Ethical Copywriting – An Interview with Joe Clarke of Snail Studio

Joe Clarke is a very talented writer that I first encountered in the Digital Marketing Union (DMU), where admittedly I’ve been lucky enough to rub shoulders with many other skilled and ultimately very, very, nice people. This is vital if you’re working remotely in digital marketing or a similar field; having access to a community of like-minded people.

I was always really impressed (and slightly jealous!) of Joe’s brilliant ability to articulate his thoughts and ultimately, through his work, to help other businesses really crack their tone of voice and bring things to life. Speaking to Joe it’s clear he’s engaging his brain before he speaks (always a good sign!) and doesn’t waste words. He’s great at his work, and I’m a huge fan of his “marketing” – despite my reluctance of labelling it as such.

Joe’s new Snail Studio website really emphasises his love for slowing down and not rushing into things – whether it means slowing down in your work life, in your free time, or whatever. I’m a big fan of that, and of trying not to rush whatever it is you’re working on. I often catch myself doing this and need to remember to tone it down a bit 🐌

All that said, I was delighted that he’d agreed to my nagging wishes to interview him about all things copywriting. In true form he agreed – but with the caveat that he didn’t really think he had anything very interesting to say. Having read through it all, I tend to disagree with him 😊

Interview with Copywriter Joe Clarke

Matt: First of all Joe – I love your new Snail Studio website! I’ve seen a few in my time and yours really struck me; quite minimalist and clean yet it really answers all a potential client might want to know about your business. I love that you’re emphasising slowness – and I’m a big fan of slowing down in general.

Why snails – there are plenty of other slow organisms out there (sloths, turtles, starfish… me trying to sprint over any kind of distance)… is there any kind of relationship with this shelled gastropod that we might like to know about?

Joe: I think I chose the snail because I’d been thinking about the phrase “snail’s pace”. In fact, I think that might have been my original idea for naming my newsletter, before I settled on Slow News Day.

There’s also the nice thematic fit with the fact I’ve been trying the digital nomad thing since April. My home fits on my back (okay, in my car) and I carry it with me wherever I go. But I can’t claim I did that on purpose – it was more of a late realisation.

Joe’s very beautiful Snail Studio website

Matt: And what’s your Snail Studio site built with – looks different to your typical WordPress setup! What’s under the hood, if you don’t mind me asking?

Joe: When I first started freelancing, I kept every possible cost down, so my first ever website was a Notion page. It worked pretty nicely and I got used to the format and what it allowed me to do.

Then, I learned about Super. It’s a no-code (or code-optional, really) website builder that converts Notion pages into websites. They’ve built some nifty SEO features into the product, as well as a load of helpful product guides. I’ve got no idea about building websites the proper way, but Super makes me look like I do!

Matt: Do you find that by being open about some of your passions and interests (sustainability, regeneration, the importance of taking time off) you will naturally attract client enquiries from the types of client you’d love to work with? 
Or – is it still a fairly mixed bag, and that you do still attract various types of client? Was that a conscious effort to try and resonate more with your target client?

Joe: I think it works as a filter for potential clients – a kind of self-selecting (or deselecting) mechanism that gives people an idea of who I am, what I’m about, and whether we’ll fit together.

It’s not bulletproof – I still get plenty of ‘neutral’ enquiries (sound fine, but don’t necessarily light me up with passion) and the odd bad fit – but it helps in quite a few ways.

More than anything else, making my interests and ethics a key part of my marketing means I’ve got a solid set of boundaries to fall back on. Say an arms dealer has been on my website and sent me an enquiry, I can rest assured that they’ve wilfully ignored all the signals that we might not be best buds. It gives me the confidence to push back.

Matt: Is there any kind of resentment with what you do being labelled as “copywriting”? It feels like there’s so much more to it than just writing “copy” for websites and so on.  Are you just a copywriter? 

Joe: That’s a good question. There’s a lot more to copywriting than ‘just’ writing, but I had to ask myself: is it better to paint a perfect picture of what I do or use language that most of my prospective clients know and understand?

It’s a pragmatic choice. I think of myself as more multi-hyphenate than ‘just’ a copywriter, but I’m happy for my clients to tag me with that label. I’ll save the deeper self-identity stuff for my non-work time.

Matt: A lot of other marketers, and SEO’s (myself included), have been guilty of shopping for copywriters or content based on the price quoted. We might boil things down by asking for a rate per 1,000 words, or even per word, to determine the cost of the content we require.

How do you feel about this approach coming from people outside of the copywriting world? Is there a risk that your value is lost when it’s looked at in such a way? Or is that just the nature of business?

Joe kindly answered the question below in video form – if you’d like to see this interview come to life!

