Meet Someone Like This and Your Copywriting Business Will Soar…

At first blush, it didn’t seem like such a fortuitous meeting. It was 1994, my stumbling, halting first year as a commercial freelancer. On the side, I was writing columns for a local Atlanta rag. I’d been put in touch with the graphic designer who was laying out the publication I was writing for, to address a spacing issue for my piece. We connected, resolved the issue, end of story. Not. SO not.

That designer ended up getting me in the door of the design firm where she worked, which yielded many thousands of dollars in billings for copywriting jobs over the next 4-5 years. As as we worked together on a bunch of commercial projects, we developed a rapport, a collaborative working style and plenty of mutual respect.

When she launched her own one-person design studio in 1997 (the talented ones always do), I was her first call when the freelance gigs she landed required copy. And even when her clients didn’t think they needed a writer (but did), she’d lobby to get me involved. Why? Because she’d seen, over and over again, how my writing enhanced her design, her clients’ satisfaction, her overall value proposition and her repeat/referral business.

Which, incidentally, is one of the key answers to the question, “What does it take to become a designer’s ‘go-to’ writer?” And I’m telling you, if you’re writing commercially as even part of your writing mix, you owe it to yourself to forge some alliances with graphic artists.

This woman, a one-person shop, has been, without question, my #1 client in terms of billings in my 18-year career, putting many tens of thousands of dollars in my pocket in that time. Our partnership has truly been a golden goose for this boy’s career, and I know I’ve made a big contribution to hers. She’s gone as far as to say, in a testimonial on my copywriting site, “Our creative alliance has played a key role in sustaining MY successful freelance career for close to 15 years now.” And it gets better…

She took on a second designer for a while as her business really blossomed, and I clicked just as famously with her as I did with her boss. And when that second designer eventually went out on her own again (she was already a 20-year design veteran when she was working for my lead designer), I became her ‘go-to’ writer as well. And as these two creative pros built their own businesses, landing work for themselves, that often meant finding work for me as well, and with little or no effort on my part.

What about reciprocity? Didn’t they expect me to bring them just as much work as they brought me? Actually, no. Obviously, I’d always give one or the other the work when a commercial freelancing project I’d landed required design as well (usually smaller- to medium-sized companies, of 50-200+ employees; companies of this size don’t typically have the in-house creative resources to fully execute these projects, but generally have the money to contract those services).

But, it was never expected – just a nice bonus when it happened. In their estimation, what I was contributing to their projects was enough. As a result, far more work flowed to me from them than the other way around.

So, make those design connections. If you’re in any decent-sized major metro, you’ll find a bunch of them (just Google “Graphic Designers – (your city)” for starters. And even if you’re not, our wired world has pretty much made geography a non-issue. Visit their sites, make sure they’re established, with a good reputation and doing good work, and then contact them. And remember, being the right writer is as, if not more important than finding the right designer. Happy hunting!

I invite you check out my new ebook entitled, Profitable – By Design: Tapping the Writer/Designer Partnership Goldmine. In it, I lay out all the details of a strategy that’s absolutely been my bread-and-butter for close to two decades. Check out the skinny here.

And join me for a no-charge teleseminar this Wednesday, 6/15 at noon PST (3:00 p.m. EST), when I’ll be a guest on Carol Tice’s Freelance Free-for-All. But you need to register in advance (AND pose a question). Get all the details here. Hope you’ll join us…

Have you built any partnerships with designers?

If so, how did you go about putting them together initially?

And how have they worked out for you?

If they’ve been lucrative, what have you found to be the expectations from the designer?

Any other comments on your experience with this strategy?

Want to be a guest blogger on The Well-Fed Writer Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

18 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I love this idea. Most of my clients that I work with have their own in-house designers. Recently, I had a logo created for my business writing site with a local graphic artist, and I am trying to nurture that relationship. They have been great about link juice and offered to provide referrals, but it is pretty early in the relationship.

    I hope it develops. My dilemma, as I said, is that my clients have their own designers so other than writing recommendations for the local one, I haven’t been able to refer anyone specific to them. I know you said your designer didn’t expect reciprocity (and this one doesn’t either), but it is a good way to remind them of my services. Suggestions for developing the relationship further?

  2. John Soares
    John Soares says:

    This is a timely post for me Peter. I recently proposed a website rewrite/redesign project to a potential client, and I suggested that the redesign be done by the same person who designed my own websites. I know he’s top quality and that we work well together. It would also save the client the hassle of having to find and hire another designer.

