Run Into This Promising (and Increasingly Common) Client Scenario Out There?

So, I was talking the other day with one of the graphic designers I’ve collaborated with in my commercial writing business for years. She’d recently picked up a new client – a big company selling something people have to have, and targeted to a specific demographic – one that’s been making money hand over fist the past few years.

While happy to get the new work, she’s been frustrated with them of late. They’ve been so busy growing they haven’t had time to sit down and discuss strategy, despite having a ton of projects (some of which will require copywriting) they need to get done. They just rented a huge booth at an industry trade show and told her they wanted her to redesign all their signage – along with direct mail and promo materials.

She wants to bring me in as soon as she can sit down with them and get a laundry list of projects (and accompanying commercial writing needs). Oh, and they’ve got plenty of money. Folks like these are dream clients for solo practitioners (i.e., commercial freelancers and designers). They’re out there and market realities are having them show up more and more on my radar and that of folks like my friend.

Prior to contacting my friend, the client had been working with a small ad agency going through meltdown. They couldn’t get ahold of people at the agency – which had laid off a bunch of folks – and the work wasn’t getting done. Now, if there was ever a situation where a talented freelance writer/designer team could save the day AND save them a bunch of money, time and aggravation, this was it.

This is becoming a more common tale in this economy. Even if an agency isn’t going under, just the fact that their high-overhead economics require them to charge far more than a copywriter/designer team would, is enough to have clients question those bills and try to find lower-priced alternatives. But, they have to feel they can get the same or better quality from a few solo operators in order to feel comfortable making the switch.

So, the opportunities exist. But they won’t drop in our laps and those we do find out there will require solid writing skills, strong marketing chops, buttoned-up presentations and absolute professionalism. But we have one BIG thing going for us: these clients WANT to believe we can solve their problems – they don’t want to hunt any longer and harder than they have to.

Have you run across any scenarios like these? New clients who’ve dropped sinking (or pricey) agencies to go with freelancers (you or someone else)?

If you have, how did it unfold?

What did it take to give them the requisite comfort level to move forward?

If you haven’t landed any new clients in this way, can you see some possibilities in your network?

Are you partnered with a graphic designer or two, and hence, positioned to capitalize on opportunities like these?

13 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    I’ve been elevated to “god” status with my latest client. They dropped their agency because they weren’t seeing results. When they contacted me in May I was writing for a member’s weblog. They wanted PR help in the form of good writing. In a few months, I’ve handled their newsletter, press releases, brochure, and placed an article I wrote for them in an industry magazine. They wanted someone to help them reach new members and retain old members. I think my conversation with them was the first time anyone asked them questions about their goals and why they themselves are members of their organization.

    Seeing the “marketing pieces” they were using, it was obvious what the problem was. Lists of things they do, but no benefits. The new brochure was a huge hit. And now a published profile – they think I’ve hung the moon when in fact all I did was polish it. 🙂

    I have partnered with others in the past – marketing freelancers, even a printer. It’s hit-and-miss sometimes. It often depends on how well the other partner can market and network. I’ve taken the bull by the horns a few times, but in general I’m busy drumming up my own business. I can’t take too much time away from that. So I think the short answer would be to partner with another motivated freelancer and work out a joint marketing plan.

  2. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    Peter, I met with a graphic designer several months ago. Today, he sent some potential work my way from a client of his who needed some writing work done on his website. I also reached out to a potential client several months back and last week she was finally ready to meet. They’re starting me on a monthly retainer to do a variety of communications projects. They seem very excited about it, and so am I. I have another connection that recently landed me more work. I’m pretty newly stepping out into the wide world of freelancing (though I’ve done it on a very part-time, sporadic basis for years), just starting to really put my finger in the air to feel the temperature, and so far, it’s feeling mighty good and hopeful. I can almost hear the collective sighs of relief from those with whom I will be working. Finally, someone is going to help them with their communications needs — someone qualified. It’s very exciting. My business officially launches in the fall but I’m feeling very positive right now. Hard work in the past, slow and steady, and reaching out and keeping my toes wet seems to be paying off. I really think this is an amazing time to be a freelancer!

  3. Rick
    Rick says:

    I’ve been an Account Exec at an ad agency, servicing a Fortune 50 company, as well as a freelance writer working for the same client, so I know both sides of this equation.

    It can be a great source of work, but there are risks, too. An ad agency means there is an Account Exec who will take you out to lunch and stroke your ego, and if the AE is on vacation, the agency principal will do that; an ad agency means there is always a designer on hand to do your quickie project, even if its the day before Thanksgiving or six at night; an ad agency means you can go over to their nice office and have a little corporate retreat while the agency feeds you tiny sandwiches and sits there and laughs at your jokes. (Watch Mad Men to see the seductiveness and labor-intensive nature of a client-agency relationship.)

