Skrip - tyur' - i - ent: adj. Possessing the violent desire to write.


#124 In which our hero quits his job (part II)

I went into this job with my eyes open, so I can’t say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was what my new boss called “hard core direct mail.” I had written plenty of letter packages and the like before, but I hadn’t really written this kind of mail before. But, as an experienced writer (I have been doing this for a living for nearly 10 years now) I had the attitude that I could write anything… but, honestly, writing junk mail is hard. Harder than you’d think… certainly harder than I thought.

I quickly discovered that the world of junk mail is completely different than the agency world I’d worked in before. For one thing, the copywriter is completely in the spotlight. Understand that in a typical advertising agency, clients are really only interested in how the final product looks, with emphasis on looks. The design is all-important, and copywriters often get short shrift. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “You need to edit this copy down to fit the design.” The one time I told a boss that he should make the images smaller to accommodate my copy, I got a look like I had just laid a turd on his desk.

But in the junk mail world, copywriters are like rock stars! It’s really pretty crazy. From the beginning I heard tales of how the top copywriters in the industry charge $20,000+ for a single letter -- and that clients happily pay because their letters work so well. No one would even suggest that copy should be trimmed to fit the design… in this world, the words are so amazingly powerful that all you need to do is stand back and let them wash over the prospects, and then smile when the cash comes rolling in. In a way, it seemed like the dream job for a copywriter. I would get to be the star of the show for a change! And even though I wasn’t very keen on working in junk mail, for the first month or so I really jumped in, pushed my reservations aside and told myself that I could make a go of this. Hell, I wanted to be a rock star!

Little did I know at the time that I had three big things working against me.

Thing #1: My Boss

I didn’t click with the guy in the interview, so it’s not surprising that I never clicked with him in the seven months I worked there. He is an entrepreneur, and only now do I really understand what that means. It means that he had four businesses running out of his shitty suite of rented offices, and who knows how many deals on the side. His focus was never really on any one of them. Add to that the fact that he was a didactic, egotistical douchebag, and it’s not a recipe for success.

Now, I have to take some of the blame, because I didn’t really represent myself honestly when I interviewed. Here’s the thing: I am the mutherfucking king of interviews. Maybe it’s because I’ve had so many of them in the latter part of my life, but I rarely walk away thinking, “that sucked.” I can read my audience well, and I present myself as they want to see me. So, once he identified himself as an entrepreneur, I played up the fact that I was tired of being laid off every couple of years (which was completely true) and that I was looking for a new opportunity in which I could have more control of my own destiny (which was mostly true) and I played up my past experience with direct mail and highlighted my desire to learn from his experience so I could conquer this new writing arena (which was complete bullshit).

But, he wasn’t completely honest with me, either. He told me going in that he had four copywriters working for him, when in fact the entire company was him and me. Now, he did have a couple of freelancers that he used, but they were all out of state and their contributions were uneven, to say the least.

The thing that really boggled my mind was that this guy couldn’t write. He more than once said, “If I had the time to really invest in writing, I could easily become a top-rated copywriter,” which was complete and utter crap. This guy could hardly put a sentence together. I was forever proofing and editing his letter and contracts. He saw no difference between “your” and “you’re” or "to" and "too" (and if you don’t see the differences either, please, for the love of God, look it up before you send one more email).

To be fair, the guy did have a good eye for direct mail. He was completely dogmatic about the core tenets of strong junk mail writing (i.e., people buy because of benefits, not features) and I did learn from him.

But the learning process would have gone much easier if he wasn’t so fucking condescending. He dismissed out of hand my 10 years of writing experience (“That’s agency experience, not direct mail experience.”) as if there was absolutely no cross-over between the two. And yeah, there’s more than a little bit of pride getting in the way there, but fuck, man, a properly constructed sentence is a properly constructed sentence. A typical exchange would go something like this:
BOSS: You need to stress more of the benefits in the opening paragraph.
ME: Yeah, I was thinking that I could feature --
BOSS: Craig, Craig. You need to stress. More of. The benefits.
Imagine him addressing a 5-year-old and you’ll get the tone of his voice. Needless to say, that shit drove me crazy. And it’s not even like he was wrong (he wasn’t, I was) it was just the way he talked to me.

And he loved to talk in declarative sentences. Such as:
BOSS: Yellow envelopes get a better open rate.
ME: Really? How do you know that?
BOSS: Craig. Yellow envelopes get a better open rate.
Where what he was really saying was, “In my opinion, I think yellow envelopes get better open rates.” Or, more often, “What I am saying right now with complete conviction is something that I stumbled across on the Internet and have latched upon like it was engraved on a big-ass stone tablet and I am going to flog it as unobjectionable fact regardless of any information you present that might contradict it.”

Finally, he was just about the most unorganized man I’ve ever met. His desk was a minefield of random detritus ranging from business cards to copious notes scribbled on whatever was handy. I am frankly amazed that the man could keep four businesses running at once given the chaos of his mind.

But in the final calculation, was he a bad boss? No, not really. I think he was fair for the most part, and I think he honestly was trying to make me a better junk mail writer. But there’s no doubt that he was a bad boss for me. Or maybe that I was a bad employee for him. He needed a young, impressionable writer who was anxious to absorb every pearl of wisdom that dropped from his befuddled ramblings; someone who really wanted to own part of that business and make a name for himself in the junk mail world. He needed a wannabe rock star.

So my boss was one of the things that kept me from really excelling at his agency. But he was nothing compared to the other two things.

To be continued.


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