  3. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Every marketing copywriter should pair up with at least one skilled, reliable graphic designer. I have actually created a line of print-marketing products in collaboration with my “go-to” designer. Every time either of us sells that product to a client, the other automatically benefits.

    This approach can extend far beyond graphic designers, though. You’ll find that you can strike up lucrative partnerships with marketing strategists, web developers, social media consultants, printers — the list goes on and on!

  4. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    As a direct market designer, it’s just as nice for us to have copywriters we know we can trust. And I’d go beyond that… a printer, a list broker, an SEO expert (if not the copywriter), etc.

    Think of a new business starting out or a business where they’re starting over and looking for talent in all these areas. Searching Google for all these folks is overwhelming.

    If you can connect your client (or prospect) to people they’ll need and save them the time of pouring through search results and websites, you’ll be a hero.

    One other thing I’d stress is taking the time to pick up the phone and talk to your new creative partners. In this day of e-mail, it’s easy to avoid the phone. But I’m making calls now with all my LinkedIn connections just to get to know them better. It’s been an amazing experience. You learn so much more about each other, which makes for a stronger bond.

  5. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all, for chiming in!

    And yes, Cathy, your experience underscores that in most cases, the company is going to have the design aspect covered, but that still leaves plenty of opportunities. As for other suggestions for priming that pump, if you’re prospecting small-medium-sized companies, those are going to the ones most likely to be receptive to the teaming idea since they’ll be least likely to have those in-house resources…

    Thanks, John, good stuff. And just goes to show that this how people get hired. Not exactly profound or a some newsflash, but you thought of this person first because of your positive firsthand experience with them. Now, you can be sure that designer will have you on their radar. And if you can leave them with the same positive experience, they’ll always think of you first. Never underestimate the power of people’s desire to take the path of least resistance. Make someone’s life easier and they’ll look no further…

    Very cool idea, William… Perhaps you can share those ideas at some point in a short piece for the ezine (or in a guest blog post). Every little bit helps and passive income is always a very cool thing. 😉

    And, as always, Mike, thanks for your wise contributions. You’re absolutely right. If you can provide far more than just writing services, and indeed be that solution for your clients, how they view you will definitely shift. Again, path of least resistance. Make someone’s life easier, they’ll remember you.

    And I love the suggestion of contacting people directly by phone. Never, ever forget that, that when it comes down to it, people hire people, not services. And those people are always far more likely to want to hire someone with whom they’ve connected on a more meaningful level than just “client-vendor.” And more likely than not, they won’t even be consciously aware that they’re operating like that.

    I HATE the trend these days towards communicating primarily by email, text, Facebook, Twitter, etc, and thinking (deluding oneself, more accurately) they’re the same quality as a real face-to-face or even a phone connection. They’re not. Absolutely they have their place, and yes, a phone call isn’t always convenient or ideal.

    But I honestly think so many people are truly afraid of having to have face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice conversations that they convince themselves that all these pseudo-modes of communication are good enough. Not so, and more importantly, what a sad, and colorless way to live.

    Okay, off my soapbox… 😉


  6. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    A resounding YES! I love design studios. And they tend to love me back.

    For the first 18 years of my freelance career — I went solo in 1991 — probably 90% of my work came to me through design studios or ad agencies (because most agencies here in the D.C. area are small- to medium-sized with few or even no copywriters on staff). All of the agencies and most of the designers I worked with came to me through my own marketing efforts (direct mail, directory ads) or referrals. Some of these were the same great sources of repeat business that Peter described.

    Just as they became valuable to me, I became valuable to them. Since my corporte and agency experience included new business development, project and account management, client service and creative, several of my agency and studio clients called me in to help pitch and win accounts. They had utmost confidence in bringing me to client meetings or sending me out to meet with their clients on my own if that would help get a project done. As with Peter, people leaving these studios and agencies brought me work when they landed elsewhere. The first agency that became a client through my business-launching campaign became my biggest and steadiest client for my first 10 years. Around the time their business slowed down in 2001, a studio that had become somewhat busy with me in 1998 really took off.

    That studio was run by the former art director of the ad agency we had both quit to go out on our own in 1991. Of course, I had been her go-to writer from the outset, but she didn’t have much call for copy. That changed in 1998 when she picked up the national collateral account for a major wireless company. With that account and then others she picked up, she became my biggest client through last year. But things change. Business got tough. And she shut down Dec 31. We’re still friends, of course. And one of her designers has had one project for me, but I’m not counting on him for volume.

