Many years ago, I taught a class at the Learning Annex in New York City on how to make a six-figure income as a freelancer. One student, JR, wanted to break into writing TV commercials for Madison Avenue, and he had devised what was (according to him) a brilliant self-marketing strategy for getting hired.

In actuality, it was the second-worst self-marketing idea I’d ever heard in my life.

JR told the class that he had written some “brilliant” TV commercials.

The Super Bowl was only a few weeks away at the time. JR’s strategy was to show up at the offices of Madison Avenue’s biggest ad agency and show the copy for his commercials to the creative director.

The creative director, he reasoned, was under tremendous pressure to produce great Super Bowl commercials for the agency’s clients. By bringing those great commercials with him, JR would save the day – and be hired at an enormous salary.

This was a terrible idea for all the obvious reasons:

  • All the commercials for the Super Bowl had been written and shot months earlier.
  • The creative director had never heard of JR. She didn’t know who JR was or whether he had any qualifications or talent. So the chances of her agreeing to see him were miniscule to none.
  • JR had no idea which of the agency’s clients were going to be running Super Bowl spots. Even if he did know, he hadn’t been briefed on the product positioning or the campaign strategy… so how could he possibly write commercials that achieved the clients’ marketing objectives?

I gently told JR – and the rest of the class – that doing work on spec for a client who hasn’t asked you to do so is an absolute waste of time. However, stupid as it is, there is a self-marketing strategy that’s even worse: giving an unsolicited critique of something a potential client has done – a new product design, an ad campaign, a website – in the hopes of being hired to fix it.

Why is giving an unsolicited critique even worse than doing unsolicited work on spec? Well, think about it.

You send a letter to a business telling them their website stinks… or their customer service people are idiots… or their product is lousy. There’s a good chance that the recipient of your letter is the person responsible for approving that website, training the customer service staff, or designing the product.

So right away, you have begun the relationship by insulting them – saying, in effect, “You don’t know what you are doing.”

They probably don’t agree that they’ve done a bad job… or else they wouldn’t have produced the site, training, or product in the first place. You come along and give a contrary opinion – highly critical and negative. They think, “Who the heck are YOU, bub? Why should I listen to what YOU say?”

As they see it, your opinion is self-serving: You are a vendor, so your objective in reaching out to them is to get them to hire you. Worse, here you are, spending your time reviewing websites, calling companies that aren’t your clients, and telling them how bad their sites are – without being paid to do so.

This causes them to think that if you were really any good at what you do, you’d be swamped with projects – and not cold calling strangers trying to rustle up work.

I’ve frequently been on the receiving end of this “You’re doing it all wrong and I can help you fix it” strategy – especially from Web designers. And speaking as a prospect, I can tell you it not only doesn’t work with me, it’s also annoying and offensive.

Just last week, I got yet another such call from a Web designer.

“I was looking at your site and it really is poorly designed,” TN, the Web designer, told me. “I would love to help you improve its performance.”

“Do you know my marketing objective for my website?” I asked TN.

“Uh, no,” he admitted.

“Well, TN,” I said. “If you don’t know what I want the site to do for my business… and you don’t know its current performance metrics… how can you possibly know that you can improve it?”

I let him stutter and stammer for a few seconds, before politely ending the call.

My friend RA, who once ran a mail-order business selling information products for gamblers, was also a victim of the “You’re doing it all wrong and I can help you fix it” gambit.

SH, a newbie freelance copywriter, wrote RA an unsolicited two-page critique of his latest direct-marketing package. SH closed his letter by suggesting to RA that his marketing results would be greatly improved by letting a “professional copywriter” (like SA) work his magic on it.

RA and I both had a good laugh over this… because RA is universally acknowledged (except by SH, who didn’t recognize his name) as one of today’s top direct-response copywriters.

Irritated, RA sent SH a testy letter pointing out this fact… and noting that the package SH thought was so terrible was, in fact, a blockbuster control. Which made SH look stupid and silly.

Conclusion: Doing a critique OR work on spec for a potential client who has not asked for it seems, on the surface, a sensible approach to marketing your professional or technical services. But it is not.

My advice:

  • Never give unsolicited advice or criticism.
  • Don’t offer solutions until you really know what the problem is – and the only way you can really understand the problem is for the potential client to tell you.
  • If you want to show the potential client how smart you are, stop pontificating. Instead, ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers.
[Ed Note: Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter, the author of more than 70 books, and co-creator of ETR’s Direct Marketing Masters Edition program.

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Bob Bly

Bob Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant specializing in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has been hired as a consultant by such companies as Sony, Chemical Bank, J. Walter Thompson, Westinghouse, and Prentice-Hall. Bob is also the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books), Targeted Public Relations, Selling Your Services, How to Promote Your Own Business, and Keeping Clients Satisfied. A phenomenal public speaker, Bob will share with you how easy it is to start your own business. Whether you’re ready to quit your job or are just looking to make a little money on the side, you’ll want to hear Bob’s advice.