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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?

Growth in Temps: Bad Sign for Employees, Good Sign for Freelancers

Saw an interesting bit in the Associated Press this morning entitled: “Use of temps may no longer signal permanent hiring” (link).

Here’s an excerpt:

When employers hire temporary staff after a recession, it’s long been seen as a sign they’ll soon hire permanent workers. Not these days. Companies have hired more temps for four straight months. Yet they remain reluctant to make permanent hires because of doubts about the recovery’s durability.

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

“I think temporary hiring is less useful a signal than it used to be,” says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. “Companies aren’t testing the waters by turning to temporary firms. They just want part-time workers.”

All of which bodes well for commercial freelancers like us. Now, don’t get me wrong. Certainly don’t want to get gleeful about an ominous economic sign – one that appears to argue against a speedier bounce-back to the economy than perhaps originally anticipated.

That said, I have little control over the speed of the economic recovery, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned through the business ups and down over the past few decades, it’s this: what’s a bad sign for those seeking full-time employment is often a good sign for temporary/contract workers like us.

Fact is, the economy taketh away and the economy giveth. As the above article highlights, if you’re a temporary worker these days, opportunities are rich. And bottom line, that’s exactly what we freelance copywriters are: temporary workers.

And temporary workers like us offer some sound bottom-line pluses to those who hire us:

1) Buy only what they need and only when they need it
2) No salaries, benefits and vacations to provide
3) Fresh “outsider” perspectives
4) Access to a wide range of talent

The rise in temporary worker hiring underscores the growing workload these companies have, but as the article points out, in an uncertain economy, workers like us represent a darn good solution. And companies know it. The clincher: this is nothing new.

Over the past few decades, when the economy hit rough patches, and downsizing was the order of the day, I and others noticed the increased use of copywriting folks like us by companies who’d shed full-time staff (or pricey creative agencies), but still needed to get work out the door. And sure, once things turned around, as the above article points out, many companies added back full-time staff where it just made sense to do so.

However, many small-to-medium-sized companies (say, 50-200 employees and $5-$50 million in revenue; i.e., the business “sweet spot” for commercial writers), having seen, firsthand, the real bottom line advantages of the freelancer model over the full-time employee model – never went back. And it’s happening again as companies realize a lot of the services they need can be delivered by contract workers. And simply put, it’s changing the face of the workplace forever. Note the line in the excerpt above:

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

And heck, companies aren’t the only ones falling in love the idea of independent workers. Freelancers themselves have been discovering the joys of working for themselves for years now. And these days, you can’t spit without hitting yet another article about the rising trend in self-employment.

Sure, for many, it wasn’t their first choice, and in many cases, they had no choice. But, I know plenty of folks who started out as reluctant freelancers out of necessity some years back, got bitten hard by the bug, and like the companies that hire them, they too will never go back. Not just because of the dramatically enhanced quality of life, but because they finally “get” what us long-termers realized a log time ago: there’s far more job security in self-employment than there’ll ever be in a J-O-B.

Have you seen this scenario play out in your business experiences?

Have you had clients contact you to fill the work gap left by departing full-timers (or the dropping of an expensive agency)?

Did you start out as a reluctant freelancer only to be converted forever?

Kickbutt Writing Skills Still One of the Most Effective Marketing Strategies…

Was updating the customer testimonials on my commercial writing site the other day, and came across this one (excerpted):

“Not only does Peter intuitively grasp where we need to go with a project, but his writing truly inspires my design. Bottom line, Peter’s spoiled me with his talent and he’s always my first choice.”

Now, I don’t include this to preen, but simply to underscore what happens when you’re a good writer (and you’re not the only one who thinks so…) – one who, in this case, enhances the quality of a graphic designer’s work. When that happens, they’ll go out of their way to bring you in on projects whenever possible. And why wouldn’t they? You make their portfolio stronger and their clients happier, and both lead to repeat business and referrals – for BOTH of you.

Which makes solid writing skills, arguably, one of the most potent marketing strategies commercial freelancers have going for them. Good commercial copywriters who craft effective copy make their clients’ lives easier and their businesses more profitable. Do that consistently, and you’ll get invited back again and again, and steered to other work.

