How to work with big brands without going insane

Many smaller vendors dream of, someday, working with the “big boys.”  That allure of a big reputation builder (and what you think will be big money) is a wonderful intoxicant.

I fondly remember my first big-brand experience. An apparel client wanted to me write the copy for an ad scheduled to appear in The New York Times Magazine (I literally had one hour to write the copy…but that’s another story.) I was sitting in a restaurant called Happy Burger  (really!) when I turned the magazine’s page and saw my ad. I literally walked up to every single table and said, “See that? I wrote that!”

Fortunately, the restaurant owners didn’t kick me out. And the people I talked to were nice…if not a little amused by this small blonde chick (well, blonde back then…) bouncing around about her ad copy.

That’s the fun side people see about writing for and working with bigger brands. You can point to something and say, “I did that!” However, in my 20+ years (ouch) marketing career, I’ve realized that large brands have their own issues. Some people literally do not have the temperament to work with larger companies – the politics feel too much like a “real job.” Other people can really kick butt for big brands. Here’s how to handle the issues:

  • Is the client ready to sign? Congratulations! Now hire an attorney. In about 90% of cases, a big-brand client will want you to sign their contract. That seems OK, right? Far from it. I’ve seen contracts slip in non-compete clauses saying that you won’t work with X companies if you sign with them. I’ve seen contracts that stipulate that the client will pay 6 months after services are rendered (really!) I’ve seen contracts so confusing that they’re bad for both parties.  You may feel weird saying, “I have to have my attorney approve this,” but you must. And then you must listen to his/her advice and go back to the client and say, “My attorney is asking for these changes.” Bad things can happen if you sign a bad contract. Trust me. It’s always better to walk away.
  • Insist on one point of contact. Large companies often have multiple people “touching” the marketing/branding/copywriting. And all of those people may have a slightly different perception of what should be done and what your role is. One person needs to be your internal “boss” – not two or three or five. Otherwise, you will always be serving too many masters and never sure what your priorities are. It’s also smart to…
  • Try to work with an internal advocate. Hopefully, you have someone at your client’s company who is “on your side.” An internal advocate is crucial for calming feathers, fighting for you during any political change and doing handy things like making sure that your invoice is really in process (rather than sitting on someone’s desk.) This person may or may not be your point of contact, but is always worth their weight in gold. They will save your butt more times than you know.
  • Know that an “emergency” could crop up at any moment. I had one big-brand client that always used to send me a panicked email right before I got on a plane (and when I could do nothing about it.) It was always the same type of request: “The CEO has approved X, and we need to to have this in 24 hours” Yeah, it may frustrate you that you’re getting this dropped on you at the last moment. Heck, I remember spending many disgruntled hours in a hotel room working while my conference friends were playing. At the same time, know that the client isn’t doing this to you on purpose. They just had this dropped on them, too.  And at the end of the day, they are trying to pay you money (the most important point!). Think very carefully before biting back and saying, “I can’t help you with such short notice.” Or if you have to say that, figure out a solution for your client so you don’t leave them in the lurch. To that point…
  • Understand that having a big brand client is like being married to a hottie. How? Because you know that your competition wants them – wants them badly, in fact – and they’re  just waiting for you to mess up so they get their chance. Companies will try various ways to “woo” your client. I’ve had competitors fly my client out to “resort meetings” so they could pitch their content services (Note to company that did that – you think that I wouldn’t find out? Shame on you!) If you’re really lucky, your client not only tells you who’s “hitting” on them, but shares any insider information they learned.
  • Just like being married to a hottie, your big brand client will expect a certain level of attention. What would happen if you ignored your partner and only got back to them “when you had time?” Eventually, your hottie friend will move on to someone who will pay them the attention they think they deserve. You don’t need to respond within 10 seconds of receiving an email, but respond – preferably before the client’s end of day. If you don’t know something and need to check, send them an email saying that you’re working on it. An ignored hottie (like an ignored client) is a bad thing…and you don’t want them looking around for options, do you?
  • Be clear about your ability to use them as a client reference. I would love to tell the world about this one client I have. If I could, I’d overcome every writing objection out there, “Wow, you work with X? You must be good.” But I can’t. Why? The contract prohibits me even mentioning that we have a business relationship. I can’t even say that I visited their offices once. Know that large clients will make you sign NDAs – and those NDAs may mean that you can’t use them as a reference or clip. You can sometimes negotiate this (it’s worth a shot.) But be prepared for “no” as the answer.
  • Decide how to deal with the bullies. There are big brand clients that use their size as a weapon. They squeeze you on price, threatening that “other people will do it for much less.” They ask you for free information to “prove that you know your stuff.” They slow-pay your invoices, or act surprised when you want to get paid on time. I had a search engine (no, I won’t name them) tell me that they wouldn’t pay my invoice because they “Changed direction and couldn’t use the copy now.” Uh, what? No freaking way, dudes. Remember my first advice about “hiring an attorney.” Mine came in big handy during this time (and yes, I got paid.)
  • Be clear that things can happen that have nothing to do with you or your abilities. Sh*t happens with corporate clients. A new CEO comes in and cleans house, and suddenly your “stable” client fires you. A company gets acquired by an agency, and the agency takes over the copywriting. Your client contact is promoted or fired, and your new contact would rather work with a more familiar copywriter. It sucks and it’s defeating and it’s frightening. But it happens. It’s not you. It’s the corporate environment (and in a way, a good reminder of why you’re not working in-house!) To that point…
  • Never rely on a big brand client as stable income. Once upon a time, I worked exclusively with retail clients. In fact, I had two big ones that provided most of my income. Want to know what happened when the recession hit? Both clients immediately canceled their contracts, my internal advocates were laid off and my income was sliced. That was a very dark week. You may have a signed contract with a client – but that doesn’t mean that they won’t break it if they need to. Yes, you can tell your attorney to fight them – and sometimes, you can recoup your losses. At the same time, how much money are you willing to spend to fight a broken agreement? It’s far better (and smarter) to always be marketing and keep the pipeline full.
  • Enjoy the experience. Yes, big brands have their own “quirks” (as does every target market.) At the same time, they wouldn’t be hiring you if you weren’t that good. Congratulate yourself for getting the gig. Learn everything you can about the politics, procedures and the personalities. Learn how to price for larger markets, figuring that this is your new target audience. When you can successfully negotiate the political perils of working for a large company, everything else will seem “easy.”