Testing Copywriters Before You Hire

An important step in the hiring process is testing. This is especially true for design and copywriting positions. Many a creative has been hired by on the basis of a seemingly strong portfolio, only to have the hire fail to produce at the expected level (because half of their samples were actually created by a team of creatives, and the new hire played a rather inconsequential role). That is why skills testing can be a critical step for hiring agency designers and writers.

Designers can be tested more easily, by assigning a project and asking for concepts within a time frame. But writing is in many ways a more difficult skill to judge. How do you create a valuable (and valid) skills test for a copywriter? Here are our suggestions.

Before You Test, Know Who You Need
Make a list of the accounts on which your new copywriter will work. What writing style will be most appropriate? Must the copywriter have specific experience or general knowledge of a particular industry? Be flexible here; some industries are narrow enough that experienced writers may be very hard to find. If the writer is intelligent and prepared to invest time to learn the industry quickly, look instead for general business experience or experience in a similar industry or category. Based on your agency structure, what other skills and qualifications must be met? Will the copywriter work with clients directly, in which case, must verbal skills and an account service attitude also be factors? Create a screening worksheet to help focus in on specifics as you review resumes and conduct interviews.

Prescreen Candidates
Review resumes, and check credentials. Request writing samples and look for style and writing quality. Ask for references, people you can call to get a feel for how the candidate works and how satisfied other employers and collaborators have been. Talk to the candidate to fill in any gaps and get a preliminary sense of personality and verbal communication skills. In the case of a copywriter, exchanging several emails can also be helpful for gauging writing and communication skills prior to an interview.

Testing and Assessing
For copywriters, the easiest way to test their skills is to make up a project. Give them a written scenario—several paragraphs of job input on a fictional job. Make sure it’s the type of assignment where industry knowledge would for all practical purposes be more in the general knowledge spectrum. Ask applicants to create an ad in one hour, with headline and full body copy.

  • Concept a project—an ad, for instance, for a local health clinic specializing in outpatient surgical procedures. Set some parameters or a strategy, goals the client wants to achieve, background on the target audience—do an input sheet just as if the project were a “live” job.


  • Now, sit with your existing creative staff and brainstorm this project. That’s right—come up with the best approaches you can think of to solve the problem you are presenting to your applicants. This provides a standard for measuring whatever ideas the applicants develop.


  • Set a reasonable time limit—say, an hour or two—for applicants to take that input sheet and develop headlines and body copy for an ad. Alert the candidate that you will ask them to create a theoretical ad from scratch and ask them to allow time to take the test. Set a time to meet.


  • Give the candidate time to read the input and ask questions about the assignment. If you feel it is appropriate, introduce an art director and have that person be available to answer further questions or collaborate on the concepting. This will provide a different perspective on how the candidate works with others and their creative process.


When the time is up, read the copy. Do they write well, concisely and for maximum impact on the reader? What is their style—businesslike and formal, colloquial and conversational, dry and technical, direct-to-consumer sales-y? Look for spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, good sentence structure and active verbs. Compare the copy to the “standard” created by your internal staff. Is it as good? Is it (best case) better? Do they understand how to turn a phrase in a memorable way? Does their idea take a different and interesting tack from the one your current staff arrived at? “Same” is not necessarily “best.”

Can They Defend?
Now, ask the applicant questions about their copy. Make them explain their concept, why they chose the sentence and paragraph sequences they did, how their work supports and promotes the goals of the client, appeals to the target audience, and matches the defined strategy. Make them defend and “sell” their work. If they write well but can’t explain how they arrived at the final draft, you may want to retest them with an alternative project in a few days. Not all copywriters are good verbal communicators, but the ideal hire should be able to defend their own ideas at least within the agency.

Critique the work where needed (and to see how they react to criticism): if they score well on writing, strategic and creative thinking, and defending, and also respond positively to criticism, with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, move them to the A list.