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How Do You Respond to Prospects Who Make Requests Like These?

So, I got an email the other day from a reader in the Northeast whose note underscored an issue we commercial freelancers wrestle with all the time. While this particular case seems a bit more straightforward (see my reply below), variations on this scenario can present challenges to writers like us. As a result, I’d love to hear others’ strategies on this. She wrote:

It seems that, where I live anyway, people have no problem meeting with me, picking my brain for marketing ideas, and then not offering a paid writing job. Happens all the time. I’m starting to think it’s my fault.

In the case below, I competed for a full-time job with the company. Though I didn’t get the job, my contact called to say she’d like to stay in touch, as she wants to work with me in the future. Since then I have maintained a positive attitude and stayed in touch thinking that I could turn her into a paying commercial writing client.

This morning a message came in from her: “Would you be around to meet with me and a few other staff members (including the person who landed the job I competed for) on (X) date/time? We don’t have any projects ready to go at this point, but I’d like to toss around some ideas for down the line. That would include some help on things like _____ (i.e., a short list of writing projects).”

Should I go, and with the same positive attitude that they’ll become a paying client?

My response:

Given that these particular folks haven’t made a habit of doing this (i.e., calling you in to talk but not hire you), I’d go ahead and meet just to get in front of them. AND limit it to an hour, tops. AND not give them all sorts of ideas they could run with without having to hire you. Nothing wrong with giving them an idea or two that demonstrate you know what you’re doing as a copywriter, showcase your range of capabilities and underscore the value of working with you. That’s often what it takes for a prospects to quantify you as a resource and start developing a comfort level with you.

It’s a fine line, no question. But, as I see it, if someone wants to pick your brains for ideas that would be worthy of a consultation fee, then you don’t want to give it away for free. An example of where it can make sense to meet (without pay) is if you’ve taken a look at their business and seen possibilities for several writing initiatives (involving you doing the writing) that could move their business forward (i.e., a newsletter, direct mail campaign, case studies, white papers, etc).

Still no guarantee that you’ll get hired, but to a certain extent, it’s often the nature of the beast that you have to show your value before you get hired. And in the above case, giving them ideas of possible projects still means they have to do them, so the idea itself is only worth so much. Not sure whether your frequent experiences of this kind (prospects happy to milk you but not willing to hire you) points to the “nature of the beast” scenarios we ALL face, or whether there’s something else at play here.

One thing I might suggest asking and clarifying before meeting, in a casual, “in-passing” kind of way, is what sort of in-house resources they have to handle projects like these. As a way, of course, of determining if they could indeed just take your ideas and execute them on their own. Any whiff of that and you should be careful…

What advice would you give her?

What’s your policy? Where do you draw the line when it comes to initial (unpaid) meetings?

What red flags have you come to recognize as signs of a “Moocher”?

Have you come up with any sort of standard response to similar requests?

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?