Welcome to Episode 31 of Write with Influence. In today’s podcast I am going to be addressing one of the most frequently asked questions I get: Do I need a portfolio to get work as a copywriter?
Writing is like any other profession; people need to trust you before they hire you and, in a world where anyone can throw up a website and call themselves a copywriter, if you are just starting out in this industry, you’re probably going to need a portfolio to demonstrate your skills.
A portfolio is a way of building trust and showing that you have the right skills for the job, so I am going to share my personal experience of building a portfolio early on and giving you some advice and guidance on how to build one of your own.
Listen to discover:
- How to build examples of your work without having actual customers
- How to get referrals by improving your client relationship skills
- How to use skill swapping to gain experience, build up a body of work and create a network of referrals
- My views on working for free and how to find legitimate companies that you will enjoy working with
This week’s episode is here to assure you that there is a way to build a portfolio even if you have no experience and you are NOT stuck. As always, I have popped in some sketches to demonstrate the topic being discussed, I’m talking jam sandwiches in Michelin Star restaurants and strippers teaching WI ladies how to twerk!
If you’re a little bit nervous to start pitching for a business because you’ve got nothing under your belt yet, listen to this week’s podcast to discover a simple approach to building a portfolio that will give prospects the confidence to hire you. Good luck and remember that by demonstrating your style of work, it’s more likely that you’ll attract customers who are the perfect fit for you, and vice versa.
DO YOU NEED A PORTFOLIO AS A NEW COPYWRITER?
Hello and welcome to another episode of Write with Influence, a copywriting podcast. So, usually I share the techniques that I use when I’m actually writing copy for clients, but I do get questions from people who are also interested in becoming copywriters and have questions around that. One question that I got recently is one that I’ve had many times before, which is, do I need a portfolio to get work as a copywriter? And then the follow up question to that is, how do I get one? How do I build a portfolio? What’s the best thing to include in my portfolio? So that’s what I’m going to look at today, and I’m going to share my personal experience of building a portfolio early on.
So, first things first, if you are just starting out and you haven’t built any referrals and you don’t have word of mouth or recommendations I would say yes, you’re probably going to need a portfolio. At the very least, it’s not going to hurt. When anyone can throw up a website and call themselves a copywriter, and believe me there are many people out there that do just that, you’re going to need to do more to show customers what it’s like to work with you. You can’t just say, trust me, I’m a copywriter. Even if you’re confident that you can do the job, you have to demonstrate your skills. Writing is like any other profession; people need to trust you before they hire you. You can’t just go around and saying, “Go on, give me a job” without some kind of proof that you are qualified to do what you say you can do. A portfolio is a way of showing that you have the skills for the job.
[New Scene – Restaurant]
Restaurant owner: Is the new chef is ready?
Staff Member: Already in uniform.
Restaurant owner: And you didn’t taste any sample dishes?
Staff Member: She was extremely confident during the interview.
Restaurant owner: Okay. Let’s open the doors,
Staff Member: Everything OK Chef?
Chef: The first order is going out the door as we speak.
Staff Member: The owner was a little nervous that we haven’t seen any sample dishes.
Chef: I can do this job.
Staff Member: He’s just nervous about losing a star.
Chef: I eat three times a day and I usually have a small snack so that that’s like 28 meals every week that I cook, and I love every single one of them so I think I can manage this.
Staff Member: I thought you said you had restaurant experience.
Chef: Sometimes I go to restaurants. I love it. I love restaurants, I love food. This will be fine.
Waiter: Chef, someone complained about this starter.
Chef: Do they want more sugar on it?
Staff Member: Sugar? That’s supposed to be the smoked cod tartlet au gratin.
Chef: Yeah. I didn’t know what a tartlet au gratin was.
Staff Member: What have you sent out?
Chef: That’s a jam butty. Give them some extra jam, a bit more butter and that’ll do it.
Staff Member: Are we still serving the seared breast of duck with purple majesty potato gnocchi, sauteed fine beans, plumb and port jus for the main?
Chef: Ummmmmm ….
Staff Member: You don’t know what any of that is, do you?
Staff Member: So, what are we serving?
Chef: Tinned mince on toast with a fried egg and lashings of salad cream for the posh lot.
Staff Member: Oh dear God!
