How to Respond Successfully to Spec Challenges, Part 1

(Inspired by Gary Hennerberg's Bootcamp 2007 Presentation)

Spec assignments aren't just for newbies.

Any copywriter who wants to break into a new niche or work for a new "super-client" may be asked to submit a spec assignment. So if you know how to do it the right way, you'll have a far better chance of succeeding than other copywriters going after the same project.

Master copywriter Gary Hennerberg drove home the importance of submitting spec assignments at this year's Bootcamp – and his focus was on the importance of doing it correctly. He emphasized that copy quality is only one of the things potential clients look for.

Clients are just as interested in finding out how carefully you follow directions, how self-motivated you are … and how easy you will be to work with.

Gary illustrated his presentation with a job advertised on that he was responsible for managing – a spec assignment for a direct-mail promotion for a new magazine. Interested copywriters were to submit a headline, lead, and envelope copy.

There were specific instructions on how to email Gary to express their interest in the challenge. And the 167 copywriters who responded received extensive background materials, including demographics of the prospects, the publisher's marketing strategy, and 17 detailed points of what was expected from them.

One of those 167 copywriters won the challenge and got the job. But many – far too many – who submitted samples did a poor job of following instructions. In failing this simple aspect of the challenge, they made a poor impression on the publisher … and pretty much lost out on the opportunity to make a $7,500 payday.

Today, we're going to give you the first part of Gary's 21 Tips for Responding Successfully to Spec Challenges – 10 tips that cover how to optimize your success without ever writing a word. Follow Gary's suggestions and you'll be ahead of the game from the beginning.

  1. Instructions

    Read the instructions. Then read the instructions again. And reread them before firing off questions, comments, or copy.

  2. Details

    Pay attention to details. Respondents to Gary's spec assignment for that new magazine were asked to put "TLR Copywriter" in their email subject line. And they were asked to do it for a reason. Many people answering the ad ignored this detail. What does this say about their ability to understand and follow directions? Or their willingness to make the client's life easier?

  3. Impressions

    First impressions last a long time, so think carefully before you grab for a job that might not be up your alley. In other words, don't say "I'm perfect for this job" before you learn the scope of the assignment. If this one doesn't suit you, one that's more suitable – from the same client – may come later.

  4. Questions

    If the client provides you with background materials, read them thoroughly. If you have a question, go back to those materials and see if it was already answered. Clients are busy – and if you ask a question that they've already given you the answer to or one that can be easily researched, you're telling them something about yourself you might not want them to know.

  5. What Your Questions Reveal

    The nature and tone of your questions to a client reveal a lot about you. Some of the questions Gary got from copywriters interested in his assignment made him wonder how professional they were. For example, one person asked if he could retain the rights to his copy even if he wasn't selected.

  6. Unnecessary Details

    If the spec assignment asks for a headline and lead, think big picture. While it's important to make your headline and lead specific, you don't want or need to include tons of details that really belong in the proof and can be worked out when you're given the job.

  7. Format

    Gary's instructions on his posting asked for submissions in Word or PDF. Not all of them came that way – and there's no excuse for that. If you don't have Word on your computer, most word processors allow you to save a file in Word format. And most libraries have Word on their computers.

  8. Deadlines

    Observe all deadlines. Don't ask for special treatment. If you can't make the client's deadline, don't submit … this time. Another opportunity will come your way.

  9. Acknowledgments

    Acknowledge the receipt of the materials the client sends you with a polite thank-you email. Make it brief.

  10. Thank-You Notes

    Even if you don't get the assignment, a note thanking the client for the opportunity will be appreciated. Your graciousness makes you stand out. And to make the note particularly memorable, consider mailing it the old-fashioned way instead of via email.

Next week: 11 copy-related suggestions for submitting winning specs from Gary.

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Published: October 22, 2007

1 Response to “How to Respond Successfully to Spec Challenges, Part 1”

  1. These articles are a study course in themselves.

    Thank you,


    Patricia del Valle

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