight marketing strategy plus a killer sales letter to woo your market, then what’s missing is the creative conceptualisation and execution of your marketing collaterals. You need a Creative Brief (aka a Design Brief). My friend David Airey, an established Edinburgh graphics designer, wrote an excellent post on how do you write a graphic design brief. Take a cue from David�s tips and you�ll be on the right track.

What if the missing piece of your marketing jigsaw puzzle is the sales copy? Just because a picture paints a thousand words doesn�t mean you can neglect the copy for your ad, press release or video script. It’s like asking you to decide which are more important: your hands or your legs. Your copy helps drive prospects and clients to your shop so that your sales consultants can complete the sales transaction. If you�re running an internet business, the sales copy is probably the most important factor that converts your captive audience into buyers. Yes, you�re reading that right; it�s the copy not the price that makes the difference. Your copy can convince the prospect that the product is worth more than the $97 you quoted. Remember that the prospect only has your words to convince him or her to stay, read, buy or leave. There�s no one to greet the prospect with a smile or to coax him or her with compelling demonstrations, so your copy becomes your Super Salesman.

It can be a challenge to brief your copywriter effectively. However, it�s critical to brief him/her as accurately and as comprehensively as possible. Essentially, the copywriter is going to research and write within the scope you�ve defined, and you�ll be quoted and charged based on the amount of work done. For copywriter-marketers who guarantee results, their fees are steep but worth every penny. Jay Abraham commands at least USD25,000 per copywriting assignment; Brett McFall charges easily USD15,000 upwards, and even our homegrown Jo Han Mok works for around USD8,000*.

You should choose a copywriter who is well versed in your product type and industry. I’m not saying you should dismiss writers who don’t know anything about your product – some experienced and prolific copywriters can write as if they�re experts after hearing your brief, asking lots of questions and doing some intensive research of their own. My point is this: Do you have the expertise to distinguish the great writers from the merely good ones? If you don’t, it�s safer to short-list a few who are familiar with your product and industry. The only concern I have regarding copywriters who specialize in a niche is whether they churn out “mass-market one-size-fits-all goods” or “unique tailor-made products”.

It�s your own responsibility to determine whether your copywriter is giving you quality work. That means it�s up to you to understand your market and to hire the right copywriter. You need to have a good understanding of your market place: What are your competitors talking about now? What are your target audience’s problems and interests? What is the number-one headache amongst all their concerns? How do they like to be spoken to? Is the headline selling a solution to your reader’s problem? Does your copy further elaborate the benefits of using your products? I�m sure you get my drift. You’ll need to interview your copywriter carefully, just as you would when hiring any other staff. Query the copywriter on his/her experience; ask to see some work samples, and request a proposal together with a quote outlining how the copywriter will handle the assignment. That way, you�ll know whether or not the person is worth the quoted price of USD2000 for a seemingly easy two-page brochure. There are no grounds for price negotiations if, on one hand, you don’t know what the copywriter can do, and he or she, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the work scope.

One way to identify a good copywriter is to listen to (or read) their questions carefully. My friend Kay Ross, a Hong Kong-based marketing consultant, editor and copywriter, lists 24 questions in her Copy Brief for her clients. With Kay�s permission, I’m sharing her questions here with you:

  1. Who is the document aimed at, and what are his/her/their needs, concerns and motivations?
  2. What is the purpose of the document, i.e. what do you want the reader to DO with the information?
  3. What’s the most important message that you want to communicate in the document?
  4. How does this document fit in with the rest of your organisation’s marketing/branding strategy?
  5. Please tell me all about your organisation, your products/services, your customers and your competition.
  6. What is the nature of your company/organisation? Is it a multinational corporation, a small enterprise, a non-profit community group or a registered charity?
  7. Please show me some similar documents that your organisation has produced before.
  8. How complex/technical is the assignment?
  9. Who retains copyright of the text?
  10. Do you have an in-house style guide? For instance, do you want the document to be written/edited according to US spelling and punctuation (color, behavior, and organization)? And do you have a standard preferred way of writing dates, times, telephone numbers and place names (Wanchai or Wan Chai)?
  11. Is there anything taboo that I’m not allowed to imply or promise in your document?
  12. If the assignment involves the editing of previously published text, or your draft text of a new document, can I see that text first? Do you want just cosmetic fixing of minor spelling and grammatical mistakes, or do you want major surgery to the tone, style, length, logic, structure, cultural appropriateness and marketing effectiveness of the document? And do you want me to use the “track changes” function so that you can see what changes I make?
  13. If the purpose of the document is to sell something (your product or service), what is the offer that you’re making? What is the financial and emotional benefit of that to the customer (i.e. your value proposition)? What is your desired brand/image? How do you want your customers to FEEL when they use your product/service? Do you have any customer testimonials?
  14. What is your project schedule and deadline?
  15. What is your budget? And on what basis do you propose to pay me: a set fee, a rate per word/page/hour, a percentage of sales�? If you pay per word, is that per commissioned word or per published word? Will you pay for out-of-pocket expenses, e.g. travel, research?
  16. How many rounds of revisions to the text do you expect me to include within my quoted time frame and fee?
  17. Who needs to approve the text, and what is the process for gaining that approval?
  18. Who will I report to, and how will we assess results?
  19. Do you want me to liaise with the translator, photographer, graphic designer, printer, etc.?
  20. Is this an urgent one-off assignment, or do you aim to build a long-term business relationship with me?
  21. Will I need to sign a confidentiality agreement?
  22. When will I be paid? Will you pay me in one lump sum once the project is finished, or do we need to agree on payment by installments? Who should I make my invoice out to, and do you need a signed, hard-copy invoice or is an unsigned soft copy acceptable?
  23. Will you pay me a “kill fee” if you decide, through no fault of mine, not to use the document?
  24. Can I have a contract in writing to confirm the details of this assignment and our agreement?

