Professionalism Trumps Talent Every Time


Many years ago, my wife and I operated a small ad agency from our home in northern Vermont. Since this was before the Internet, we relied on word of mouth to find local talent to help us, including printers, photographers, and copywriters.

While searching for a copywriter for a particular project, one of our colleagues recommended a guy who had just moved up from New York and was looking for work. The colleague said he had heard that the writer was really good, so we called him and set up an interview with him at our home at 2 p.m. the next day.

He never showed up.

Not a Good Look

Well, I guess I shouldn’t say never. Around 9 p.m. that night our doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a man in a ratty leather jacket leaning against the door jamb. He had his hands tucked in his pockets and was sporting a three-day growth of beard.

“I hear you’re looking for a copywriter,” he said.

I couldn’t believe that this guy would show up seven hours late, unapologetic, with such an attitude. After overcoming my initial shock, I invited him in and my wife and I gave him a quick 10 minute interview, just to be polite. But of course, we never followed up with him.

I later spoke with my colleague to tell him what had happened, and he laughed and shook his head. He had been thinking about hiring the guy himself, but changed his mind when I recounted my story.

We never heard another word about this copywriter, so we figured no one else in the area was hiring him, either. He had vanished into the abyss of the unemployable.

His writing samples, by the way, were excellent.

Relationships Come First

My experiences as an ad agency principal, graphic designer and photographer have taught me one basic truth:

Professionalism trumps talent every time.

Creative people who achieve success generally do so because they know how to build and maintain good relationships with their clients. Everything else, including creative ability, is secondary.

Of course, clients and agencies ideally want to work with people who are both talented and professional. But when they have to make a choice, they choose the latter.

There is nothing more poisonous to a project or work environment than a talented but difficult person. They will endlessly tantalize you with their gifts while never failing to disappoint with their prima donna attitudes, lack of respect for the client, and other relationship killers.

Avoiding the “Difficult” Label

So, how can you — as a photographer, graphic designer or copywriter — avoid the “difficult” label and establish good working relationships with agencies and clients?

I’d start by following six simple rules:

  1. Show up on time. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Produce on budget. No client ever wants to hear, “Um, dude, this is taking more time than I thought it would. I think I have to raise my fee on this.”
  3. Don’t nickel and dime your clients. It is always better to absorb unexpected costs than to annoy the client. I once paid a photographer $5,000 for a job and then he called me a week later to tell me he would be sending me a separate, $50 bill for an expense he had forgotten to include. I paid it, but never used him again.
  4. Dress appropriately. It’s generally OK to dress casually these days — just not too casually. Know what’s expected before you show up.
  5. Back out nicely when necessary. If things don’t work out with the client or agency for whatever reason, don’t throw a tantrum or “tell them what you really think.” Word gets around. And the smaller the town, the faster the news travels.
  6. Don’t go behind your agency’s back with clients. If you are working for an agency and the client tries to bypass them and work directly with you, politely tell them no. You’ll maintain your relationships, and the client will respect you for it.

Oh, and one last piece of advice: Don’t show up at someone’s door looking for a copywriting job at 9 o’clock at night.


16 Responses to “Professionalism Trumps Talent Every Time”

  1. Great article and the truths you point out are valid for all professions.

    I have one suggestion though about this article. The text grammatically is highly readable, but, unfortunately, its black text on dark gray. This is nearly impossible for me to read. I had to highlight the text just to read it. Highlighting the text, at least on my browser, turns it into white text on blue background.

    I'd hate to see this article bypassed by someone simply because of this issue.

  2. Hi Daniel, what browser (and version of the browser) are you using?

  3. I just opened it in the latest versions of Firefox, Opera, and IE without this issue. I guess it's somehow related to Chrome, which is what I nearly always use now.

  4. I see...thank you for letting us know!

  5. no matter what you do to be sucessful its business first and your craft/ skill second....

  6. Excellent article. I would have done the same thing. Everybody at this point should realize that first impressions are absolutely crucial. Someone that pulled this with me would likely have not even gotten the courtesy of the interview.

    There is a lot of wasted and overlooked talent E.g. - Graffiti artists, construction techs, etc... it's a shame that a non-conformist attitude keeps them from aspiring to great things.

  7. Talent alone just isn't enough and I enjoyed reading your post which explains why this is the case. I recruit for OpenView Venture Parters' portfolio and a lot of these start-ups emphasize to me how important cultural fit is to them. If my candidates aren't open-minded, forward-thinking and hard-working, their level of intelligence and ability really doesn't matter. The chemistry has to be just right for everyone to succeed as a unit. I'm glad you saw through this talented prima dona of a copywriter! Great post - keep them coming!

  8. And the copywriter probably badmouthed you and all the others for not giving him a job -- for wasting his time.
    (I think I may have met him.)
    The reality is that people who are the worst at wasting YOUR time, butchering about with your contract after its been written, etc., are always the ones most likely to complain loudest if THEIR conditions are mucked about with the same way...

  9. I have just the opposite problem. I'm always on time for meetings and prepare when clients are due to arrive for an appointment. I've run into many times where the client doesn't show up or even call (before or after). Most of the time, I email or call them prior to the appt to make sure they're still coming, but some never even respond.

  10. i dont see how you can away without both professionalism and talent theses days

  11. Thank you for this article, as an upstart photographer this is music to my ears. I pride myself on personality and over-delivering while my skills improve. So far so good :) Professionalism is key in any industry, thanks again!

  12. Love it! After several years in the professional photography industry I agree that most clients don't have the fine artistic sense do tell the difference between great and extraordinary but everyone can see when you're slipping on the basic human and professional scale.

  13. I just upgraded to Firefox 6.0.2 and am getting this black text on dark grey background also. Very hard to read. FYI
    I did like the article though. I had a similar experience hiring a second shooter. His portfolio was excellent but he smelled like he hadn't taken a bath in 3 months. It pained me to turn him down. Hopefully he got the picture (pun intended)
    Image is everything.

  14. Great post.. so good that I just referenced it on my FB page. Seriously, it's dead on!
    -Adam

  15. Success only comes when you work on the right direction and focus on planning & strategy. Talent is obviously absolutely a crucial factor though. Thanks for sharing.

  16. That is very true, unfortunately many talented guys are wasted because of their unprofessional attitudes.

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