    Now, a talented writer-designer team can do great agency-level work, but don’t be surprised if the client expects you to always be available and to attend endless strategy meetings, some of which are so long that you can barely get any writing done. If you balk at that, they might start comparing you to the agencies, which along with great creative work also provide intangibles which make the client feel powerful and important. Some writers, frankly, are too introverted to be able to do that kind of socializing and lubricating.

  4. Beth Carter
    Beth Carter says:

    To be sure, it’s critical to find a great graphic or web designer that you can partner with. No doubt about it, you’ll lose a lot of projects if you can’t bring a full set of resources to the table.

    What’s more, because of these partnerships, we’re each not just trying to sell our own services, but looking for chances to sell each other’s services, too. So both of us together get far more opportunities to get in front of potential clients than either of us singly.

    More to the point about clients dropping agencies, I recently landed a new client — brought to me by one of my partnerships, actually — who had previously been doing most of their advertising with a large well-known industrial association. This association offers several marketing services to their members, including web design. They’re not cheap, and my client had been thinking about leaving for a while. Last month, the association sales person contacted my client and arrogantly told her that since they had redesigned websites for 2 of her competitors, they should do her website, too. Ha. That was the last straw, and we are now mapping out what will be a terrific site for her. Oh, and the sites that association did for her competitors are horrible. Really, really bad.

    I’m thinking I may want to target other members of this association and see if I can’t find any more members frustrated and disrespected!

  5. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I have teamed up with a graphic designer on many projects. We’ve already developed one standardized print marketing product that we co-sell to business clients, and we will doubtless develop others as well. I have used a similar approach with independent web developers. Instead of finding clients disillusioned with their agencies, however, we tend to get clients who feel they could never afford big-agency rates in the first place (and they probably couldn’t).

  6. Star
    Star says:

    In the Wayback, I had two great designers I worked with in the DC area. Years and years. Out here in AZ, I have used a couple once, but nothing gelled. I also partnered with someone I met on the internet and it worked OK for awhile, but you never really know people you don’t work with face to face and it suddenly imploded. I also sort of thought she took a long time to do things and didn’t follow through. If you are the person who brought in the designer, this can put you in a shaky situation, apologizing, trying to get things going.

  7. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    A late contribution . . . but, yes, I have won work from clients seeking alternatives to pricey agencies, especially the agencies’ less-experienced writers who were still billed out at top rates. From the time I went freelance in 1991, my rate was always competitive with the area’s prevailing agency rate. This meant I could offer my niche B2B/tech market clients copywriting backed with the insight, understanding and super-short learning curve that came from my (then) 17 years of marketing and corporate communications experience. Since most agencies in this area had shop-wide creative rates (as opposed to varied rates per employee) I clearly offered a lot for the money. Still do.

    What did it take to give them the requisite comfort to move forward? The questions I asked and the understanding I conveyed in my initial presentations and then in project meetings. That my copy was also always on target helped, too. Most of the clients who choose to work direct with copywriters and designers aren’t looking for the highest level of creativity. They’re looking for creative work that’s good enough and that, more importantly, gets the positioning, message and details right.

    Solid relationships with a few local design studios — and even some smaller ad agencies that didn’t keep full-time copy in-house — provided the bulk of my work for most of my career. They’ve all been hard hit in this economy, and as a result so have I.

    I’ve won some new clients this year who like working direct with writers and designers. They like my work a lot. They just don’t have the same volume of needs as the clients who fueled my first 15 years of freelancing.

  8. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    Sure. And I suppose really large ad agencies can have different levels of rates for creatives at different levels of experience. Not saying it doesn’t happen. Just that it was my experience that *most* agencies in the D.C. area used shop rates, or maybe function rates. Of course, the actual use of multiple rates could have been more widespread than I thought. The point remains that I was and have always been price-competitive with what ad agencies charge for copywriting.

  9. Suzanne Wesley
    Suzanne Wesley says:

    I am actually a freelance graphic artist AND a copy writer. At times, I work with other writers or other designers, fulfilling whichever half of a given project they aren’t already providing. In fact, I love doing that type of work. I think because I do provide writing I am better able to work with other writers who just need help finishing a visual communications piece with a great design. I understand what their hurdles are, the process … and how my designs affect – and hopefully enhance – what they are trying to communicate for their end client.

    I have found that I can sometimes provide both services for clients – especially for those whose budgets are tight. Non-profits, small businesses and individuals (such as other freelancers) are frequently more open to using freelancers for commercial writing/design – as they simply can’t afford big name agency prices. Often those places have been getting by with having a corporate secretary or other administrative staff create something in-house on desktop publishing software (whenever they can eek out the time) … and usually they don’t realize they have an option, other than the big name agencies, that can provide a professional looking product, within their smaller budget.

