When to Not Do Your Best Work

Austin L. Church
March 22, 2016
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Back in 2009, a marketing firm subcontracted me to do some copywriting for a bank that was offering a new investment vehicle.The project looked pretty straightforward on the surface: I would be writing a press release. As a writer, I’m always looking for the primary benefit or hook or unique characteristic to give a story interest and color, but on this occasion the client gave me nothing. I certainly couldn’t lead with, “Hey, want another lukewarm investment that will barely beat inflation?” So I sent over a clean but yawn-worthy draft to the Creative Director at the marketing firm. He, in turn, sent it to one of the VPs at the bank for review.Before we go any further, I want you to know that I was good at English. I was valedictorian in college, and my first year out of school, I taught adolescents how to diagram sentences, which is just as delightful and easy as it sounds.A glutton for punishment, I moved from Nashville to Knoxville to earn an MA in Literature with a focus in Creative Writing. In grad school I taught First-Year Composition, critiqued the papers of students who came to the Writing Center, and tutored college athletes in writing and composition. For extra cash, I also vetted manuscripts for a literary agent, and I did editing for a large book publisher in Nashville.All that to say, I’ve got some familiarity with grammar, diction, structure, tone, and style. I’m good at this stuff.Now, back to the story: After a few days I received from the Creative Director a marked-up copy of the release in PDF form. Rather than use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, the VP had printed the release, written down her thoughts, and then scanned the hard copy. I opened the PDF to find not a handful of minor edits but an assortment of fixed typos and grammatical corrections.This would have been fine if any of the requested changes had been typos or true grammatical errors. The VP instead drew my attention to a split infinitive that was not, in fact, a split infinitive but rather a double infinitive, which is grammatically correct.Some of you are already yawning at these arcane terms, but if you have any experience with client work, you can relate to my awkward position: In the case of the bank, I did not own the client relationship. The marketing firm did, and I’m not sure the VP even knew I existed.When you’re getting paid a flat, per-project fee, the time that you invest in educating your client (or your client’s client) will not necessarily be appreciated, let alone compensated. Any such time investment may end up being a sunk cost, especially if you’re a subcontractor.What was I to do? Teach the VP the difference between a split infinitive and a double infinitive? Write out an explanation of every stylistic and grammatical decision that I made and use the AP style guide to back up my choices?No.I mucked up my otherwise clean draft with the proposed changes and sent the revision back for review. It got approved, distributed, and of this much I’m sure: ignored.I deliberately chose to withhold my best and instead give the client what she wanted.

best work

Photo Credit: Angelina Litvin via Unsplash

You may, like me, have a penchant for fine craftsmanship or hold yourself to a certain standard of construction. Whether you’re a designer rounding corners or a developer honoring certain web standards, you know the details and nuances of your craft that set the artists apart from the fly-by-night fiddlers who have no true finesse or sense of style. Falling short of that standard in any way feels like a breach of your professional integrity. You strive for excellence in everything.But then you walk into situations where excellence won’t make you more money or earn you more repeat business.Quality, yes. Being easy to work with, yes. Coming in on time and budget, yes. But true excellence? No.Most of the time, excellence won’t make your clients happier.If you don’t own the client relationship or if your client isn’t receptive to education in your craft, then your need for things to be right or beautiful or excellent will cost you time, not to mention frustration.We’ve all been there. Clients ask for certain things that make us cringe:

  • “I want you to change this.”
  • “I don’t like that color. I like this beige color.”
  • “I don’t like that font. I want this font. It’s called Papyrus.”
  • “I hate the words ‘nuggets’ and ‘chunks.’ Find another word for small pieces of chicken, please.’

You actually know your stuff, and you can already see that if you acquiesce, then the final product won’t be nearly as good. A few tiny tweaks, and the logo goes from fresh to stale. Cut out a few bits of personality, and the web content goes from memorable to forgettable.Yet, when you fight for an outcome that the client doesn’t value, you get into diminishing returns very quickly.I am not saying the client is always right. I have had clients that have been very wrong, and if I hadn’t stood my ground, then the project would have combusted. (And the client might then have blamed me for his third-degree burns!)I am saying that, sometimes, if you stand your ground, out of loyalty to your craft or your lofty aesthetic or even out of an admirable desire to produce a positive outcome for your client, then you lose.You lose time. You lose margin. You may even lose the client because you pushed for an outcome she didn’t care about until you pushed her over. You quibbled over the details, which mattered a great deal to you. You fought with the client’s best interest in mind, and in doing so, you hurt your own reputation.Sometimes the client simply doesn’t value your perspective, even if yours is the right, reasonable, and expert one.In that scenario, don’t do your best work. Don’t even try. Don’t fight for your decisions, and don’t give your client unsolicited lessons in design theory or rubric for prose style.The best thing for you, for your business, and for your artistic integrity is to finish up the project and move on as quickly as possible to a better project where you have the freedom to draw the lines, not just color inside of them.After all, your clients aren’t buying your best work. In some cases, they’re buying their own happiness, and in others, they’re buying money. They want results. So as crazy as it sounds, you’d do well to hold back your best when your not-best mints happiness or money.You don’t need a lot of clients. You do need happy clients.Now before all you purists write me off as a sell-out, a final word on attracting better clients: If you can’t or won’t advertise the projects you did to keep clients happy, then fill out your portfolio instead with truly excellent work you did for your own satisfaction on nights and weekends.Showcasing your best work will help you recruit better clients who will give you more money and more creative license.When you can’t give your best to clients, you owe it to yourself to always be working on something you’re really proud of, whether you’re getting paid for it or not.That's it for now.Did you find value in this blog post? Please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I’ll send helpful freelancing tips your way.