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“Commercial Writing” Has Many Faces (as these Unusual Projects Prove…)

So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…

Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.

Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.

To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.

I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).

P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).

Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.

Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.

In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.

But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?

So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.

Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”

So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.

Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?

Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?

Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?

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

Where Do You Draw Your “Line in the Sand” with Copywriting Clients?

In the last post, erstwhile copywriter/now graphic designer, Mike Klassen, on whom I can always depend for wisdom, shared this comment:

When I started out, I hated the thought of losing any potential copywriting client. Now, I do little things to weed out the potential problem clients.

One thing I will no longer do is quote a price or a price range without talking to the prospect on the phone and asking questions. I lost all hope of landing a new client a few weeks ago when I got a short email out of the blue asking how much I charge for a certain project. Well, that type of project can have quite a range, so I suggested we schedule a get-to-know-each-other call so I could get some details.

Nope… no call… just wanted a range. When I said I don’t do that because all projects are different (I even have a blog post to point people to that explains things in more detail), he asked what I had charged for the pieces he saw as samples on my site. Had to say sorry, but what I charge other clients is between me and them. I again suggested a free call, or that he should swing by eLance to consider other options. Never heard back from him, and it didn’t make me sad.

If someone can’t be bothered to do a quick chat on the phone, they’re not the client for me. Those questions that PB mentions are crucial. I can’t accurately quote a project until I learn more about the project. But just as important is the personality of the person I’d be working for. You can learn a lot about them on a 15-minute call.

Good stuff, particularly the idea of how much you can pick up about someone on the phone. Not something we spend much time thinking about, but perhaps we should.

Few things top the satisfied feeling you get when you tell a commercial writing client that what they’re suggesting doesn’t work for you. Not in a thumb-your-nose kind of way. But rather, as part of the dawning realization that the client/provider relationship is a one of peers, not lord over servant. Sure, when starting out as a commercial freelancer, you need to be more accommodating, but the sooner you get to that point of realizing, “I have a say in how this goes,” the better.

I recently had a little “line-in-the-sand” moment of my own. I’d given a quote to a new client (a freelance designer for whom I’d done one small project) to brainstorm 3-4 brochure concepts for his not-for-profit client (yes, an unusual project). I offered a pretty reasonable price based on a phone meeting (vs. a face-to-face).

He emailed me to ask if I’d be open to doing a face-to-face instead. With no hesitation, and with supremely untroubled mind, I told him that it really wouldn’t work. All we have as freelancers is our time, and a face-to-face meeting (two hours minimum) would significantly reduce my hourly rate on an already mighty reasonable flat fee.

I think back to how I might have reacted many years back, how I’d have no doubt said, “Sure, of course, be happy to,” or how many writers, living out of “I’m just happy to be here,” would have also quickly signed on. Again, as noted, in the beginning, you DO have to go the extra mile—you do have to prove yourself and be accommodating. But as you get a sense of your value, it’s time to start saying, No.”

And get this: when I told, by phone, that I couldn’t do it, his immediate response was, “Absolutely no problem. I totally get it. I feel exactly the same way. I just wanted to feel out the situation with you.”

He went on to say that he’ll just tell the client that we’re trying to keep things as economical as possible for them, and as such, etc., etc. And it occurred to me, given his reaction, and his immediate understanding of, and commiseration with (after all, he’s a freelancer as well), that had I agreed to the in-person meeting, chances are excellent, I’d have lost some respect in his eyes.

Maybe not a lot, maybe not even consciously to him, but it would have sent the message that I was a bit of a doormat. So, realize that being “agreeable” doesn’t always equate to building credibility in someone’s eyes.

Yes (and as we discussed in an earlier post), you need to balance this new-found power with a generous spirit, but you’ll know which situation calls for which response.

Your drawing-your-line-in-the-sand stories?

How did they unfold, and how to did you feel about it when you stood up for yourself?

Ever not drawn that line when you should have, and regretted it?

