Tuesday, October 2, 2012

You Get What You Pay For

Why is it that plumbers, electricians, and handymen are not questioned about their fees and consumers pay them handsomely for their services?

How is it that lawyers charge several hundred dollars an hour to share their expertise, and clients pay for that without querying the attorneys about their qualifications that support this rate? (Dear Esquires, I am not picking on you, really - this is just to make my point.)

What is it about freelance copywriters that makes everyone think they can bottom feed and get away with it (or at least try)?

Can you hear me sighing now?

This issue has popped up on several LinkedIn groups that I'm a member of so I know I'm not the only one confronting this (although I am happy to report it is not a frequent problem at StarrGates Business Communications).

When it comes to your company's communications, don't you want a professional to help craft your message, write your copy, position you with crisp, polished text that sells? In our field, you most certainly get what you pay for. The range of fees copywriters charge is pretty broad and somewhat informed by geography. But all things being equal, a seasoned pro will work with you to deliver well-written copy in your brand voice, in ways that are meaningful to your audience.

You might be able to get this for $25 an hour or even $35 when you hire a junior copywriter but please understand that experienced professional copywriters charge more than this and will deliver a lot for the money and therefore are worth more. I am shocked that placement firms that specialize in creatives (such as copywriters and art directors) are offering these low rates to independent contractors (like me) --all the more so because this is what I was getting DECADES ago. This is not good for the industry and brings down the whole earning curve. Toss in the bloggers who will accept $10 or $15 to write blog posts and now we're really sinking low. Welcome to the "new economy?" I say to hell with that!

Freelancers rely on billable hours to earn their livings, just as attorneys do. Freelance copywriters must be mindful of the time they spend servicing their accounts, just as your mechanic does when he's  installing a new transmission (and bills you for time and materials). Freelance copywriters pack a lot into their hourly rates or their flat fees for your project. Our rates are not strictly for the time it takes to write or for the actual finished product (if billing a flat rate) but for all those ancillaries clients don't always think of.

As a professional freelance copywriter, I have to factor in:
  1. Client meetings. Our time is valuable, people--every bit as valuable as yours. If I am not sitting in front of my computer writing but rather, am sitting in meetings going over your copy and discussing revisions, I am not creating (and therefore, billing). Although I do not charge for an initial client meeting/call to discuss copy needs, copy direction, etc., I have to be compensated for the time I spend servicing your account. I think I'm pretty generous with my time and I don't nickel-and-dime anyone (and in fact, I give away quite a bit of time). You might not see this should-be-billable time broken out on an invoice, but it's in there. If you want me to sit through four hours of meetings to go over the copy again, or you want me to travel several hours round trip to visit an account, I have to be paid for this!
  2.  Research. I think I'm pretty smart . . . but not so smart that I can whip out website pages, blog posts, or brochures about industries I know nothing about until I do the research. I have been hired numerous times as a ghost writer to produce expert byline articles about fields in which I am not an expert at the outset, and am delighted to learn about during the writing process. I like researching and learning and becoming a pop-up expert about a diverse array of topics and industries. Even if I am writing about something I already know, I want to research what your competition is doing or look for something new in your field to talk about if it's relevant. This takes time.
  3. Scope creep. This is the bane of all creatives, when clients go around and around with more revisions than the original contract calls for. I'm not talking about a minor tweak here and there after copy has been approved, or discovering a typo that was missed during proofreading; what I refer to here is more involved rewrites or, after approval, several requests for revisions that require more than a five-minute change. Again, I am generous with my time and will often overlook minor "violations" but if the contracted fee includes one round of revisions, after that you're on the clock for an hourly rate. So why are you complaining when you get the final invoice? You signed the contract!
  4. Continuing education. Even if it's not formal such as taking classes or going for certifications, a good copywriter must always be learning, especially in today's quickly changing world. Copywriters who want to stay relevant must stay abreast of the latest trends, the new media platforms, the shifts in business, corporate, and marketing communications. We read a lot, we pay attention to the world around us, we figure out how to incorporate what makes sense for our clients into our work (and help them build their businesses which is what we are hired to do!). 
  5. Experience. I've written for a lot of different types of accounts. I have worked with all sorts of people. I can handle account management as well as creative concept and execution. I can write for advertising as well as public relations which are two different disciplines. I understand how to work with art directors and graphic designers. I have developed a level of diplomacy and professional tact that most 20-somethings simply do not possess yet. This is my experience. And you get what you pay for.