Sunday, November 22, 2009

Experienced Blues

In my nomadic advertising career, I've toiled in countless categories. I have sold airplane wheels and brakes to airlines, car insurance to the military, facial hair remover to African American men, pots, pans and vacuum cleaners to the lady of the house, paint to do-it-your-selfers, fruit-scented shower gels to women under 25, hospitals to women over 55, bipolar meds and antidepressants to legions of unhappy people of all ages and sexes...the list goes on and on. I've engaged in consumer, B to B and relationship marketing. I have changed markets and changed focus and changed clients and changed the way I think and write. I maintain this is all valuable and good. The truth is, people get stale working on the same account. Especially advertising people, who tend to be on the ADD side of the attention spectrum.

But since I've been back on the freelance beat, I have learned that what used to be called experience is now considered baggage. The market today praises verticality above all else. You must be a Yahoo maven, a supermarket specialist, an expert in make up and skin care products. Don't even bother calling unless you've spent at least five years toiling on packaging for canned fruit, preferably pineapple. OK, so you've worked on websites for a dozen different small businesses, but have you written one for an HR outsourcing service? I didn't think so. Next!

There are a lot of unemployed copywriters out there, and if advertisers wait long enough, they can get someone with exactly the experience they think they need. But guess what? That doesn't guarantee a thing. You want someone smart and strategic. Someone who will ask you about your target and your competition. Someone who can distill your information down to its essence and give it a little kick. Someone who is down to earth and makes your insane deadlines every time. Category experience is gravy. Yes, there are a few categories, such as tech and pharma, that take a while to absorb, but good writers get up to speed pretty fast, at least where writing for the consumer is concerned. (If you're writing to the trade in tech or pharma, then you DO need a special skill set. These gigs call for technical writers.)

I think we writers have fed into this mindset, because we try to market ourselves vertically. Maybe it gets you a gig or two, maybe it doesn't. Pretty soon, you are pigeonholed. Clients categorize you and so do agencies. If an agency gets a new piece of business and can't afford to hire, they'll reassign someone from another group and upload them on the category, no problem. But if they're hiring a new writer, candidates are required to have done plenty of time in that exact category. The question is, should that be enough to clinch the deal? And how many better candidates are left floating in cyberspace, their resumes filtered out of contention?

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