And unlike other marketing strategies (i.e., cold calling, direct mail, email marketing, networking, social media, etc.), being a good writer “markets” you without you having to do much other than what you do naturally.

Sure, you still need to do your own marketing campaigns to let the world know you exist, but all those outreach efforts end up turbo-charged when your skills are a few cuts above. Till eventually, you may not have to do much marketing at all anymore. It happens all the time to good writers. The world starts coming to them.

A good analogy? A really good book will have a long shelf life (literally) because it’ll benefit from strong reviews and powerful word-of-mouth advertising, while a mediocre one – with few or no “champions” – will struggle to find an audience, and will likely quickly sink into the nether regions of the bargain bin.

Obviously, however, not all commercial writers are created equal. I feel fortunate to have innate writing ability (though, yes, I still cringe at some of the copy I wrote in the early days of my business). Others’ skills may not be as strong or natural. And let’s face it. While the commercial writing field – like any – certainly rewards those with superior skills commensurately, it doesn’t exclude those with modest gifts. Given the staggering amount of gruesome writing in the business world, those who can simply provide solid (if unflashy), coherent copy can find their niche.

So, what makes someone one of the better writers? Well, for me, a very partial list would include, for starters, a lot of technical things: writing like you talk, telling stories in your writing, avoiding $50 words, making sure your writing has the right cadence, and more. It also means understanding marketing fundamentals like audience, features/benefits, and USP (Unique Selling Proposition); being a good listener so you give your clients what they want the first time; and being able to quickly visualize how copy for a particular project needs to be structured and flow in order to maximize its effectiveness.

And a ton of other things. But I want to hear from you (I’m doing a teleseminar in a few months on the subject and would love to use your comments and observations – with attribution, of course).

If you (and/or your clients) consider yourself an excellent writer, what skills, gifts or talents contribute to that reputation and have them coming back again and again?

How has being a top-notch writer made your marketing easier?

Have you always had natural ability, or have you honed initially-less-impressive skills over time?

If you’ve demonstrably improved your writing skills over the years, what books, resources or ideas made the difference for you?

Any other comments or insights?

Should We Be “Fee-Flexible” in These Times?

So, a few weeks ago, I offered up a competitive bid on a project for a commercial writing client I’d done some good work for some time back. The graphic designer on the project (we’d submitted a “turnkey” project bid) had actually worked for the client for 10 years a while back, had the inside track, and knew all the players. They did tell us they’d be looking at several bids, but we figured that was just a formality (after all, they were a government entity, so they had to go through a “competitive bidding process”). Yeah, buddy, we were in like flint.

Well, guess what? They went with a lower bid. Hmmm. Just an anomaly or a “bad economic sign”? Depends on what you decide, I suppose.

Fast forward to last week. It hit me as I was putting together a quote on a project for a prospect who’d called me out of the blue. I knew what I’d normally charge (and get) for a project like this, but found myself wondering if taking the business-as-usual approach was wise in a time when things weren’t quite usual. With the prospect’s admission that he’d be talking to several other writers echoing in my head, I shot a bit lower than I would have, say, a year ago. Still a healthy fee – we’re only talking maybe 10% lower than normal – but the fact that I was playing the game at all pissed me off.

Okay, so I’m a bit torn. Part of me hears my voice admonishing commercial writers: “Don’t play the price game! You’ll lose because there will always be someone willing to do it for less.” Absolutely true. And, “Stick to your guns; the good clients will always pay for quality.” Also true, and I’m working for several of them who haven’t made a peep about wanting me to charge less (and this new guy has no direct experience working with me, so he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where my competence trumps any price sensitivity). And the new year is off to a bit slower start than usual, so maybe that’s part of it.

But then the other side ponders, “Should I be a bit flexible these days? Are clients getting more budget-sensitive?”

So. Am I making a mountain out of molehill? Am I losing my nerve? Or just being realistic? In case all of you think that us seasoned folks always have it all figured out, think again… 😉 Love to hear from you guys about what you’re finding out there…

Are you finding price is becoming a bigger issue these days with your existing clients?

If so, are you becoming more fee-sensitive these days, making adjustments for changing times?

Or, even if it is, are you refusing to play the game at all, charging what you’ve always charged, because, by George, you’re worth every penny?