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Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:

The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.

Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.

To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.

Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.

I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):

Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).

(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)

Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.

Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.

Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.

Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.

And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.

Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.

Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.

What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?

What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?

Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?

Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked out?

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

Ad Agency’s Solution to Client Pulling Work In-House Sounds Like the Freelancer Model…

It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.

Well, thanks again to commercial freelancer Robin Halcomb (who steered me to a cool resource I included in a comment on my last post) for bringing a most intriguing article to my attention. Entitled “In-house and Outsourced Aren’t the Only Options for Your Clients,” and penned by Sharon Napier, the piece first appeared in Advertising Age on 11/2/09.

The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:

Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.

Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…

So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.

There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.

Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.

So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.

Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.

As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.

Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.

Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.

Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?

Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?

Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?

Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?