So, if you’re starting out, I do think that a portfolio is a great thing to have to build trust and there’s a couple of ways that you can build one. The first thing to do is just write, one of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you can just start writing and produce something that demonstrates your skills. You don’t have to wait for customers to come along to build examples of your work. I know one creative agency that mocks up adverts of real products, but they aren’t for clients of theirs, and it almost doesn’t matter – it’s an example of their creative approach and what they would do if they were hired by those businesses. You can do exactly the same as a copywriter – you could pick a product that exists or make one up and write a sales piece for it or write a series of emails that you’d use to promote a product. If you’re really stuck for ideas, just google different businesses, or if you work in a specific niche, choose a business within that niche. It doesn’t matter if you’re promoting a dog walking service, time tracking software or a new watch, just pick something and then sit down and think, how would I write about this to sell it to potential customers? The beauty of being creative and being a writer is, it’s not like being a surgeon, you’re not going to kill someone if your first few pieces are a little bit scrappy! You can experiment and you can have something to show for it that illustrates what your writing ability is like. Now some people have asked me, what if I do want to write for a legitimate business, one that actually exists? Should I just offer my services for free to build up a portfolio? Now, what I’d say is, writing copy for an actual business is definitely going to be better than just making something up, but I wouldn’t do it for free, and I’ll tell you why in a moment, but before I do, why is it better to write for an actual business? Well, a couple of things. One, it gives you a better experience of actually working with a client and that’s probably more valuable than the writing experience because you can see what it’s like to set up calls with clients, do some research, interviews, look at the product, use the product, etc. So, it gives you the experience of what it’s like to work with a client and also when you complete the copy, let’s say if it’s website copy, you can then give links to other prospective clients to show living, breathing examples of your work out in the real world. If an actual business has decided to use your copy that builds credibility and you’re going to gain confidence by working with an actual client. Creating a career as a copywriter, one who is respected and can charge decent fees is probably 70% client relationships and 30% writing skills, maybe a little bit less, but there is more to be said for how you interact with people and how you work with people because people buy from people that they like, and people recommend people that they like. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should have the basic copywriting skills, but don’t underestimate working on those client relationship skills. The sooner you can start doing that, and if you can build a portfolio while you’re doing that, then you’re going to be quids in. But even though this is really valuable experience and it’s great content for your portfolio, I personally would not do it for free. If you do it for free, if you’re just giving it up then you may not be valued by the business, you may not be respected as much or treated as well if you’re just giving them something for nothing. But obviously if you are just starting out, if you are an unknown copywriter, people may not be willing to pay for that. I totally get that. However, you might be surprised. There might be someone who is willing to take a chance on you and pay for your services out of the gate. If you are struggling to get someone to pay for you and you do want to build a portfolio, one thing that you can consider, and this is how I got started, is to do a skill swap – that’s how I built my portfolio. It was a brilliant way to gain experience and also not just build up a body of work but build up a network of referrals. The thing that I loved about doing this was, it was a way for me to get things in return that as a brand-new copywriter, I just wouldn’t have been able to afford. Honestly, skills swaps for me were amazing. They worked really well and not just in the experience that I gained, but in the people that I met. I approached it by looking for local businesses in my area because I wanted to work with people that I could meet face to face (obviously, that might be a little bit tricky with today’s situation) and I was looking for businesses that had skills that I wanted and also businesses that I thought could benefit from some spruced-up copy. One couple that I worked with were photographers. I wrote their website copy for them and in return, they came and did a photo shoot at my birthday party, which was awesome. They also did all the photography for the album and the promotional shots for the band that I was in at the time. I was able to get all our posters printed and everything using these really nice photography shots that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. I also did a skill swap with a designer who ended up designing the album cover. I also did a skill swap once with an illustrator who gave me some illustrations for my website. So, this was great experience for me, and I could now list my clients on my website – real living, breathing businesses and service providers. This gave me a massive confidence boost when talking to new prospective clients because I could talk about the process of writing copy. I knew what it was like to work with clients. I already knew the questions that I was going to ask them about their product, I knew the writing process, I knew the revision process, and I was able to talk about it with a lot more authority and confidence, which then passed over and I think gave confidence to other prospective clients. Now, something else that I want to cover on the subject of building a portfolio is whether or not you should ever write a spec piece for a prospect. Sometimes you’ll see copywriting jobs posted and they’ll ask for a spec piece – a piece of writing based on a brief. So, they may ask for a 200, 300, 500 word, maybe even more, piece of copy based on their product and they will pitch