Joe: There’s a part of me that thinks I should write an ardent teardown of this question, but I don’t think it’d be true. People hire writers for loads of different reasons.

If you’re looking to pad out a niche content site with 100,000 words of serviceable content – it’s not going to be worth paying a copywriter with rates like mine. It won’t be worth it for me, either.

Alternatively, I’m in the middle of a project for a soft drinks brand at the moment. I’m writing a new hub as they reposition towards the non-alcoholic drinks category. There’s competitor research, written identity, and branding work involved – as well as the writing. If they hired the lowest bidder, they wouldn’t get the quality of work they needed.

It gets messy when people fail to see the difference between those two jobs.

Matt: A while back there was a bit of back and forth on Twitter regarding the hiring of writers on freelance platforms like UpWork. How do you feel about people (again, often SEO specialists) suggesting that sites like UpWork are used to find writers, particularly from countries where their own hourly rate is much lower than what it would be from the likes of the UK or the US. 

Is there a risk that we’re all (perhaps unconsciously in some cases) taking advantage of this freelancer / gig economy? How should people ensure they avoid taking advantage of other writers?

Joe: I remember reading a justification for using platforms like UpWork along the lines of: “it’s a free market and everyone chooses how they vend their services.”

What a crock of shit. Like the economy is some neutral space where people make perfectly rational decisions from an equal starting point.

Gig sites can be an amazing way for people to get started with freelancing – or to build and maintain a freelance business. They open up opportunities that might not be available otherwise. But they aren’t exactly filtering for quality as a priority, it’s all quick turnarounds and ‘competitive’ pricing.

I’m not against UpWork and I’m not against freelancers setting their rates lower or higher than the market average. I just wish people would look at their choices with a more critical eye and interrogate their reasons for choosing writers from LEDC nations on race-to-the-bottom gig platforms.

Matt: Following on here as this is something I’ve thought about a lot… for arguments sake, if someone (a copywriter) is based somewhere like the Philippines where the national hourly rate might be as low as $3 per hour, is it still wrong to hire them if you were to increase this rate – even doubling or tripling it? It feels like a lot of people (again, often marketers) feel this is enough to clear their conscience of hiring someone from overseas. 

Do you think this is still exploitation of the freelancer?

Joe: This is a murky, challenging question! To me, this boils down to abusing economic power and privilege. A pretty strong statement, I can appreciate.

1,000 words of copy is 1,000 words of copy – regardless of where it’s written. The product’s value should be detached from the location of its producer.

Would you pay a female copywriter 7.9% less than a male copywriter? Would you pay a Briton living in a LEDC the going rate in that country, or would you pay their British premium? How about someone from a LEDC who lives in a MEDC nation?

It’s a gross attempt to save face on a technicality. If you want to get copy for cheap, that’s cool. There are loads of reasons you might not be able to pay higher rates and I don’t judge anyone for choosing cheaper writers. But spare me the moral justifications.

Matt: On your own website you’re very upfront about your costs – which is very refreshing to see, and is something I’d like to steal for my own site.
Was that a difficult decision – do you ever fear judgement from other writers?

Joe: I did feel nervous about it at first, but I was encouraged by other writers who lead by example. People like Jonathan Wilcock and Ruth Sedar proved it’s possible!

And I can’t tell you how relieving it is to have it upfront and out in the open. There’s none of the awkward mumbling on Zoom calls – even if they haven’t seen my rates listed on my website, there’s something about knowing that it’s out there already, disembodied from me, that makes it easier to say it with confidence.

Okay, I’ll be honest, I still get a bit of a sweat on when I hear them ask the question… 😅

Matt: According to your workweek you don’t work on Wednesdays. I too like to take this day off. It divides the weekday up into two very short blocks. May I ask you though; what typically happens on this glorious day? 

Joe: That is what it says… and that is what I try to do, but I don’t want to pretend that I do it regularly. I actually took Wednesday off this week (I’m writing this on a Friday), but more often than not, work sneaks in.

This week: I woke up late, listened to some podcasts, ate some food… Not really sure, otherwise. Leisure!

Joe’s current residence – Chateau Coliving in Normandy, where he’ll be based for 6 weeks

Matt: You seem to have mastered the art of Productivity – you outline how you work in focused sprints each day of 2-3 hours with long breaks between, and only checking emails twice per day.
Was it a long/difficult journey to get to that place – do you feel more or less content with your current working setup? 

Joe: Again, this is not always the case. When I get into flow, that’s how my work happens, but I’ll often find myself side-tracked by Twitter or YouTube or something out the window.

