An interesting thread appeared on my copywriters forum. A member asked who, be it men or women, are better at writing copy for certain products than others.
Albeit a little close-minded in my estimation, the question seemed like a legitimate one and without any ill-intent. So I welcomed it. But while the thread started out gracefully and on-topic, it quickly took a few turns.
The discussion turned out to be nonethetless quite enlightening.
For example, one tangent went into the role of women in copywriting, as copy has been long touted as “the boys club.” This is where one proud board member offered some great nuggets that I wanted to share with you.
She's “Power Writer” Susanna K. Hutchenson, someone whom I respect, and a copywriter I deeply admire and have done so for many years. As she joined in on the discussions, she opened a few windows into her history that's nothing short of fascinating.
For the sake of brevity, I encourage you to visit her website to read her amazing story. But to sum up, this seasoned pro, who's also a women's rights advocate, rose to the top in this male-dominated field while overcoming tremendous barriers…
… Barriers that would make any of the “big boys” in the copywriting business cringe if they were to ever walk a mile in her shoes (or, as she says, “her well-worn boots”).
Now, I try to abstain from discussions on religion, politics and, of course, sex. On my blog as much as on my discussion forum. But I believe the thread brought some truly valid points that I wanted to bring to your attention to and get your opinions on.
First, let me share with you what I said.
Some of the best copy I've seen were initially thought to be written by men. For example, one in particular, for (of all things) a “men's dating guide,” was ghostwritten by a woman. (And a fantastic copywriter, at that.) Many people, to this day, still think it was written by a man.
Another copywriter I know has a website with terrific credentials, a great portfolio and an amazing track record. But there are no photos or any indications as to who, exactly, this person is. (Yup, it's a woman.)
Some great copywriters I highly respect are women. Susanna K. Hutchenson is definitely one of them. Another is Carline Anglade-Cole. Eileen Coale is also another. Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero is yet another. (And don't forget my wife. She's pretty darn good, too.)
But is it truly because they are women?
Copy is a fantastic industry because it's gender-free. (It's also color-free.) But the moment we suddenly realize the author's sex, our judgment becomes biased somewhat. Even though it's been 130 years since George Sand, many people still cling to the belief that men are better copywriters than women.
(Incidentally, Susanna revealed that she, too, started out in the '60s by writing using a man's pen name. She dressed like a man to get her first job writing copy and even got a driver's license as a man, too.)
My thinking? Sure, the industry is dominated by men. But don't just blame the supply. The demand is at fault, too. Too often, clients opt for a man to write their copy, and they don't even know what they're missing.
Even if you think you're not sexist, most of us are. We can proclaim that we're not, and protest ferociously when we're called to task. But subconsciously, our brain's circuitry tells another tale.
For example, take this online Harvard test called “Implicit” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” (great book, by the way). Scroll down and choose the “Gender-Career” test. It will only take a few moments of your time.
So, how did you do?
You see, even if you think you're not sexist (or racist, or biased against any other kind of stereotype), your brain is wired in such a way that you will have a tendency to be biased, even if slightly, no matter what.
Some of it is genetic. But a lot of it is the result of environmental factors, such as society, education and personal experience.
Nevertheless, to me the question of whether a man or a woman can write better copy is a non-issue. Can a woman, in some industries or for a particular sex (say, women writing to women), write better than men? Sure.
But copywriting is salesmanship in print. (Or is that “salespersonship?”) Just like there are great salespeople who are either men or women, there are as many bad salespeople from either sex, too.
So the point is, it comes down to who is the better salesperson. Because, in fact, a truly effective salesperson is someone who can relate to any audience. (And even moreso when they appear to be at a disadvantage.)
In other words, while some products can be sold more easily to the same sex, because they may have somewhat of an advantage to some degree by being like their audience (and can therefore relate to them more easily, just like, say, financial copywriters who are investors themselves)…
… A truly great copywriter is one who's able to think like the customer.
Regardless of gender.
The bottom line is, a client may go with a copywriter who may appear, at face value, to be like their audience (and therefore has a leg up on other copywriters out there). But that's a perceived advantage, not a real one.
Granted, in a perfect world, a truly smart client will choose to go with who sells the best. But since this is an imperfect world, the job rests on the shoulders of the copywriter. And a truly smart copywriter is the one who can sell him or herself the best, especially given those initial biases and barriers.
Because if they do, it means that their copywriting skills shine, no matter who they are — and particularly if they seem to be at a disadvantage.
Susanna later added that it's not just men's fault. Women are to blame just as much as men are, and I agree.
Many clients have a tendency to choose women for their copy because they think they're cheaper. While that is a challenge in itself, the problem is, many of them are.
Many women copywriters charge too little because they either feel they don't deserve it or base their worth on market demand.
As Susanna pointed out, our fees naturally reflect our experience and expertise, which applies to any service provider in any field. We start low as we launch our careers. As we hone our skills and improve our track records, we can raise our rates accordingly.
But the question is, do we?
That's when she added this valuable nugget (edited for brevity): “The days of women taking a back seat are over. I demand more and I get it. If women put their price where it should be, they'll get it, too.”
Sage advice, regardless of gender.
Zig Ziglar once said that “wimpy salespeople have skinny kids.” Well, I think that applies to copywriters, too. And just like Susanna hinted, you have to earn your keep and, when you do, demand your worth.
Copywriters are a dime a dozen. But good copywriters aren't. And that's how it should be. Which reminds me of an important rule I once stated (and it bears repeating):
“Cheap copywriters attract cheap clients.”
Because the bottom line is, it's all about selling. Selling yourself as well as your copy. If you can sell well, particularly in print, you can — and I daresay, should — demand what you're worth. Regardless of who you are.
UPDATE: Two years after I wrote this blog post, James Chartrand, “mon confrère” from across the river, wrote this tell-all blog post that says a lot about biases, and the differences in perceptions in the copywriting biz. It's a brilliantly written article I encourage you to read. And seriously think about.