The Power of No


I was recently up for a writing job and asked for something I’d never heard of before. My recruiter called me the day before my phone interview with the client and told me I’d need to take a “copy test.” This was the gauntlet I had to pass through in order to secure a freelance gig? No matter that I had a portfolio filled with award-winning work that was available at a keystroke on my website. No, this person wanted to see if I could string together sentences that would compel readers/users to respond to a direct mail piece or click through to a landing page that would do the heavy lifting of explaining an offer and closing a sale. Yes, Don Draper. Welcome to the manifestation of mediocrity. Be glad your series has ended.

When my recruiter told me about it, we both chortled over the ludicrousness of such a thing; clearly the person demanding this particular hoop for me to jump through hadn’t looked at my portfolio. But I could hear in the head hunter’s voice the scratchy hope that I’d go through with it. Reluctantly, I said I’d think about it, and then went on with my day without another thought about it. But that night, I tossed and turned. The word that kept surfacing in my mind was “No.” As the night wore on, I became more and more indignant. What did they think I was, some beggar hack pleading for alms so that I could pay my rent and keep the wolf from the door? (Don’t answer that.) By the time I got up the next morning, my mind was made up. I would refuse the copy test.

Then, I took the phone call that afternoon. It was, all in all, an enjoyable conversation; clear to both of us that we were intelligent, funny and articulate. I thought to myself, “For God’s sake, she can certainly hear that I’m capable of writing direct mail drek and emails.”

But then the clanging words came. “I have a small test for you, just so I can see how you handle an assignment.” I paused. The word “No” was like an emergency broadcast: echoing in my ears. My mouth silently formed the smackdown. But, lo, an inner child with a greedy desire to capture this assignment won out, and the word that exited my mouth was, “Okay.” After all, it was only a “small” test, right? And “okay” was a similarly small commitment. I knew I’d pass it with flying colors, so why not? She asked me to turn it around in two days. I accepted.

The small test turned out to be a creative brief that demanded two full (and fully blown out) concepts for a financial client’s direct mail piece, and two full concepts (copy above) for follow up emails that weren’t “meant to be a one-two punch,” which I took to mean they had to be stand alones. This was far more than a “small test.” This was a job that, were it given to a senior writer at an agency, would be expected in a week’s time.

I mentioned to a couple of friends what would fill my next two days and they were horrified. “You can’t do this! How dare they! Don’t you know how hugely insulting this is? They have their nerve taking your hard work with no assurance of giving you the job! You’re better than this. You have to say no. You have to hold on to your dignity!” I ended up feeling lousy on both counts: lousy for agreeing to do this in the first place, lousy for telling my friends and having them look at me like I had grown a second nose.

I headed to the public library to go to work on the assignment. Okay, so when did libraries become noisy places? When I arrived, there were two gentlemen at the next table engaged in a rather heated argument. The subject was literacy, and the one was clearly the teacher of the other. Much disagreement ensued with enough distraction to make me plug my ears. After they left, I was able to get a fair amount of work done, but within an hour a group of three foot tall monsters took over the children’s area (which was positioned directly behind the study tables) and the woman leading story time employed stentorian tones in order to overcome the clamoring of bad behavior.

Still, I worked on. I came up with two concepts for the direct mail piece that I saved for development the next day, and that night at home, began work on the emails. I was happy with the work I was doing, and, as pathetic as it sounds, I told myself that I wasn’t doing anything else with my time right now, I might as well keep my creative hand in the game.

After putting in a little over 10 hours work, I turned the fully developed concepts in on time. And got a phone call from the woman within an hour. “I want to redirect you,” said she. “It’s clear you’re a very good writer, but I’d like to see a quicker grab. Don’t bother doing anything with the direct mail pieces, just concentrate on the emails: edit, shorten, tighten. Make the user click through to the landing page. That’s all you have to do. Just get them to click.” Simple enough, I thought.

“When can you have these for me?” she asked. It was now Friday afternoon. I promised her the revisions by Monday morning. That was fine. Now, I wasn’t just ten hours in, I was signing up for another five. But the stupid ego in my head said, “She likes your writing, you just have to slice these little monsters down to size and drive the user to the call to action.” And so to work I went.

I turned them in on time. But instead of getting a call within an hour, several went by. By late afternoon, my recruiter texted me saying, “She said you still hadn’t gotten the direct pieces done. We’ll talk tomorrow.” I sat down hard on the floor. Was I crazy, or did the client tell me: Don’t bother with the direct pieces??

The word that I’d pushed to the side now took center stage. No. Such a small exhalation of breath; nothing to it. And yet, I hadn’t managed to utter it. Yes, I know. I needed the money. Yes, I know. My recruiter wanted his cut. But this was my own grievous error. If I were to create a piece that would drive me to click through to NO, I would tell myself this story. But would it be effective? Would it be too long? Would it need rewrites? Would I put in a total of fifteen hours work only to receive a deeply mixed-message response from me? The hell is the point of an exercise like this? After pushing the stone-cold peas around on this particular plate, I realized I had to choke them down if I was to come away wiser. This nasty little dish is called experience, and sometimes it’s the ill-tasting lessons that are the very best educators. The ones that teach you gut-deep.

So, while I’m a great one for saying “Yes” to the universe, the next time I’m asked to do something for nothing, I’ll remember these peas, my gag reflex shall be tripped, and the only words to projectile vomit from my lips shall be, “No. Oh, HELLS no.”logo@2x

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