    And other studios and agencies that I worked with from 91 through 2004 or so also don’t exist any more.

    Now, after being too reliant for too long on too few clients for too much of my income, I’m trying to establish relationships with other design studios or agencies — as well searching for companies I can work with directly. I’ve turned up some decent assignments and some nice people to work with, who have moderate ongoing needs. I could always use more. It’s not as easy as it used to be when my name seemed to be out there and my phone just kept on ringing.

  7. David B. Livingstone
    David B. Livingstone says:

    I spent my lunch hour today on the phone with a designer friend of mine who lives 3,000 miles away – he was calling to include me on a five-figure consulting job which I had absolutely no hand in soliciting. Over the last several years, we’ve developed the habit of cross-selling each others’ services as a matter of habit: He knows my pricing, style, and turnaround times, and I know his. It saves both of us 50% of the time/hassle needed to sell ourselves, while increasing each of our market reach by 100%. In turn, each of us has relationships with programmers, video producers, and other professionals whom we can rope into projects on a moment’s notice, effectively enabling each of us to offer a full agency’s worth of resources to our clients. We can offer clients one-stop shopping for all creative services, saving them the time and hassle of locating, negotiating with, and coordinating the efforts of a handful of people who haven’t even met each other before, let alone collaborated.

  8. CS
    CS says:

    I really admire everyone’s experiences…I think I must be doing something wrong. I love to collaborate with designers and have hired several for my own client jobs over the years that yielded terrific results for both designer and client, as well as repeat business for the designer.

    But it never seems to work out successfully the other way. For some reason, every time a graphic artist calls me to quote on a job for their client, the copy budget, (if there is one,) is inadequate, to say the least. The designer’s client always seems to be paying fair rates for design services, but doesn’t seem to value copy in the same way. (My rates are definitely not top-end by any stretch…I’m probably below average for a 20-year B2B copywriter.)

    Even design studios I approach directly aren’t interested unless I can work at $30-50/hour. Has anyone else experienced this? (Maybe it’s partly my Florida-based locale…tough to earn a decent living down here the past few years.) But I don’t seem to have these problems with my own clients. While I don’t have as many as I’d like right now, the ones I have are all fine with my rates and love my work. So what gives?

  9. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    Experienced all of that, CS. In my experience, clients who work with design studios rather than ad agencies do so for three main reasons: perception that they deliver better design; perception they will not need to pay the agency’s overhead or for the service of an account executive who does not directly contribute to the project; and the belief that they can write the project themselves. This last one is perhaps most common. Hey, we all learned how to write in elementary school, didn’t we? But we didn’t all learn how to do design. So they think they can write. And since it’s something anyone can do, they don’t place much value on it. If they’re going to supply the copy, they might as well work with someone whose only business is design.

    That being said, design studios are still a great source of work for copywriters because eventually a client will have a project that no one on staff has time to write (often their face-saving description when in fact the project is beyond their capabilities). Whatever. They’ll ask the designer if they can find a writer. And they’ll have to pay something reasonable to get it done. Occasionally — and I have two or three clients like this — the client will hire the writer and designer separately and ask them to work together. Clients assembling their own creative teams this way are looking for another way to get quality creative service at less cost than an ad agency. Sometimes they do.

    I’ve also experienced sticker shock. My posted and target hourly rates have been $100 or more since the late 90s. My project fees (the way I prefer to work) are calculated to compensate me at that level. Most clients — both direct and middleman (agencies and studios) — have no problem with what I charge. A few do. The principal of a major local design studio/agency outright asked me: “You actually get these rates?” The owner of a Midwest software company told me: “A good friend of mine owns an ad agency and he says he’s never paid more than $75 an hour for copy.” Of course, that begged the question why he was talking to me about writing his copy rather than getting it through his friend. Oh, wait. 1 – none of his local sub $75/hr copywriters could write about software any near as well I could. 2 – if his friend was paying $75/hr for copy, he certainly had to be reselling it at about the same price I was charging. (If not, his agency wasn’t long for this world.)

    Yes, it’s a struggle. In the short term, this economy might require making some concessions on price — with limits. But keep at it. There are design studios who need to obtain copy for their clients. And there are clients who recognize that good copy is worth as much as good design and are willing to pay for it. I have clients like that. I just need a couple more of them right now.

