A side hustle made me better at my real job

Eric Franken, copywriter at The Works, reveals how a little freelance job made him realise he knew less about advertising than he thought.

Ever had an ego-shattering realisation?

Joe Rogan, podcast host and MMA commentator, has. Years ago as a young taekwondo blackbelt he agreed to spar some kickboxers… which was a big mistake. See, taekwondo concentrates on kicking while kickboxing doesn’t suffer that limitation. Come fight time Rogan was hit by two things. First, an unstoppable flurry of fists and then a profound thought: despite specialising in one fighting discipline, he didn’t know much about fighting at all.

I can relate.

Well, not to the part about being punched in the face (although I’m sure a few people have fantasised about doing that). Rather, to having a sobering realisation – but mine was a little less violent.

My story begins with a phone call. A small finance business needing some copywriting got in touch to arrange a meeting. This would prove to be my own ‘kickboxing moment’.

We met up in one of those cool shared workspaces and they got straight down to business. ‘We need a carefully written email to send to our most loyal clients’. That sounded simple enough. But their next question wiped the smile off my face. ‘So, how do you like to send emails? Which CRM platform do you prefer?’ Uh oh.

Now look, I’m smart enough to know ‘CRM’ doesn’t stand for ‘Cootamundra Rock Museum’ but that’s about it. To be honest, I’d always distanced myself from that ‘digital stuff’, deliberately leaving it to the super-smart guys at work who do it for a living.

With nothing to say, I responded with the vaguest answer possible: “Well, if you’re using a platform you like I’ll just work around you”. Somehow my wishy-washy collection of words worked. “We use Salesforce. Are you familiar with that?” I nodded, but only because the name sounded familiar.

After a bit of small talk the meeting wrapped up. They left thinking they’d found the right copywriter and I left thinking: “Jesus Christ, how do I not know this stuff?”

I mean, I’ve probably written hundreds of emails – but not once had I stopped to think how each one actually gets sent out into the world.

Learning on the side hustle | Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

Embarrassed, I got home and googled ‘What is CRM?’ Then a funny thing happened. As I read up on ‘effective digital funnels’ I could feel my brain starting to form a better understanding for what those digital guys at work occasionally talk about. All those Post-It notes, sprints and scrums I’d seen around the agency suddenly had some context. Maybe being caught-short wasn’t such a bad thing?

The very next day I got another call from the client. This time they wanted to work through a mission statement over the phone. The only problem was, they’d never done one before and didn’t know how to start.

And in that moment I had a very strange thought (at least for me): what would a strategist do? Now, I have a complicated relationship with strategists but I’ll admit they can dig up gold with a few simple questions, so it was time to play their game.

I tightened my grip on the phone and started to repeat some things I’d heard around our strategy department. What do you believe in? What’s your purpose? Who would your business be if it was a celebrity? And… it worked. In fact, the questions worked so well they triggered an avalanche of information. We had a mission statement and I had new respect for what strategists can do.

A few days later I helped send out the initial email and that was that. The client got everything they needed and I got something completely unexpected – an experience that shone a light on the people I’d been working around for years and, surprisingly, my own capabilities.

A little freelance job didn’t just make me a bit of extra cash, it made me a better marketer. It taught me that half of what the digital department say isn’t just jargon, that strategists (sometimes) have a method behind their madness and that invoicing absolutely sucks (you’re the real heroes, finance).

So, if you get the chance to do a little something on the side, I say go for it. You never know what might hit you.

Eric Franken is a copywriter at The Works.


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