A lot of people see us as copywriters. Which, of course, we are. But what they think they’ll be getting from a copywriter isn’t always what they get from us.

Let me give you an example. A client (we’ll call him George) calls and asks for our help writing a brochure. He’ll provide the raw materials and wants us to ‘tone of voice’ it. We say ‘sure, but first we’d like to sit down and talk through the brief with you’.

And when we do, we ask questions like:

  • What’s the brand all about? What makes them different from their competitors? How do they want people to see them?
  • What’s the point of the brochure? What do you want it to do for the company?
  • Who’ll be reading it, and where, and when?
  • What do you want to them to get from it? From a 2-minute flick through? From a 10-minute read?
  • What do you want them to do/feel/think when they finish looking at it?
  • Why have you decided to give them this info in a brochure? Could there be a better channel/format for it?

Now at this point, George may well decide not to write a brochure. He may create a video, or find some other way of getting the outcome he’s looking for. And we may well have talked ourselves out of a job.

But that’s OK. Because a writer’s first task is to think. To think hard about the outcome they’re aiming for. And then to decide how best to make that happen. This pretty much always involves choosing the right words, regardless of the medium. But we’ve found that what clients think they want when they come to us isn’t always what they need. They come up with a solution before being really clear about the problem.

Come again?

We’ve had clients ask us to help them with their tone of voice so that they could raise their NPS score. We quickly discovered the real problem was that the business was so focused on profit that their customer service teams were under the cosh and simply unable to give customers a decent experience. Understaffed, undertrained, uninspired. Tone of voice was never going to fix that.

We’ve been asked by a brand that wanted to be seen as maverick to write a quarterly sales brochure because ‘that’s what everyone else does’. Okaaaaay. A great example of the folks at the top of the brand chain saying ‘we are X’, but not managing to create a culture or way of thinking to support it. It was also an example of knee-jerk marketing/sales communications without looking at the effectiveness of previous campaigns.

Scratch the surface

In these cases the solutions (and the underlying problems) were less about copywriting and tone of voice and more about business values, culture and politics. These are BIG things, and we can’t always change them. But we can widen people’s perspectives, and help our clients think longer term about what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes, the best we can do is ask the right (hard) questions.

So if you’re looking for a nodding head and beautiful words, you might want to go elsewhere to get your copywriting done. But if you’re after writers who’ll ask hard questions to make sure what you’re producing will do its job, and who will make sure they know what they need to know to write brilliant copy for you, come to Afia.

We may challenge you, but we’ll do it for the right reasons.

Read more: Nine steps to getting great work from a copywriter