I was fortunate very early in my career to learn a great lesson about a simple, yet extraordinary phenomenon called perception. I had been out of college for about two years and was still honing my craft as a copywriter. I had even become confident enough in my abilities to add that title to my resume without ever having gone to … Portfolio School (gasp!).
I was lucky. But to tell this story fully, I must, indeed, go back two more years. I landed an internship at a good agency just a few months after graduating from a state university in the generic concentration of Advertising. The internship wasn’t on the creative side. I was actually mostly working on research and coffee runs for the account team. But, when I told them why I was really there, they gave me a shot, I impressed them with a few headlines, and the rest is history.
Now, back to the original story. It’s already starting to feel a little too Midsummer Night’s Dream in here, anyway. I was a full-fledged copywriter with a couple of years and recommendations under my belt, and a friend of mine was interested in putting my skills to use. This person worked at another advertising agency. This person was not a copywriter. But, this person had been asked to write a newsletter for one of their clients. This person, in turn, asked for my help.
I wouldn’t be paid for this, because this person wanted their agency to think that they wrote the piece, thus “wowing” their clients and superiors, winning the Most Awesome award and being carried out of the office on the shoulders of their peers for having the amazing ability to both write and account exec (Ya, I’m using “account exec” as a verb).
I didn’t mind. Hell, at that stage in my career, any chance to hone my skill was an opportunity I would jump at. Now, of course, I still would, but there’s usually going to be a price tag attached.
So I wrote it. It took me about five hours. But I wrote it. And guess what happened. This person’s superiors hated it.The page bled in edits. Red replaced black as the majority. Scribble superseded Times New Roman.
This person asked me, “What happened?” I said I didn’t know. I thought it was good. Maybe not my greatest work ever (Does anyone love writing newsletters, after all?), but it certainly should have done the job for a newsletter that would likely be read by a subscribing audience of no more than seven.
So the edits were made. The superiors were satisfied when few of the original words on the document remained. The clients were satisfied when the superiors advocated it. And everyone was happy. Except, this was a monthly newsletter. This process was going to come around in another 30 days. And what then?
Well, I had done some freelance work for this agency in the past. I was currently working at an internal marketing department for a very niche product, so there was absolutely no conflict of interest … Just in case you were wondering. Ironically, the agency reached out to me the following month to write the succeeding five page newsletter. The same young copywriter that they had thrashed and stained in red the month prior. I hesitantly agreed, knowing that this was an opportunity to learn and grow. And make some extra money, of course.
So I wrote it. Again. And again, it took me about five hours. And you know what happened this time? They loved it. A resounding, unanimous acceptance, without edits, of the golden god of newsletters. It was perfection in local publishing. It was heaven on paper. I could hear the applause from my office on the other side of the city. No edits needed. No changes required. A masterpiece. They showed my friend, the one who had initially solicited my help, stating “This is how a newsletter is supposed to be written.”
I am sure that a small part of that person wanted to spill the beans, if not walk from superior to superior kicking everyone in the “beans”. But I think at that moment, this person realized the same lesson I learned when I got the news. Perception means a whole hell of a lot.
I pride myself on learning from past mistakes, writing or otherwise. But there is no way that over the course of one month, I could have gone from writing a newsletter that was about one more edit away from becoming garbage, to a beacon on which all other newsletter should strive to resemble. The decision-makers of this ad agency saw the first newsletter and were prepared to see a flood of writing errors and missed voice attributes, because it was coming from someone without specific experience in copywriting. And because that is what they expected, or perceived, they found the errors they were looking for, and then some. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
When they looked at the second newsletter, they expected a certain level of greatness. One, because it was coming from a copywriter, not one of their Account people. And two, because they paid a freelance fee for it, and wanted to validate their expense.
Perception means everything in the world of consumer marketing and advertising, as well as B2B. What does your customer think of your company and does what you are saying about your company match up with their perception? “Think Different” worked for Apple, because they had always portrayed themselves as the outlier to the corporate big brother of IBM and Microsoft. “Just Do It” worked for Nike because their customers are athletes, and that’s exactly what they want to do, and need to be told sometimes. But if you were just another clothing store on the corner, “Just Do It” and “Think Different” would make no sense, and a pair of the greatest taglines ever would have been wasted.
I’ll give you another example. Stephen King, the world’s most renowned horror author of all time was rejected by over 30 publishers before someone decided to back Carrie. King went on to a successful career that continues to horrify and captivate audiences, from paperback to big screen to Amazon Kindle tablets. But for a brief period, King wanted to find out if he really was as good as people thought he was, or if it had all just been a fluke, and was now being carried by his name alone, and not his quality. So, he penned novels under the name Richard Bachman. The secret didn’t last long, but King found, much to his delight, that he sold nearly as well, and the quality of his writing was, at least in large part, the reason for his continued success. But, it was the perception of his fans that he wanted to test. And it could have just as easily failed. If it had, it would have proven my point in a much stronger fashion, but you get where I’m going with it.
Cool begets cooler. Smart begets smarter. Fun begets excitement. Building perception in a forward direction is like rolling a rock downhill. As long as your product, and the perception of your consumer matches up, your success will be imminent (as long as that perception isn’t shitty).
Shifting perception is another beast altogether. Volvo is still considered the safest line of automobiles in the world, when, in fact, they are no longer even ranked in the top ten, as far as safety is concerned. But I won’t get into that right now. Shifting perception, as I said, is a whole other beast.
Just remember the importance of perception. It affects everything. You. Your brand(s). Your work. Your friends. Your family. Find a way to use it to your advantage, and realize when it is working against you. Once you take perception into account, you’ll find a lot of formerly unanswerable questions become much simpler.