this as a way to assess your suitability for them as a provider, because obviously people’s products and services are unique and whilst you might have written great copy for one client, how do they know you’re going to be a good fit for them? This all makes sense but the problem that I have with writing spec pieces is when the company expects you to do it for free. There’s just so many things that I don’t like about this, and I’ve never, ever done unpaid spec work. It never felt right to me. As I say, I can see businesses justifying this by saying, writing is so specific, how do we know your style is going to work for us? We need to see if there’s a fit. They may even liken it to a job interview, but if they’re expecting you to work for free, I just say that this is bullshit. I’m sorry. I see companies operating like this and what’s worse, I see copywriters applying for these positions. If they want to pay you for this, that’s another matter. I have done spec pieces that have been paid for, but if they just expect you to work for free on the chance, not even the promise of a paid position, I just think it’s a bad idea. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, maybe I’m missing something, but I just feel like if they are a legitimate company that is decent to work for, they’ll pay you for your time. I liken it to other professions. I wouldn’t expect to go into the hairdresser and ask for a freebie just to see if their style suits what I want. I wouldn’t get a plumber to come around and fit the toilet for free on the off chance that I get him to do the rest of the bathroom. These people would just laugh at you. So, I think unpaid spec work is a horrible way to assess candidates and it doesn’t create a great dynamic. Let’s say you get the position, you’ve been made to feel that you’re lucky to be considered or picked, but if you were picked then you have the skills and you are valuable, but you’re coming into a relationship dynamic that says, you’re lucky that we picked you. I just don’t think that that’s going to be a lot of fun to work for a company that operates like that. I think writers and artists often feel that they’re lucky to get work doing something that they love and as a result, they may make allowances that they don’t need to make. I just don’t think that this helps you in the long run. I think doing any work for free just sets a bad precedent. You are worth being paid, assuming that you’re good of course! But of course you’re good – you’re a Write with Influence listener … you’re awesome! Finally, on this subject what I would say is, don’t wait to build a perfect portfolio to seriously start looking for work. I get it if you’re a little bit nervous to start pitching for a business and you’ve got nothing under your belt, and that’s why I think just getting a couple of clients through the door or doing a skill swap is a perfect way, but two/three pieces may be plenty to give a prospect the confidence to hire you. Honestly, I think when it comes to finding clients what’s more important than having this perfect, beautiful, huge portfolio of work is visibility and likeability. I think that’s why offering copywriting services for other businesses to get started is a great way to build up contacts. If you do a good job, if you’re pleasant to work with, you’re going to start making connections with people who are then going to bring up your name in conversation when someone mentions that they’re looking for a copywriter. So if you’re starting out, yes, try to get a few pieces together for your portfolio. Ideally, it should be for real world products and businesses, and a great way to do this is with a skill swap. By all means complete a spec piece if you think the opportunity is worth it and you enjoy the practice, but for me, this would raise some red flags for the organization if they aren’t willing to pay you for your time, that’s just my opinion. As I say, I’ve never needed to write an unpaid spec piece of copy and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work with some really lovely clients.
That’s all for this episode. Next time I’m going to talk about some common signs of sick, poorly copy and what you can do to remedy this. Good luck with building your portfolio and remember that by demonstrating your style of work, it makes it more likely that you’ll attract customers who are the perfect fit for you, and you are the perfect fit for them.
[New scene – Women’s Institute]
WI staff member: Okay, ladies, settle down. If this is your first time at the Skipton branch of the Women’s Institute, talk to Gladys and she’ll fix you up with the name tag. Today we’re going to have a special exercise session run by Ms … I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t catch your name.
WI staff member: Miss destiny.
Destiny: Excuse me, I just need to get by you.
WI staff member: And Miss Destiny is going to be teaching a dance class.
Destiny: Yes, once I have finished setting up the poles … I think we’re ready to rock and roll.
WI staff member: As you all know, exercise is very important and until recently Destiny was teaching at the local institution here called the …
Destiny: Slap and Tickle Steakhouse.
WI staff member: Oh, well, I’ve not seen her dance before, but my husband, Dennis …
Destiny: Great guy, huge tips.
WI staff member: He can be very generous with his advice and Dennis often likes to indulge in the surf and turf Saturday deals there and saw one of Destiny’s performances. He was blown away. Live dancing at a steak house – what a wonderful idea! Now, ladies, did you all pick up your dance clothes that Destiny sent over it?
WI Member: It chafes!
WI member: I’m cold!
WI staff member: They do look a little on the skimpy side Destiny, Wendy does tend to feel the cold in her bones.
Destiny: She’ll warm up. Stick these on ladies!
WI staff member: Six-inch heels?
Destiny: I want to see your calves pop out when we start this routine.
WI member: My bunions hurt.
WI member: My calf popped once on a hike to Inverness.
Destiny: First things first, this is called a twerk. The trick is to be vigorous, but not so vigorous you shake and lose those hard-earned bills from your thong. That’s it! Gladys has got it! I want everyone doing what Gladys is doing right now.
WI member: This is better than that talk we hand on bees and organic honey.
Destiny: Organic honey. That can be your stage name. Take the lead. Swing it girl!