Any other thoughts on the subject?

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

Are You Striking a Balance Between a Serious Writing Business and a Generous Spirit?

I landed a new commercial writing client some time back – a graphic designer a few states away who’d found me via the web. His freelance copywriter had walked out the prior week and he was stuck with some looming deadlines – one just 24 hours away.

When I gave him a quote (with a 20% additional rush charge) for the hot job – two concepts for a direct mail postcard (front-side headline and reverse-side sub-head and body copy), it was obviously more than he’d hoped for.

He started thinking out loud on the phone, finally concluding that, with 24 hours till showtime, he was nervous about entrusting the project to an unproven (to him) commercial copywriter, and risking his deadline with a good client.

His solution: he’d concept the headline and I’d do the back cover copy. I’d start on my part and could adjust the tone to fit the concept he’d send me the following morning. Fair enough.

After we got off the phone, my mind just started working on the uncontracted headline portion. Not wise, but I couldn’t help myself. This kind of work is like a game to me – BIG fun. I spent no more than 30 minutes at it, but came up with a few pretty good ideas.

A few minutes later, he called about something else, and at the end of the call, I explained what I’d done, adding, “If you decide to use one of them, technically, you don’t owe me anything, but rather than be stingy, I’ll share and let the chips fall where they may.”

Well, turns out he loved one of them saying, “I know a good headline when I see one,” and then asking, “If I were to use it, what would you charge? I don’t believe in people working for free.” Do you love this guy or what?

My reply: “You already know what I’d normally get (important to establish your regular rates if you ARE going to take this approach), but in this case, if you want to throw me an extra $100-150, I’m happy.” Him: “I’ll absolutely pay you $150.”

Okay, so what that I didn’t get my usual commercial freelancing rate? I wasn’t going to anyway on this job. I got $150 extra for 30 minutes work and came up with a great headline that allowed him to spend his evening with his family, not holed up in his study, concepting headlines.

I made a great first impression, establishing myself as a talented and generous writer who thinks like he does, and can come through in the clutch.

Some may say, “Tsk. Tsk. You set a bad precedent.” I disagree. He acknowledged that a headline would normally be worth far more, and in the future, we’ll come to a number that’ll work for both of us, (or, I suppose, we won’t). Either way I’m not concerned.

I’m not suggesting you always play the “give-it-away-for-peanuts” game; in this case, it just made sense to do it. I AM suggesting that, as long as the client knows what your normal rates are, you come from a place of generosity and abundance.

And by coming through on no notice, he starts seeing why I charge what I do. I gave a little, got a fair return, ended up looking really good in his eyes, and nicely set the stage and his expectations (both work- and money-wise) for future work. Win-win.

As I see it, as commercial freelancers, we need to strike a balance between expecting to be paid well for our skills, and having a little elasticity in that policy. Certainly, if you could only be one way or the other, the former is clearly better than the latter.

Too much of the latter isn’t good for building respect on the part of your clients, nor cultivating the internal variety. But, if you do too much of the first, taking, say, a “I-don’t-pick-up-a-pen-for-less-than-$500” approach, being a commercial freelancer becomes largely a clinical and left-brain exercise.

Allow yourself to have your moments of spontaneous, unscripted generosity, minus the fee minimums and clock-watching. They’ll make doing this job of ours more fun and joyful, you’ll build stronger, more enduring relationships, and (as I was able to do here), they can clearly convey why you deserve to be well paid.

Have you had a similar scenario?

If so, how did it unfold and where did it lead?

Do you watch the clock closely or are you less manic about time?

Where have you drawn that line between running a serious business and having a little flexibility in your time policy?

(NOTE: I was serious about loving the short-copy stuff: taglines, company/product naming, headlines, book titles, etc. If you run across such work, and it’s not your thing, think of me (and I’m happy to pay a finder’s fee). Samples here, then “Naming/Taglines & Slogans…” And here for book titles…).

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

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.

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?