  10. CS
    CS says:

    Thanks, Ken: I really appreciated your comments…at least I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this. Also, kudos to you on continuing to earn your professional rate. I used to bill per-project fees that averaged $100-125/hr throughout ’90s to early 2000s for specialized B2B/DM. I decided to cut rates last year after I kept losing work, despite marketing steadily; demonstrating a proven track record of success; and earning terrific feedback from clients on the copy I wrote. I admire so many of you who continue to command your original rates, but it just wasn’t working for me. My clients loved my work, but most opted to do most copy internally and only call me when they were truly under the gun. They just can’t, (or won’t,) spend on copy the way they used to. My new rates win me more work, while still allowing me to earn a decent return on my services that I can live with…for now, anyway!

  11. DKFrancesco
    DKFrancesco says:

    We have a “Business Beat” section in our local paper. A woman just launched her own design studio. The first thing I thought of was to contact her and offer my services, even though I’m new at this type of work. Would that be out of line?

  12. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hey Kendra,

    How could it possibly be “out of line” to contact a possible prospect – and someone whose work you could potentially impact for the better? You really want to lose the “hat-in-hand” mentality. Now, I don’t know how good a writer you are, and you need strong skills in order to make a writer/designer partnership successful. But if you are good, why would you hesitate?

    Keep in mind, it could take many contacts with designers to find the one you click with and who is open to a partnership with you (i.e., they don’t already have a bunch of writing resources at their disposal). As such, why not start with her?


  13. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    I don’t think offering your services is out of line. But I’d probably just approach it as a getting-to-know-you call and see where it leads without her feeling you’re hitting her up for business right off the bat.

    This article I wrote was intended for a slightly different purpose than what we’re talking about here, but it is about getting to know new people:

  14. DKFrancesco
    DKFrancesco says:

    Thank you Peter and Mike.

    And Mike, your article nailed the “How do I do that” approach for me. I’ve worked retail for so long that I’m used to people coming to me, rather than my going to them.

  15. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    Linking up with graphic designers is a great idea, although I agree with CS – the copywriting budget is rarely there. With a website, once you have the initial design, creating a new page takes five minutes. However, copywriting a new page will always take much longer as it has to be done from scratch. So many businesses prefer to do it themselves – or to pay someone peanuts for third rate ‘content’.

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Really appreciate all the seasoned experience being shared here. What’s obvious is the diversity of those experiences. And while there’s no question that economy-driven belt-tightening is a reality, often driving rates lower, as Ken points out, there are still clients willing to pay prevailing rates because great copy isn’t seen as just a nice thing to have, but rather, a non-negotiable component of their marketing equation.

    And that’s the thing… there are clients at all fee thresholds. There are plenty who think $30-50 an hour is more than they’d like to spend, while on the other end, there are plenty who don’t bat an eyelash at $100-125+. And. obviously, the latter are harder to find, but they’re out there.

    When it’s all said and done, I guess it comes down to the relative importance a client puts on the copy. As many have pointed out here, there are X# of clients who think, hey, writing’s not that hard – we all learned how to do it in school. And hence, they’ll do it themselves, satisfied with mediocre copy, either because, 1) they don’t realize it’s mediocre (most likely), 2) they realize it could be better, but don’t think it really makes that much difference, or 3) they realize its mediocre but are making a short-term, bottom-line-based decision.

    But, in my experience anyway, working with many companies truly committed to building and maintaining a competitive advantage in their industry, none of those thought processes would ever cut it. These people know how critical good copy is. And perhaps that’s what many of you whose clients are expecting discounted rates, are saying: they still understand the value of good copy, but just want to get it lower rates.

    One key, as Ken pointed out, is often this: can they get the high-quality copy they need and the expertise that underpins that quality copy from just anyone? In many cases (and certainly in Ken’s case), no, they can’t. And if you bring something unique to the table, then do it (there’s that niche discussion again; and while I’m a generalist, I wholeheartedly endorse being a specialist IF you have the background and/or experience to pull it off).

    Bottom line, in many cases, it comes down to the idea of educating clients. I think we could all agree that if those clients currently doing their own copy or paying bargain-basement rates to get a commensurate result, could see the difference that good copy makes, many would have an epiphany, and realize that the money they’d invest would return to them many times over. Obviously, that’s a clearer calculus in the case of ads, direct mail, landing page copy, etc., than it would be for say, brochures, newsletters, case studies, sales sheets, white papers, etc.

    Like the old saying goes, “May we live in interesting times…”


  17. LeRoy Demarest
    LeRoy Demarest says:

    Great article Peter! I really loved the WFW book, which inspired me to think outside the freelancing box. Thanks for all the advice

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