Failed Copywriting Pitch: 5 Lessons


Failed Copywriting Pitch

I — deep breath — am a failure.

Well, that might be too harsh. Let me reframe …

I have failed.

Actually … you know what? In black-and-white, even that sounds kinda rough.

Maybe some specifics would soften the blow.

Four weeks ago I had a failed copywriting pitch.

(There, that feels right.)

I won’t go into the details about names and places. Not so much to “protect the innocent,” more that I’m still hoping it turns into something. Although after this post, who knows. 😉

Here’s what happened …

A friend of mine called me up and said she and her company were looking for some “help connecting with bloggers.”

“Why, yes,”  I excitedly replied, “I have had a bit of success on that front recently.”

So, we set up a meeting with her and the marketing team, solidified that my part in the consultation would be a freebie, and, a few days before our sit-down, I received a handful of links to peruse, including one to her company’s website.

This is where things start to get sideways.

The website was … not good.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it was pretty. In fact, it was very pretty.

But (and this is an enormous “but”) everything else was a train wreck.

Weak copy.

Company-focused tagline.

Missing headline.

No value proposition.

No benefits.

No offer.

And, worst of all, no clear audience.

There wasn’t even a place to signup had I wanted to give them my email.

Instantly, my mouth watered: “This is a goldmine.”

Everything my friend had told me about “wanting to connect with bloggers” ran from my mind. All that remained was, “How can I leverage this murder-scene of a website into new business.”

Fast forward a few days and the meeting itself went well. At least, I thought it did.

We talked for a little over an hour and, while my friend was pretty quiet, her “boss” was more than willing to dive into the nitty-gritty of what I said were their “big problems.”

I went after it. Or rather (as it became clear later), I went after them.

With all the tact of a unsolicited surgeon performing an unsolicited appendectomy, I tore into ‘em.

I walked through the importance of identifying a single target market. I pontificated about the difference between a motto and a value proposition. I went on at length about how vital it was to have a headline that addressed their audience’s “mass desire.” I pushed hard on the need for an offer — a single, driving call-to-action — around which everything else should turn.

I even asked if they were A/B testing.

“Not really,” was the response.

“What? That’s crazy.” And, yes, I could fix that too.

After the meeting, my friend walked me out and we talked in the parking lot for another 15 minutes or so, happily basking in the warm glow of our shared ignorance.

I got home. Smiled self-satisfactorily. And sent off a proposal.

Three days later, came the call.

The meeting had been on a Friday, and Monday I got a voicemail from my friend that simply said: “We need to talk.”

Nothing good has ever followed those four words. Not in my personal life. Not in my professional life. And not that night when I called back.

Turns out, after our little post-meeting pow-wow in the parking lot, my friend had walked back into a lion’s den.

What we thought was a “good meeting” was, in her boss’ mind, not only a complete waste of time … it was sabotage. An attack: a poorly disguised attempt to get me in the door, and to push the regulars out. Regulars who — by the way — the company had literally spent millions on less than a year ago for a comprehensive “re-branding” effort.

I was shocked. Disappointed. And more than a little defensive.

After all, I’d gone in with the best of intentions. I was trying to help. My soul aim was to add value.

Slowly, however, a strange sort of conviction began to settle in.

Sure, it’d be easy to just say, “Well, they shoulda listened to me. I was right. They were wrong. If they’re not willing to face the truth, so be it.”

But honestly, that kind of it’s-all-their-fault attitude gains me nothing.

So in lieu of taking the easy way out, here are 5 lessons from a failed copywriting pitch.

1.  Honor Your Loyalties

You’ve heard it before, “You gotta dance with the one who brung you.”

In other words, loyalty matters. And there’s no better way to guarantee failure than to try changing horses mid-race (especially if it’s because the “next” horse is faster, prettier, and richer).

My friend had vouched for me. She’d put her neck on the line. And instead of honoring that trust, I sold it out.

I didn’t champion her; I championed me. I didn’t address her needs; I addressed my own.

The lure of new business replaced the value of an old friend.

Instead of making her look good, I tried to make me look good. And, in the end (of course), neither one of us did.

Honor your loyalties. Dance with the one who brung you.

2.  Do Not Make It About You

The first thing my friend asked me when we connected after the meeting was, “Tell me what it was you thought I’d brought you in for.”

