Staying True

compass

I’ll confess to struggling with integrity.

No: I don’t steal from my clients, or mug little old ladies on the street, or cheat on either my taxes or my wife. For most of us at least, those aren’t the real integrity struggles. Staying on the straight and narrow with the major sins is fairly easy. The high hurdles – the real challenges to one’s integrity and self-respect – are much more subtle and nuanced, ever present, ever ready to knock you off the rails and into a place that you don’t want to be.

I struggle with those integrity issues every day. Often, every hour. They usually materialize in the form of which clients and projects come our way, and how we choose which ones to take on. The contracts we sign haven’t always been for the wisest of reasons.

Example: A number of years ago I received a call from a businessman in Los Angeles who wanted some help rewriting the copy on his company’s website. Every red flag went up. I didn’t believe in his product (frankly thought it was ridiculous), couldn’t stand him or the way he presented himself over the phone (he reminded me of a certain third-tier comedy relief character from the movie Goodfellas), and the existing copy on his website was – to be honest – sexist, offensive and stupid. I had no respect for him, his business or what he had to sell. I really didn’t even respect his customers, much less could imagine ever being one of those customers myself.

I should have stayed completely out of this one.

The problem was that it was summer, and business was slow, and I knew exactly what to tell him to get him to write a deposit check. I had bills to pay, and so I set aside my reservations and sold the thing. I deposited the check, got to work, and the problems happened immediately. We didn’t agree on anything. While the copy I gave him was solid and serviceable, he hated it: the voice wasn’t loud enough (my style tends to be more light-but-serious), there weren’t enough of his own ideas (which I thought were all awful) in it, and we even disagreed on the definitions of words (even though I had the dictionary on my side).

In the end, the deposit was the last money I ever saw from him. Worst client experience of my life.

I can say all this because the man died a few years ago, and so I’m not worried about an angry phone call from the past. But that experience still stands as my personal benchmark for not ignoring the alarm bells that mean, “WARNING: Massive integrity compromise ahead!”

In over 15 years of doing this work, you’d be surprised at how often those alarm bells have rung. The cigar manufacturer that was probably somehow connected to South Florida organized crime. The “digital entertainment” company that, upon further investigation, turned out to be a straight up front for a porn studio. The crazies. The loons. The dangerous ones. The fools.

Most times we can avoid the rocks. But the rocks are always there.

In all these years, I’ve collected a fair assortment of writing tricks and tools. Active verbs. Variable sentence lengths. Solid transition flows. Put your strongest point at the end. All the bits and bobs that you can easily get from any decent set of writing manuals. You can study all those points and master the wordsmithing art without a huge amount of work, talent or vision. It’s not brain surgery.

But as Harlan Ellison once said, the hard part isn’t becoming a writer, but staying one. Because as time passes, each one of those little integrity challenges knocks another small divot out of your hull. You can’t miss all the rocks. From time to time, you’ll take on a client or project that you don’t respect, simply to cash that check and move on. And each time, you become a little less. You take on water. And eventually, you start to sink.

If I could impart any single word of wisdom to you today – in marketing, business, or just life – it would be this. You have a responsibility to those who respect you, and to those whom you respect. Life is lived in community. Authentic mutual respect – true integrity – is the only way to build a community that endures, whether it be a community of customers or of neighbors. You’re far better off with one customer you believe in, than a hundred that you don’t.

My wife continually reminds me today that the real benchmark is pretty simple: how would we explain this project or client to our seven-year-old niece? Or my grandmother? With pride, shameful regret, or silence?

Another way to put it is this. Do we have anything in common with this prospective client, other than a desire for them to pay money for what we sell? And if so, is that something to be proud of? Would we treat them the same as we would treat an old friend or family member?

I try hard to always be able to answer that in the affirmative. Sometimes it is very hard to turn down a questionable check when the bills are past due. But those projects always go in the red in the end, and ultimately, I’d much rather be able to face myself in the mirror each morning.

I know that what we do and how we do it isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for most people. But I like to think that for the people that we are best able to serve – the ones we respect, and whom hold respect for us in return – good value is created on both sides. Those opportunities make this a business worth working in, and our clients people worth knowing.

So, yeah. I struggle with integrity.

I sincerely hope you do, as well.

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