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When Your Copywriting Clients Don’t Pay

How to Avoid Getting Stiffed By Unethical Business People

Most clients are good people.  They appreciate the expertise and service their copywriter provides and happily compensate them for their work.

Then there are those few bad apples who are the scourge of every copywriter’s career. They hire copywriters and refuse to pay their bills, instead coming up with bogus excuses as to why they shouldn’t be charged. All you can do is learn from those situations and move on.

This is the saga of my experience with one unethical, unscrupulous client. That’s not something I say lightly.  This dude earned those stripes.  Maybe by reading my story, you’ll be able to avoid a similar situation.

Long-lasting rose by Carlos in Miami

Carlos had a rose business in Miami, for which he needed sales letters written.

The Clues I Overlooked

It was Friday at 4:45 p.m. when Carlos called.  He introduced himself and immediately launched into a detailed story about his business.  The timing of his call should have been my first clue that he would be a demanding client.

Carlos said he found my website when he searched for a copywriter in Florida.  He said he had multiple projects for which he needed copywriting.  That should have been my second clue.  Clients who hold out the future-work carrot before you’ve done any work at all for them are usually angling for discounted pricing.

Carlos is in his 70s, originally from Argentina but now living in Miami. His company sells fresh roses that have been specially treated to last several months.  He markets these unique roses as executive gifts, items that businesses can send to their best clients to make a favorable impression.

Carlos said he wanted me to write a sales letter that could be used to sell his roses to automobile dealerships, who would presumably gift these roses to their customers.  I had my doubts about whether car dealerships would see the value in sending their customers roses, especially their male customers, but evaluating Carlos’s marketing plan was not what I was being asked to do.

Carlos wanted an immediate turnaround for his sales letter project, despite it being just minutes shy of the start of the weekend.  That should have been my third clue that this client had little regard for others.

Because I had weekend plans that I wasn’t about to break on a Friday at nearly 5:00 p.m., I told Carlos I could refer him to a talented colleague named Jay (not his real name), who I knew would appreciate the work.

Using People Is Never Okay

At my request, Jay spoke with Carlos about the sales letter and quoted him a price over the phone. Carlos approved the price and gave Jay the green light to proceed with the project. Because it was a relatively small, simple project and Carlos wanted immediate turnaround, Jay did not request a deposit nor send a formal contract to be signed.

In probably 99% of the projects a copywriter undertakes, skipping those two steps isn’t a problem.  Unfortunately, Jay would soon find out that Carlos belonged in the 1% group.

Unbeknownst to both Jay and me, after entering into his verbal agreement with Jay, Carlos then contacted two more freelance copywriters and hired them to write the same sales letter about his roses.

Yes, you read that right. He hired three different writers to do the exact same assignment. He didn’t tell any of them they were involved in a contest in which only one writer, presumably the author of the letter Carlos liked best, would ultimately be paid.

Spec Work Can Mean Free Work

In the world of freelance copywriting, as well as many other creative professions, when a client asks you to work “on spec,” you’re taking a risk.  If the client likes your work, you’ll get paid.  But if he doesn’t, you could get a reduced fee or possibly no payment at all for your efforts.

Contracting services on speculation from experienced professionals is not a practice I condone. Many professionals, including me, will decline to do business with you under those terms. But if that’s how the customer wants to structure the deal, he has that right.  He just needs to find willing vendors.

Dec 2012 362-A

Copywriters who accept spec projects are taking a chance that the client will like and pay for the work they submit.

For a spec arrangement to be fair, the client must disclose his intentions up front. The professionals he hires must clearly understand they are taking a chance in doing this work and may not be paid.  The client also needs to disclose whether other service providers are working on the same project and will be competing for payment.

What you don’t do, if you’re an ethical person, is hire copywriters, agree to their fee, and then tell them after they’ve done your work that this was the arrangement. That’s just wrong.

Carlos Stiffed 4 Copywriters

When Jay submitted his letter, Carlos said he didn’t like it and wouldn’t use it.  Jay, intent on satisfying the client, offered to revise the letter per Carlos’s feedback, but Carlos said, “I don’t think you understand my business. I refuse to work with you further and, since I can’t use your letter, I won’t pay for it.”

Jay explained that Carlos was violating their verbal agreement, but there was no changing Carlos’s mind.  In fact, Jay’s arguing only angered Carlos.

As if Carlos hadn’t already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he lacked scruples, he then called me to complain about Jay since I’d referred him.  He said he wanted to make sure I didn’t ever refer Jay to anyone else.

It sounded mean-spirited to me.  But I attempted to listen to Carlos’s story without judging and then asked him to send me Jay’s letter so I could see for myself if the work was substandard.

Here’s Where I Was a Fool

Carlos sent Jay’s letter.  I read it.  The letter was good!  It was interesting, provided all the relevant facts and had a strong call to action.

I gave Carlos my opinion, but there was no convincing him of the letter’s quality. Carlos told me what he didn’t like about Jay’s letter, and in an effort to make everyone happy, I decided, on my own, to edit the letter, rewriting the lines Carlos said he didn’t like.

My thinking was that if my letter satisfied Carlos, he would then have the letter he wanted and would pay me the contracted amount. I would in turn pay Jay.

