When Your Client’s Baby is Ugly

I use the baby analogy a lot when I’m talking about freelancing.

So often we freelancers forget that the project means a lot more to the client than it does to us. That’s because it’s their baby. They created--gave birth--to it. They nurtured it and put in the hard work to get it where it is today. And then they realized they could only do so much for it and handed it over to us to give it a push to get it to the next level.

If the project is the baby and the client is the mother, then you’re the nanny, tutor, or little league coach. I personally like to think of myself as the gymnastics coach that takes in your little one, trains her on the way on the road to the Olympics, and sends her back home with a gold medal and a book deal.

And sometimes I find that when I’m working on someone else’s baby, it has a face only a mother could love.

Yes, Virginia, there are ugly babies. . . lots of ‘em.

There is a saying that there are no ugly babies. This saying is a lie. In fact, it is a lie probably first told while looking at an ugly baby. There are plenty of ugly babies in the world.

Don’t get me wrong here. That makes them no less lovable and precious. But let’s call an ugly spade an ugly spade here

As  a freelancer, there will come a time when you are working with someone else’s baby and suddenly realize that it’s pretty ugly.

Maybe you are writing copy for a website that is using some really, really terrible design. Another example could be a gig where you’re supposed to put together a newsletter but the client insists on writing techniques that went out of style back when they still let you smoke on planes.

So what do you do?

Step 1: Remember that this isn’t your baby.

Guess what? No matter how hard you worked on this project, it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the person who hired you to complete the project. That’s hard to remember because you’ve put so much time and effort into it. You may feel a sense of ownership but that’s false. Your client is the one who makes the decision on what happens with this project.

Step 2: Remember that ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Much like porn, ugly is something that you may not be able to put into words but you definitely know it when you see it. Just remember that what you think is ugly may be the most beautiful thing your client has ever seen. They’re looking at it with a different perception. Your “ugly” may be their (or their customer’s) “absolutely stunning.”

Step 3: Express your concerns appropriately.

Ok so at this point, you’ve taken into account that this is not your baby and that you could possibly be reacting to nothing. But you feel like you need to forge on. Ok, fine. Go tell your client that his baby is ugly. . . carefully. Keep in mind that it may be a shock to find out that your baby is ugly. In fact, most people take it as an insult. You want to approach this subject with as much as respect and tact as you can.

Start with the good. Avoid accusatory language. Make sure that the client understands that you’re coming from a place of wanting to help. List some actionable ideas that you want to implement and why you think it would be in your client’s best interests. Listen carefully to how they respond because that will tell you whether they are open to your input.

Step 4: Remind yourself again that it’s not your baby.

Check the birth certificate one more time. Still not your baby, right? Ok.

Step 5: Move on

Now it’s time to decide what you want to do. You have some choices. The first is to get over it. Perhaps your writing will be the best thing that ever happened to this project. You can be proud of what you brought to table without necessarily cosigning on anything else there.

Secondly, you can gracefully bow out of the project. Explain why you don’t feel comfortable moving forward. If you can bring yourself to do it and know someone who can handle it, you can recommend another freelancer that could help.

Another choice is to move forward with the project without putting your name on it. If it’s something that you’d normally take a byline on, perhaps you can write under a pseudonym. If it’s something that you might normally put in your portfolio, you can leave this one out.

Have you ever been asked to work on a client's "ugly baby" of a project? How did you handle it?

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Princess Jones owns P.S. Jones Communications, a boutique communications firm that specializes in helping brands speak to their customers in their own language. She has been professionally writing for more than 10 years and she writes about the experience at Diary of a Mad Freelancer.

16 thoughts on “When Your Client’s Baby is Ugly”

    • I feel like it’s always timely. I get a lot of ugly babies in my work. Just a few weeks ago, I had a client ask me to go back through copy and *ADD* jargon. When I told her that jargon should generally be avoided and that her target audience wasn’t one that would understand it, she asked “But how will they know I know my stuff if I don’t use these acronyms?”

      • In situations like that, I have to wonder if there’s a bit of a confidence issue on the client’s side. Maybe she felt like she was lacking in some other area (or that her target customers would perceive her that way) and big words and acronyms would somehow mask that. I’ve known clients who use jargon out of habit, but your client’s is a really interesting explanation and one I haven’t heard before.

  1. I should have known this was the talent of Princess Jones weaved through this post. 😉

    Perhaps it’s because I do so much ghostwriting that I do not have a problem moving on. Of course, that could be because I’m not claiming the baby as my own. That baby has someone else’s name on it. 🙂

    I will try to help to make the baby all it can be but if momma don’t see it, I move on. I think we owe it to our client to share our professional perspective but as you say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Absolutely. When my clients hire me, they also get my professional opinion. That’s the difference between going with me and going with someone less experienced, I think. It took me a while to get here, though. I would sometimes feel intimidated and not express my concerns. But now, I think of it as value added services.

      I was sitting in a new client’s office chatting about his copy project. It was a casual visit. I had an appointment in the building and just popped in to say hi. We got to talking about marketing while I was there and I threw in a couple of suggestions about his marketing efforts. It was nothing I wouldn’t have told an acquaintance at a networking event, but it turned out to be information he didn’t know about. He insisted I bill him for the time I was there, hired me for three more projects, and then recommended me to another local business that became a long term client.

      Maybe he would have done that anyway but I know it didn’t hurt.

  2. A phrase I use a lot, and a headline I wish I’d written. Absolutely, sometimes you have to comfort yourself with the fact that you reserve the right to not put something in your portfolio.

  3. Ugly babies… Love the term. 🙂 I think of it as lipstick on a pig, or washing garbage. “Ugly babies” is much more elegant.

    It’s a real challenge, especially if you have a managing gene. It’s hard to rein it in when a client hands you a disaster, or makes assumptions about a project that you know, or suspect, are wrong.

    I pass on these projects if it’s a new client. If it’s a longstanding client, I make some suggestions. If the client’s not open to them, I cue up another writer.

    In the past, I’ve dived in and got it done, but it damages the relationship if you hate working on something. It colors your day too. You lose focus. (Or I do, anyway.)

    Very rarely, a client will present a project that goes a step beyond ugly, and into illegal, or unethical territory. If that’s the case, you point it out, calmly and professionally. (Even though you’re thinking, “are you INSANE?!”):-)

    Ugly babies are a real challenge, and as you say Jenn, there are many of them.

    Excellent insights. Will pin and share.

    • Not as I say — this one comes from Princess Jones. 😉

      Like you, I generally pass on these if I don’t know the client. I refer them elsewhere if it’s not too much of a disaster to wish it on someone else. I’m fortunate in that my existing clients are very open to consulting from the start so it’s rarely an issue with them.

    • I agree that it damages the relationship if you have to work on something you think is just no very good. I’ve done it for reasons having to do with my bank account balance. It really takes an emotional toll when you’re not proud and invested in what you’re working on each day.


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