    Even though I can provide both writing and design, I still form partnerships with other freelancers: designers who do web design, as well as photographers, videographers etc.. I absolutely encourage writers to tap into networking with other freelancers in your local area, or even within your topic of expertise. Another freelancer may be better at a specific type of writing than you are, or someday – when you are hopefully swamped with work – you will look 100% better if you have a back up person/writer you can recommend a customer to in an emergency.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all for the great comments… (sorry for the delay in adding my 2 cents, as I’m coming out of vacation mode…;)

    Lori, congrats on being the hero for your client. Lori’s experience underscores an all-too-common reality of client-created marketing materials: too heavy on the “features” (all about them and the services they offer) and not enough “benefits” – all about their customer and the things important to them. It’s just not that hard to shift the focus, and when you do, as Lori found out, you’ll be seen as the hero, when in fact (not taking anything away from what you accomplished, Lori), you did nothing more than follow a key sales/marketing cornerstone principle that’s pretty darn easy to implement.

    And kudos to Roxane as well, who’s discovering that solid skills are definitely in demand – as evidenced by both the retainer she landed with one client, and the sighs of relief she’s seen with another. Both serious votes of confidence and affirmations of the need out there for what we offer.

    Rick, good points about the ad agency model and its potential pitfalls, but keep in mind, there are other middlemen clients, most notably graphic design firms where that dynamic isn’t as prevalent as in the agency world. And I’d never say that a writer/designer team can do everything an ad agency can – not true. The AA has a lot more capabilities, but the fact remains, for a huge % of companies, that freelance writer/designer alliance is more than enough.

    Beth, good strategy to try and ferret out some other dissatisfied clients of the association, and all because they did a bit of overreaching… AND, as you discovered, didn’t do very good work, to boot! A few lessons here: again, don’t put the big entities on a pedestal as being so much smarter and more competent than you (or you and a designer). Just not so, and I see the truth of that proven out every day. And secondly, we have to let the world know we’re out there, because if they don’t know that other – and better – resources exist, they’ll end up with mediocre ones, AND think they’re doing okay.

    Which segues nicely into William’s comment – many clients don’t think that they can afford the quality they’d get from a big ad agency, when in fact, in most cases, as discussed above, that freelance team will give them just as good (if not better) work for far less. And when they discover that, that’s where epiphanies are born…;)

    Star points out some of the possible drawbacks to the teaming model and even more reason to be careful who you ally with, and try to find, as much as possible, good, busy and established designers. The “flaky” factor will be low, and if the two of you gel, then the busier they are, the busier you’ll be.

    And that’s impressive, Suzanne, offering both, which is definitely possible if you’re good at both. But for all those out there thinking, “Hmmm, I should do that, too!” I generally advise against it, unless you know you have strong skills in both arenas. If you’re going to have to learn one or the other from scratch, you’re far better off finding partnerships with the other kind of practitioner. And the biggest plus to that is that they can bring you business that you wouldn’t have found yourself. But, again, if you can make it work, as Suzanne certainly has (and yes, I get that you don’t always do both, but will often just fill in the part that’s missing, making you a double-threat…), then go for it.

    And thanks Ken, for highlighting the professionalism and experience that can be a revelations for many clients. Unfortunately, the term “freelancer” has some negative connotations amongst established business folk (i.e., amateurish, unreliable, etc). But, get in front of someone and do the right things, ask the right questions, and demonstrate the right expertise, and you’ll win converts.

    Some years back, I did a brochure for a high-end technical consulting firm and one of the opening chunks of copy in the piece has definite relevance to this conversation. It read:

    An average consultant confirms your own findings.
    A good one tells you things you didn’t know.
    But a great one tells things you didn’t know you didn’t know.

    That’s what we should be shooting for – telling our clients things they didn’t know they didn’t know.


  11. Suzanne Wesley
    Suzanne Wesley says:

    I do agree, Peter. I don’t think everyone is even ‘wired’ to do both. It would be much easier to partner with a designer than to try and become one from scratch. I’ve been designing for over 14 years and have a B.S. majoring in English and Graphic Design. It’s not just something you can ‘pick up’ and deliver professional quality materials without training with others and there is WAY more to it than just making it look pretty!

  12. Lori
    Lori says:

    Amen to what you said, Peter. It’s not brain surgery – it’s Marketing 101, Sales 101…. sell the sizzle, not the steak. Don’t bang the “We’re special!” drum. Tell the customers how you’re going to make them and their businesses special.

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