I just declined my biggest contract ever, and have never felt happier
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
A bad feeling ...
A few weeks ago, I declined the biggest writing contract I was ever offered.
It had almost everything going for it. This tech company is a household name – a verb, even – and offered ample pay. But it made me feel uneasy right from the start.
Even one year ago, I would have snapped the contract up, no questions. I would have pasted that logo on my website and grinned like an idiot. This sort of thing has happened to me and that’s what I did. But only because I’ve been down this road before did I sense what I was walking into.
I perceived the account manager's trepidation, the client's reluctance, and the toxic cocktail of incentives that I now know are the hallmarks of a ticking time bomb. This time, moments before I triggered the trap, I sensed danger and bailed.
Slippery slopes always look like fun, at first
I was brought into this account by a partner agency. Their previous writer had dipped out. That was the first red flag. It’s like arriving at a restaurant to find patrons rushing for the exit. I, feeling star-struck by the opportunity, happily took a warm seat.
The more the account manager briefed me on the project, however, the more confused I became. I asked questions but was told that they were great questions. Like, great questions. And that we should ask someone. So we got on the phone with the client.
The video conference began and ended with the two main stakeholders fixated on their laptops. The consultant – her lips pursed and hands clasped – introduced me, but the stakeholders didn’t look up until her pause grew pregnant. They introduced themselves and returned to typing. The consultant asked me to go ahead and take it away.
Take it away? I thought they were there to brief me so I started asking questions and began to feel increasingly inadequate. Was I just dense? Was I missing something?
The clients seemed bored and gave tepid answers. They wanted 240 emails. They asked me to refer to the docs. Had the consultant shared the docs? She promised to share the docs.
I asked if they had mapped out the emails in a storyboard. I was met with silence. The consultant jumped in and said she was hoping I’d do that. The clients just stared. Feeling like an impostor, I said yes, sorry, that’s something I do. I always do that.
Pause to reevaluate
Things felt off. No question about it. But I was still excited. I thought I was just missing some pieces to the puzzle and once they fell into place, I wouldn’t feel so stressed out. I also worried that I was coming off as unprofessional by having to ask more and more questions as they came up so I entered every question I could think of into a Google Doc and shared it with the team.
The consultants quickly typed answers. The stakeholders took longer to respond, but this proved to be a useful exercise. Over a week, it filled up, and the answers evolved. The question, “What’s the goal here?” went unanswered, at first. Then it became, “Using thought leadership, education, value adds.” Then it became, “To drive sales.” We were getting somewhere.
Then the account manager asked about my timeline for completing the 194 emails. That’s how I learned that the number of emails was fungible and also that the client had expected things done by January. Here it was already April. No wonder they seemed upset on our call. Still feeling flustered, I punted by saying I’d need to audit their content and put together a storyboard. Instead, I phoned a colleague.
My friend immediately knew the situation. She had almost worked with this same agency but had the foresight to talk to people who had previously worked there. They advised her to avoid it due them working their employees into the ground. Nevertheless, she thought I should take the job – it was a unique opportunity to learn, she said. Nobody knows how to do nurture emails, she reassured me. Case in point, here was this household name in tech asking me for help.
So I rallied. I set aside a full day. I cleared off the table, made fresh coffee, and cracked my knuckles. I tried to read through all the content packed into a byzantine maze of Excel spreadsheets, each full of links to other documents that I mostly didn’t have access to. But from what I was able to read, I started to feel more certain. The content was solid and I was starting to crack the previous writer’s code.
A few days later, I hopped on another call with two more consultants who assured me this wouldn’t be difficult. Especially now that we only needed 168 emails. We’d write the emails for a five different customer personas. What were those personas? Oh, they didn’t know yet. They’d have to look at the data. But they thought there might be five. Or four. Probably five. And by the way, what did I think of the number 168? Wasn’t it a good number for emails?
I left this call with so many questions. What was the customer journey? What objections did prospects typically have? What were we using to decide the number of emails?
Then, sensing that I was losing my footing on a slippery slope that I might not be able to climb back up, I pumped the brakes and on Friday afternoon, sent them pricing with a timeline. I’d love to proceed, I said, but I can’t do that without an agreement in place.
Two days went by. By early Monday, the rest of the consultants asked me for an update and I shared the pricing with them too.
"Thanks!” they wrote. “It’s great to see it broken down this way.” Then, CC’ing the account manager, they began discussing how they might reduce the number of emails to fit the budget. One-hundred and twenty sounded about right, they agreed. Then, another day of silence.
I talked this one over with my fianceé and again, decided to commit. Where else would I get an opportunity to learn like this? But we were approaching the eve of the first deadline, which the team had shared with the client, and I still hadn’t gotten a response on pricing. That’s when it all hit me. All the stress, the confusion, the pressure – that wasn’t me. I had seen this movie before. The last project like this was miserable because nobody had defined what we were trying to accomplish. The deadlines were ad-hoc and fear-based, and rather than scope it out based on how we might achieve predefined results, things kept changing and I’d have to rewrite copy based on what sounded good to the client at that moment.
I woke the final morning and found myself fantasizing about how wonderful it would be if they declined my proposal. How free I would feel. How much time I’d have to write and journal and focus on other clients. And that was it -- I had to decline. So I called them up and that’s what I did.
Their marketing was inside out
What I witnessed here isn’t an isolated incident. I’ve seen it before. Inside-out marketing is an epidemic. It’s when marketers assess their budget, their tools, and their resources, and based upon that data, decide how to market to customers. But that’s like deciding to use the car you already have to visit a friend before bothering to learn that they live on an island. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. It’s a crapshoot.
Here, at this big tech company, they really couldn’t help it. They were absolutely shackled to an inside out processes. They had a multi-year contract with a big marketing automation vendor. They wanted to earn a return on that investment, so they decided to run an email nurture program. The client hired these marketing consultants for their expertise in this particular tool and had likely already paid them, so when the first writer quit (is it any surprise?), the team went looking for a new writer. Any writer. When they found me, they wanted me to fill email buckets with words. They based the number of emails they'd like me to write on, well, nothing. Just guesswork. And then they cut it to meet the budget. Never mind their prospects, or what the data from past email campaigns could suggest would work.
What if I was a terrible writer for their customers? What if that marketing system wasn't the ideal system? What if email was the completely wrong channel? It didn't matter. They were planning their marketing by first asking, "What tools do we have lying around?" rather than, "What do our customers actually need?"
Image: Outside in marketing helps you hit home runs.
It’s possible that this email nurture went on to be a success, but it’s unlikely. Intelligent marketing – of the stress-free variety that I prefer – happens outside in. You clear off your table, assume you know nothing, and start with deep customer research. You talk to users and find out things like why they do and do not buy. You learn what channels they prefer. Perhaps, and this wouldn’t be uncommon, that tech company's prospects hate marketing emails from companies. Instead, they want a resource page where they can get work-related questions answered without feeling sold-to. Whatever the ideal channel and message for your customer, you build that, and you test the hell out of it to make sure the potential customers like it.
That was the biggest contract I ever almost had. But it was also potentially the messiest one, and when I weighed the value of my time against the life-shortening stress of inside out marketing in a company that's too big to pivot, I can honestly say that I’ve never been happier.