With my ‘no work Wednesdays’ and 2-3 hour sprints, I’m always striving to make them a reality, but it isn’t always possible. I’m perfectly imperfect but having those statements in a public domain is another way of expressing my ideals and boundaries. Even if I don’t always make them my reality, it’s a signal of what I’m aiming for in my work – and I think that counts for something when it comes to winning new business.

Matt: What would you say you dislike the most about working as a copywriter?

Joe: The widespread misunderstanding of what a good brief is.

I need more than “we need to write a product page for our new range of dog brushes.”

I’ll always do my own research, but the more information you can share, the easier (and better) it is for me. Tell me about your category, competitors, positioning, market share, goals, limits and conditions, CMS, image requirements (if any), tone of voice, content examples.

A nearby beach in Normandy thatJoe and his partner Bex visited on Bastille Day

Matt: And conversely – what’s the best thing about working as a copywriter?

Joe: Making a tangible difference to people’s businesses by playing with language.

And getting paid to do it!

Matt: You mentioned on Twitter recently your foray into becoming a football referee. How’s that going, and what made you wake up one morning and decide to give it a go?
Did you have posters of the likes of Pierluigi Collina adorning your walls as a kid (I for one, hope not).

Joe: I do have fond memories of Collina on the cover of Pro Evolution Soccer 3, but that’s as close as I got to any referee memorabilia.

I love football – have done all my life and will do for the rest of it… but I’m not much of a boozy lad, nor am I particularly gifted player, so I’ve never quite got what I hoped for from playing in a team.

Refereeing was something I’d considered for a while, for fitness more than anything. I ended up signing up to an FA course on a whim one evening and enjoyed it. Before I really knew it, I was meekly blowing my whistle in the middle for my first game. (Cranbrook United (2nd) 3 – 2 Newton St. Cyres (2nd.) Turns out, I absolutely love it. It’s a total joy to facilitate a fun, fair, and safe game of football. I’ve pissed a few players off, but I’ve always been praised for the job I’ve done.

Everyone with an interest in football should give refereeing a go, if only to see how bloody hard it can be. People give referees so much stick, but they’re the only person on the pitch with that much responsibility – and they have nobody there to back them up!

Matt: Do you have any advice to other freelance copywriters who are currently operating within other industries, who would also like to try and work with smaller, more eco-conscious or sustainable / purpose-led brands? 
Is there anything specific they should be doing to try and pivot or change direction?

Joe sharing his thoughts on transitioning to working with purpose-led brands

Joe: Speak it out loud. Until you make it a public thing – whether that’s on your website or in a tweet – it won’t happen.

It’s a matter of positioning. If a Marketing Manager for a great sustainable business lands on your website right now, will they get the impression that you specialise in their sector? It sounds obvious (because it is), but you need to be clear and confident about what you do and who you do it for.

Matt: You’ve been very open before about seeing a therapist – something that Men are particularly afraid to do, or to talk about publicly.  First of all I think this is a great thing to be doing, on both parts, and secondly, would you have any advice for people who are on the fence about it?

Joe: Ah, my god, yes! Do it! Just do it!

I always thought I wasn’t ‘messed up enough’ to see a therapist. “Sure, I get anxious and feel depressed sometimes, but it’s not really worth going to see someone about it…”

I only wish I’d done it sooner. I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to have an hour a week (or fortnight) to speak solely about me, my thoughts, and my feelings. That’s the entire purpose of it. I can say whatever I’m feeling and not be judged, just listened to and responded to thoughtfully. As much as anything else, it gives me space to work through my own thoughts.

Since seeing my therapist, I feel like I understand myself better. I feel more confident in the decisions I make. And I feel better equipped to face challenges in my life. I cannot recommend it enough.
For anyone curious, I found my therapist by visiting the BACP directory, searching in my area, and looking through the photos to find a few people I thought looked like someone I could talk to. Then I read their profiles, created a list of preferences, and contacted them.

The view from the back of the chateau where Joe is currently living

A massive thanks to Joe Clarke for giving his time up here to chat with me about…well, lots of things!

Joe’s currently doing a spot of digital nomadism (he’s currently in Normandy, France) where he’s staying at Château Coliving. If you wanted to follow Joe or reach out to him, his links are below:

Joe’s website
Joe on Twitter
Joe on LinkedIn

BONUS VIDEO 🔥🔥🔥 – JOE’S “HOUSE”

If you fancy being in the spotlight whilst I bombard you with question-after-question (honestly it’s not that bad) – I’m always open to featuring other people that work in the field of digital marketing. Don’t worry if your living quarters aren’t quite up to Joe’s clearly-very-high-standards.

My only requirement is that we talk about those topics that are often neglected in the field of digital – anything relating to ethics, and trying to do the right thing whilst trying to make a living.

Just reach out if you fancy having a chat sometime 👋

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