She asked it gently, and with genuine inquisitiveness … but I knew what she meant.

I’d missed the mark.


On the surface, because she’d brought me to talk about connecting with bloggers. And I’d spent the entire time tearing apart the company’s online marketing.

I got distracted and lost sight of why I was there to begin with.

At an even more basic level, however, the real reason I’d missed the mark was selfishness: I made the pitch about me … not about them.

I talked about what I wanted to talk about. I focused on what I thought the needs were. And I ignored what it was they were really after.

This is what Geoffrey James calls “Selling before assessing needs”:

Probably the most common selling error in the world is to think that what you’re selling is so wonderful that you can just assume that the customer wants it.

I’ve fallen prey to this kind of thinking repeatedly in my career and it’s probably cost me many thousands of dollars in lost business. And rightly so. After all, if I can’t take the time to find out how I can truly help a client, why should I expect a client to hire me?

The real problem here is that I sometimes let my ego get in the way of my purpose.

Selling is always about the customer; it’s never about you.

3.  Ask Questions

These next two lessons, aren’t quite as philosophical … but they are practical.

As simple as it sounds, I could have asked questions, both before the meeting and especially during.

If I’d have started our face-to-face time by asking, “So, tell me exactly what I’m doing here? How do we make the most of this next hour? What is it you need?” imagine the world of hurt I could have saved both my friend and myself from.

The point here is so universal, that it bears repeating.

Questions are powerful.

Questions force you to stop thinking about yourself and to start thinking about your audience, the people who actually matter. Questions generate dialogue, genuine dialogue. Questions engage people. And (most importantly) they build relationships and they make people feel together instead of separate.

4.  ALWAYS Have an Agenda!

Oh, the pain and sorrow I could have been spared, if only I’d made an agenda.

Even a rudimentary outline of what I hoped to accomplish — a list of the key take-aways or essential topics — would have immediately exposed just how off course my plan was, especially if I ran it by my friend before the meeting started.

Get clarity. And get that clarity on paper.

5.  “Speak the Truth in Love”

This last one might sound a bit touchy feely for a sales pitch, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

What does speaking the truth in love mean?

Two things …

First, speaking the truth.

The truth was their online marketing sucked. Period.

It was a genuine train wreck: quantifiably awful.

But, that was only half of it.

Second, speaking the truth in love.

Okay yes, the marketing sucked. But did they really need to hear that from me? Did they need to hear that from some they didn’t know, like, or trust?

Forget about “need to” for a second … did they even have the capacity to hear me?

The more I think about it the more I think the answer is, “No.”


Because I didn’t take the time to love them.

This is what the other four lessons add up to.

We all have people in our lives who need to hear hard things. Sometimes it’s professional. Sometimes it’s personal. But if they’re gonna hear us, the common denominator is always love.

Only when we feel cared for, respected, and honored are we ready to hear those hard things. Only when I believe you have my best interests in mind, that you aren’t trying to get over on me, that you value me as a real person and not just a dollar sign am I ready to truly listen.

6. Charge for everything!

This is a bonus lesson courtesy of Joanna Wiebe’s comment on my original post:

I love this, Aaron. Really nicely told. We’ve all been there — trust me! To add to the conversation, could it be that the fact that you went in there as a ‘freebie’ diluted the value of your expertise? Free advice is worth every penny…

…of course, I’m giving you free advice right now, so. 🙂

Anyway, I hope you charge for every service going forward. You not only gave them free help connecting with bloggers — hello huge value! — but you also gave them a free website review.

Charge for everything, and you’ll never give unsolicited advice. 🙂

Boom. What an insight!

Charge for everything.

After all, what is it the great and might Dr. Phil says? “We teach people how to treat us.” (That’s “Life Law 8” if you were wondering. And, yes, I did have to Google it.)

But seriously, such a good lesson. If they’re not paying for it, they won’t value it.

This is what’s know — in psychology — as the endowment effect:

The endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion and related to the mere ownership effect in social psychology) is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.

And as John Jantsch points out in his Inc. article How to Get Paid for Everything You Do:

The reality is that when someone gets something for free, they value it far less than if they pay or exchange something for it. When you establish value in what you provide, what you do becomes more valuable to the recipient.

Pretty stellar advice … even if it was free. 😉

So, what has failure taught you recently?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments.