Impaled on the Horns of the Freelance Copywriter’s Dilemma.

As if we freelance copywriters didn’t have troubles enough, toiling in anonymity, trying to breath life into lame creative strategies and forever scrambling for that next assignment.

What if we have the urge to go public, venting or ranting about this or that dumb ad or dysfunctional ad agency?

Most freelance copywriters are reluctant to write about the flaws and failings of companies who do marketing and advertising. No one really wants to bite any hands that might, at some point, feed them.

For those of us who, despite this concern, are inclined to raise a public stink about bad advertising or other sorts of bad behavior within this or that agency, the hand-biting risk is always there, as careful as we may try to be.

Me, I’ve always stunk at biting my tongue. Lord knows, there’s no shortage of stuff in Adland to criticize. Whenever I’ve had a forum to criticize an ad or an agency, I’ve almost always given in to the temptation to pull back the curtain in one way or another.

And I’ve had my share of forums, starting with the suggestion box at any agency I’ve worked at that has had one. In the absence of a suggestion box, I’ve been known to write a letter to the CEO offering “constructive criticism” in the name of making the agency better. CEO’s just love that.

Over the years, many of my letters to the editor have run in Ad Age, Creativity, Ad Week, Brand Week, the Chicago Sun-Times and Trib, among others. And both Adweek and Brandweek have published guest columns I’ve submitted. I wrote a monthly advertising column for Screen for a few years back in the 90’s. I’ve been posting on my blog for a decade, as well as posting on other blogs when the opportunity has arisen. Humanaut founder David Littlejohn had a blog over a decade ago called Advertising for Peanuts. I posted on that blog once a week for more than a year. Most of what I’ve written across all these forums has been criticism of an ad campaign, a tagline, or some process or dysfunction within this or that ad agency. Truth-to-power kinds of stuff.

These days, I’m out there giving talks in front of any group that will have me, mostly about the foibles of the ad industry and the advertising process. Lots of forums. Lots of stinks raised.

No doubt I’ve bitten some hands. However, if I’ve pissed anyone in the industry off, I’ve never heard back about their displeasure. Well, maybe once or twice, but so seldom that it hasn’t discouraged me from persevering. Conversely, I have been positively reinforced now and then by readers who share my indignation or frustration or whatever regarding some ad or ad agency behavior.

Hang in there. We’re getting to the particular horns of the dilemma that are goring me.

I focus much of my ire on advertising taglines (slogans, for any civilians reading this). This is largely because creating taglines is my specialty. Most of the time, I put on the blinders when critiquing a bad tagline, hoping that whomever is responsible for the tagline in question doesn’t work in the Chicago area where I operate. Or, if they do work here, I hope they won’t become aware of my savaging of their tagline. Or, as I shift into wishfulthink, maybe they do become aware of my criticism and they appreciate the objective input, and vow to do better in the future.

Currently, I’m writing a rather thorough critique of a certain tagline fad that I’m seeing all over the place. I consider this fad to be particularly egregious, so I’m going after it tooth and fang in this article-in-progress.

This is where the horns of the dilemma come in.

HORN #1: Several years ago, I wrote and sold a tagline that commits this particular tag crime that I’m criticizing in the article. Though I wrote the tagline, I didn’t recommend it to the client. In fact, I tried very hard to discourage them from choosing this tagline. But they disregarded my advice and chose this tagline. Ultimately, I’m responsible since I did, in fact, write and present this tagline to them. So, were I to post my article, I’d be committing an act of hypocrisy. I don’t love that prospect, but I can live with it because it’s already been established that I’m a hypocrite. (We all are, if we’re being honest.)

HORN #2: I am currently working with a global client, a big, well known brand, helping them with a “brand refresh”. By the time I was invited in to this project, the client had already glommed onto a phrase, a theme, which likely will evolve into their new tagline. And, yes, of course, this proto-tagline commits the sin I’m attacking in the article I’m writing. I can’t publish my article unless I’m willing to bite off a giant chunk out of this very large, otherwise friendly and appreciative hand. And, for me, the situation is worse than that because, never mind the details, there is actually more than one client involved, more than hand feeding me, more than one hand that I would be biting.

I suppose I could announce my early retirement, and then publish the article.

Or I could publish under a pen name, but how does that help me in my quest for immortality?

Or I could share the article with the people who brought me in on the project, on the off chance they might tell me I worry too much and give me their blessing. Again, welcome to the land of wishfulthink.

I’m just itching to send the article in question out into the world.

What to do? What to do?

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