Does that seem complicated to you? It can be, even to those of us who do it on a daily basis. But open, honest communication is the key to success. Contact us if you need professional help with a marketing campaign, a design project or a copywriting task, and we�ll make it worth your while. If you are still contemplating whether you should hire a professional writer, read Laura Spenser’s Ten Reasons Why You Should Hire A Professional Writer.

*based on informations gathered in World Internet Summit in Nov 2006 and May 2007

{tags]copy brief, agency brief, design brief, copywriter, select and hire copywriter[/tags]

Read Other “How to” Posts on

How to Write Headlines That Sell

How to Differentiate Between “Benefits” and “Features

How to avoid Sales Copy that’s Too Good to be True


How to Select The Best Marketing or Advertising Agency

How to Use �Pay by Performance� with a Marketing Agency?

How To Spot and Hire a Good AE (Account Executive)

How To Pay for a Logo Design?

How Much To Pay Your Advertising Agency?

11 Replies to “How to Select and Brief a Copywriter?”

  1. Hi Vivienne,

    Thanks very much for the mention. If your readers follow the link to my site they might find it difficult reading the ‘how to write a graphic design brief’ article though.

    I’ve linked through to it in my name above.

    Bye for now.

  2. Vivienne, I think it’s a really good list.

    Something I always ask my technical writing clients is: what will I have access to. If it’s software I’m writing about, will have access to the application itself, to the specs, to meeting minutes, and so on.

    Of course, the answers to some of the questions may require follow-up questions.

    I also think that some clients will need the writer’s help to determine the answers. As writers, it’s easy to assume that the client knows exactly what they want, but sometimes they actually do not.

    Good post!

  3. Hey Viv, nice list. So far I’ve had no problems with all the copywriters I’ve ever worked with :) They’ve all actually had some form of creative and marketing background with them, so I guess that makes it easier for me to communicate with them. Then again, I could have just been plain lucky :)

  4. Wow Nick, you certainly have been lucky! I recall once, many years back, we worked with a MAJOR international ad agency; and they had this copy writer write up our product launch ad. My goodness, the poor guy/gal had totally no idea about the topic on which he/she was writing. It turned out so bad, I had to write the whole thing myself. But then, this was before RAM, MegaBytes(MB) and CPU became a little more common in daily parlance!

  5. Hi Laura – You are right. We have to help our clients to find the correct answers. That’s why we call ourselves professionals. :)

    Hi Nick – Good copywriters are really a joy to work with

    Hi Calvin – Read quite a few of your blog posts – especially the leadership series – I’m pretty certain you have no problem writing a good copy in a short notice.

  6. Hello everybody, my name is Damion, and I’m glad to join your community,
    and wish to assist as far as possible.

  7. I like the list of 24 questions that you listed, and as a writer, I think I will use some of them myself. Any writing project will turn out better if more information is shared between client and contractor. Personally, it seems that many people expect writers to be mind readers too; able to predict exactly what a client wants. Over the years, I have learned that it is always better to ask questions and risk bugging people than it is to present them with a disappointing piece.

  8. Thanks a lot for the list of questions Vivienne. I am working on a product right now and this will come in handy when i hire a copy writer. I could fill out the questions and give them to him.

    I want to learn sales copy so i can start doing it myself. Are there any programs you would recommend for someone that wants to get started in copy writing? i have seen a few and i saw one by john carlton.

  9. I have several lists of questions and points for selecting copywriters, but this is a nice addition being from the perspective of the writer. Gets me thinking about things I had not previously considered when going through the assessment process with a writer.

    Great post

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