The Ocean’s Eleven Paradigm: A Copywriter Staffing Strategy

“Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.”

In Ocean’s Eleven, these words serve to kick-off George Clooney and Brad Pitt recruiting a large and varied team of scoundrels to support their blockbuster heist. Sometimes, putting together a functional Copywriting team can seem as challenging as checking off Clooney’s cryptic shopping list.

At an in-house agency where the business can evolve quickly, client needs can change daily and we often don’t have the luxury of a large Copywriting staff, this can be especially tricky. Like Clooney and Pitt, we must carefully recruit a slate of experts and maximize every team member.

Key considerations include:

  • Function and media: Why do you need your writers? What medium will they be writing in? What are your clients’ needs? Print, Web/Mobile and Social Media each have their own pacing, cadence, and expertise, and proficiency in one area does not necessarily translate to others. A writer may have decades of experience with “traditional” Print content but be a complete neophyte in the area of Social Media.
  • Unique capabilities and institutional knowledge: Beyond the basics, there are numerous additional considerations, including industry-specific knowledge, regulatory knowledge, instructional design, Data/Content Management vs Social Media, etc.
  • Experience level: Do you need “regular” Copywriters or Senior Copywriters? If you’re pioneering a lot of new material and initiatives, you probably want writers with experience at concepting (not to mention a helping of client management), while if your work consists primarily of re-tasking existing material, savvy Copyeditors can likely do the job and their attention to precision detail may be a boon.

Early last year, due to attrition, atrophy and circumstances beyond our control, our organization lost our entire Copywriting bench and had to start fresh. Our single full-time writer (I will call her “McQueen” in this article, in honor of the actor who fills the Brad Pitt role in the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven) and I had a lot of hiring to do and many decisions to make.

We were building out a bench of freelancers to support McQueen, so our initial discussion involved what this might look like. We work in the pharma industry and McQueen brings a lot of industry-specific experience to the table. She also has a ton of concepting experience (more than enough to cover our organization’s current needs) and a lot of Print experience, but relatively limited exposure writing for Social Media.

We knew we did not want a group of Copywriters with resumes that looked like McQueen’s. Industry-specific knowledge is great, but often comes with a high price tag that is not merited for every job. Same with high-level experience. Sometimes, a junior-level Copywriter or the right Copyeditor can do the job just as well, but more affordably. Further, with so much variety needed, hiring multiple Copywriters with similar experience would be doubling down in areas where we might not need it while leaving other areas vulnerable.

We had numerous excellent candidates, but focused on variety, on stitching together a patchwork quilt of support of various levels of experience and focuses of expertise with an ultimate goal of being “two deep” in every area with at least two freelancers able to support each level of type of work.

Another question we asked: Was each candidate “good in a room”? I’ve worked in the Editorial disciplines for many years and we can sometimes be… quirky. The same traits that are strengths when digging deep into a topic or writing late into the night might become a detriment when dealing with a challenging or inexperienced client, or even a client who just has a very clear idea of what they want.

We also considered when we might pair writers, sending one to deal with the client while the other does the “heavy lifting” of the actual writing. This allows us to leverage the experience of some writers we might otherwise have to pass on, and can also help us work efficiently. For example, a senior-level writer like McQueen can use her concepting experience while dealing directly with the client without taking up her time for follow-up writing. This has the added benefit of affording the junior partner in the pairing an opportunity to grow and learn.

As an extension of this, another potential benefit in pairing writers is cross-training. This can work both ways. Mentoring and partnering with a less-experienced writer who may have expertise in a particular focus such as Social Media is a great way for both parties to learn and grow.

In a sense, McQueen and I were fortunate that we were recruiting freelancers which allowed for maximum flexibility. If you’re developing a full-time team, the challenge can be even greater as you risk and are locked into an increased mismatch between need and resources as your business evolves. This makes it essential to understand what your core business looks like as well as proactively planning to accommodate surprises. A solid freelance bench can help reduce these vulnerabilities.

Regardless of your model, you may not be looking for a Boesky, Jim Brown, Miss Daisy, or Ella Fitzgerald, but chances are you’re still going to build the strongest Copywriting team if you can recruit your own varied group of scoundrels.

The success of creative teams is also rooted in providing team members with professional development opportunities. Cella’s current offerings include Project Manager Boot Camp, May 18-19 in Chicago and Creative Manager Boot Camp, June 6-7 in Dallas. For more information on these trainings or about our consulting services for in-house agencies and creative teams, please email cella@cellaconsulting.com or visit www.cellaconsulting.com.

George Krubski is an Associate Studio Manager at Merck Creative Studios (managed by The BOSS Group & Cella). In this role he oversees an editorial team two-dozen strong and supports implementation of studio-wide initiatives. George has two decades of experience as an editor, writer, and manager. He has helped build, rebuild, or develop editorial teams at a half-dozen organizations.

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