by Jonathan Kranz
August 16, 2005

With September on the horizon, vacations are coming to an end and a
new wave of marketing initiatives may be about to begin. For many
organizations, ’tis the season to shop for talent, especially

It looks easy enough. Just scroll through Craigslist or tap your
talent agency, and you’ll attract loads of well-scrubbed writers
carrying handsome leather portfolio cases packed with clever, catchy

But it’s awfully hard to look beyond the leather to identify the
talent who will really work for you. Too often, the new writer “just
doesn’t get it,” cannot cooperate with your other talent or otherwise
simply fails to articulate messages that really resonate with your

Given human foibles, there are no fool-proof formulas for finding
winners. But you can take measures—right at the start of your
relationship—that give you a much greater probability of success.
Here are some things you should look for in a writer at your very first

1. Connects creative work to underlying objectives

Face it: All the samples the writer proudly slides across the table
to you are going to look pretty good. After all, your would-be writers
cherry-pick their best work. Unless they’re truly incompetent (most
professionals are not), everything you read is going to be clean,
smooth and attractive.

Your job is to dig deeper, to uncover the “why” behind each creative
decision evidenced before you. Why was one benefit highlighted over
others? Why use a particular catchphrase? What was the reasoning behind
the diction, tone, point of view of the piece?

Good writing is never arbitrary, and every writer worth her salt
should be able to connect her creative decisions to the underlying
objectives of the project or the overall strategy behind the marketing
campaign. Consider this your opportunity to expose the writer’s

2. Wears many masks

Writers are like actors—they must be prepared to assume the
voices and mannerisms of people who may be completely unlike
themselves. As you flip through the samples, look for variety. You
should “hear” different voices—manifested through changes in
tone, rhythm and vocabulary—appropriate for different audiences.
You should be able to guess the target demographic from the copy voice
alone. The annual report for investment bankers should sound completely
different from the direct mail pitch to porcelain doll collectors.

That’s why industry experience may not be a significant criterion
for selecting a writer. If a writer has the chameleon-like ability to
match his voice to your audience’s, chances are he can write
effectively for your market. If not, no amount of industry knowledge
will compensate for the inability to connect.

3. Asks questions—lots of them

Good copy is built on a foundation of understanding: who your
customers are; what your prospects value and fear; how they shop. Also,
what your product or service is; what makes it different; what role it
plays in the purchasers’ lives. Without this underlying knowledge, the
resulting copy may be clever, but it won’t be effective.

The only way a writer can reach that level of understanding is to
dig for it by asking questions. Beware the passive writer who nods at
everything you say and assures you she has everything she needs to
proceed. Instead, look for the writer who pursues your comments with
questions, then follows your answers with further questions. You want a
writer willing to do this kind of spade work before writing a single

4. Listens well

Your interview should not become a dog-and-pony show for the
writer’s talent, limited to star-spangled presentations of beautiful
brochures and self-adoring revelations of awards won, honors claimed.
Sure, writers should be prepared to talk about themselves and their
services. But, more importantly, they should be actively listening to
you, taking pains to uncover your needs.

Do they ask questions (see preceding point) that logically follow
your comments? Do they show genuine interest in what you do and how you
work? And when you’re speaking, is their body language reassuring? Do
you see the kind of eye contact and body postures that indicate
attentive listening? If they’re not really listening to you now, when
they’re seeking your business, they probably won’t when they’re
executing it.

5. Plays well with others

Ask anyone if he’s a “team player,” and you’ll get prompt
reassurances of the affirmative. No one will admit to being an arrogant
prima donna, so you’ll have to use indirect methods to gauge the
writer’s ability to work cooperatively with your team of designers,
strategists, product managers and other marketing staff.

Take it as a good sign when a writer, without prompting, shares
credit for a given project with other people who participated. Or
openly admits that the driving concept came from someone other than
himself. Or describes a project as a cooperative venture and
articulates the value of the myriad roles that accomplished it.
Conversely, regard the self-serving writer, the one who consistently
hoards all credit to himself, with suspicion. Chances are, he’ll make
you and everyone who works with him miserable.

6. Demonstrates self-respect

We all want a bargain, and no one can fault us for desiring more, for less. After all, everything’s negotiable.

Be careful what you wish for, however. A good writer may be willing
to cut you a discount, perhaps in exchange for a guaranteed volume of
work, but only the bottom-feeders will bite on rock-bottom project
fees. Good writers respect the value of their work and expect to be
compensated accordingly. If you insist on making price the most
important criterion for selecting a writer, you may end up with a lot
of grief you didn’t bargain for.

In sum, it’s not enough to review the resume, client list, samples
or portfolio. You need to mind your prospective writer’s behavior in
the course of your first encounter. When you see curiosity, respect,
intelligence and a healthy ability to listen carefully to others,
you’ll find a writer who’s likely to work productively with you.