I felt responsible because I had referred Carlos to Jay, and it was clear to me that Jay had invested a lot of time and effort in writing this sales letter. He’d done all the heavy lifting. He deserved to be paid.

Some Clients Just Can’t Be Satisfied

The best of intentions, as it turns out, didn’t bring the desired result. Three hours after we spoke I sent Carlos my letter.  He called, said he was surprised by my actions and grateful for my efforts but didn’t like my letter any more than Jay’s.  “Nice try” was how he categorized it and offered to send me a rose (yes, just one) for my troubles.  Um, no thanks.

I should mention that I have over 25 years of experience as a full time, professional copywriter and have written literally hundreds of sales letters.  Jay’s experience is comparable.

It turns out Carlos didn’t like the other two copywriters’ letters either.  He said “Their copy lacked sophistication.”

Rather than allowing any of the four copywriters (including me) to revise their drafts, he said he’d write his own letter because only he could possibly understand his business, as if writing about roses is too complex for a professional copywriter.

No doubt reading four different copywriters’ letters provided Carlos, for whom English is not a first language, with plenty of ideas he could swipe.

Dec 2012 371-A

Some copywriting clients can’t be pleased. They will find fault in any work, believing they’re the only ones who can understand their business.

The Disappointing End Result

Carlos refused to pay Jay.  He refused to pay me.  And he refused to pay the other two copywriters as well.  He said since he didn’t plan to use our letters, he didn’t need to pay for them.

Nevermind that the work wasn’t identified as “spec” in advance.  We’d all committed multiple hours to speaking with him, researching long-lasting roses and composing our drafts.  He took advantage of our time, our expertise and our willingness to satisfy our clients.

In the end, of the five parties involved in this transaction, the only person who came out ahead was Carlos.  He received the collective intelligence of four professional copywriters and didn’t pay a cent for any of it.

Lessons Learned

Fortunately, dishonest clients like Carlos are a rarity.  Most business people have integrity. They don’t intentionally take advantage of the service providers they hire.  They understand that when you contract someone to work, you are tacitly agreeing to pay them for that work.

Most clients are pleased with the work they receive and appreciate the value professional copywriters provide. They also know that professional copy often more than pays for itself by producing sales.

So what’s the lesson in all this?  The sad reality is that in business, you will occasionally come across unethical, disreputable people like Carlos who contract services for which they have no intention of paying.

Do your best to ask questions and try to determine whether the client is trustworthy. Keep your eyes open for red flags, such as a mention of problems with previous service providers or unreasonable demands with regard to deadlines or quantity of work.

Don’t let the promise of future work obligate you to reduce your rates or deviate from your standard procedures for taking on a new client.

For all projects, even small ones like a sales letter, get a signature on a formal contract. While you can’t sue someone who stiffs you on a small project – it’s just not worth the investment of time and money – putting your agreement into a contract clearly states what work you’ll be doing and the amount you expect to be paid, eliminating any possible misunderstanding.

For projects that are substantial, be sure to get a deposit.  I ask for 50% up front from any new client, no matter the size of the project.  At least, if the client flakes, I’ll have received something for my time.  If the client insists on a fast turnaround, and waiting for a check will cause a delay, then tell the client to pay via PayPal or credit card.

Finally, if you find you’ve become the victim of a dishonorable client like Carlos, do your best to put it out of your mind and move on.  Tell yourself karma will take care of the situation. Or write about your experience, as I have here, as a way to vent and achieve closure.

Regardless of the technique you use, don’t let the client ruin your day or poison your attitude when working with future clients.  Life is too short to let unethical business people like Carlos get you down.

Oct 2013 032

When you come across difficult copywriting clients, learn from the experience to prevent finding yourself in that position again in the future. Then move on. Don’t let it damage your self-confidence. It’s them, not you!


When I originally wrote this post, I included Carlos’s last name, as well as his business’s name, address, phone number, email and State of Florida business license number. I intended to warn other copywriters and service providers about Carlos, hoping that if they Googled his name my post here would come up.

If I’m being honest, there was also a touch of vindictiveness in my actions. I hoped Carlos would eventually find and read what I’d written about him. Spite thy name is Susan.

Just as I was about to post this write-up and mail it to my blog subscribers, (literally, my hand was on the PUBLISH button), I received an email from Jay, the copywriter I’d referred, which made me pause in my smear campaign.  He wrote that Carlos had just called and said he was sending partial payment for the work Jay had done.

Something is better than nothing and Jay agreed to accept the payment.  He wrote that Carlos had said the following:

“My wife is not like me…she feels you should be compensated…I’m willing to make you an offer… (long silence).  I’ll pay you $____ {amount slightly more than 50% of the fee originally quoted}.  But you must write something on your invoice that acknowledges we will no longer be working together,” to which Jay said, “Gladly!”

Want more tips to grow your freelance copywriting business? Request my FREE report. Email Susan Greene at and put “Copywriter Report” in the subject line.

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Wow! Sounds great! I’d call that a wrap. Thank you so much for bearing with me. This was well worth the effort. Really sends the message home – POW!

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Creators Bounty
Lighthouse Point, Florida

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