This Writer’s Clients Give Him a Check Every Month (Thanks to a Tough Economy…)

So, a few months back, in the April 2011 Well-Fed E-PUB, I ran the following Main Course about retainers from Visalia, CA commercial freelancer Tim Lewis (tim@tlcopy.com, http://www.tlcopy.com).

Retainers – essentially a guaranteed monthly income from a commercial writing client – can be wonderful things. Not to mention especially welcome in a tough economy – and as you’ll see in Tim’s account, they’ll not only benefit us, but our clients as well.

Tim’s had some solid success with this strategy in building his own commercial freelancing business, and generously shared his experiences. Then it hit me that it’d make an ideal blog post – perfect for gathering input and experiences from all of you.

Frankly, I haven’t had much firsthand experience with retainers in my commercial copywriting practice, but if you have, I hope you’ll weigh in! Take it away, Tim…

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Being a commercial freelancer can be more than just “per project” work. There’s a way to enjoy our fabulous lifestyle without worrying where your next check will come from. Setting up retainer-based agreements with clients is a great way to ensure consistent freelance copywriting income.

This is exactly what I did a few years ago when I said goodbye to the corporate world. Instead of hurling myself into the freelancing abyss without a safety net, I approached my boss with a unique proposition: I would resign my position as a hospital marketing director, but stay on as a consultant to help groom my replacement (my assistant). This way, she could learn the ropes and I could have the time I needed to build my copywriting practice.

It was a win-win for both parties. We agreed on a three-month contract that paid me roughly the same as I was making full-time. I had plenty of time to build a healthy business base while spending a few hours each week training my replacement and writing all of the communications pieces for the hospital. Plus, I could still pay all of my bills! The arrangement worked so well, I decided to approach some of my recurring clients with a similar proposal.

The response was tremendous. Because of the economy, many of my prospects (large hospitals) had laid off much of their marketing and communications staff. Since the work still needed to be done, they jumped at the chance to bring in an experienced hospital marketer/communications writer to help them get through this economic downturn.

As things start to pick up, many of my clients are realizing that my services fill all of their marketing needs, and at a fraction of the costs associated with bringing someone in full-time. Though I still do some one-off project work, my most productive partnerships are retainer-based consultant gigs.

How to get a client to agree to a retainer? Here’s how I approach it:

1) Every long-term relationship starts with a single project. Once you land it, knock it out of the park. Exceed your client’s expectations.

2) Once you’ve floored them with your talents and professionalism, follow up with a phone call. If they’re local, take them out to lunch. Ask if they have an ongoing need for writers. If so, pitch yourself as the solution.

3) If they’re interested, find out what their needs are, and what their budget is. From that info, craft a proposal detailing the services you’ll provide (e.g., blogging, web management, e-newsletters, etc.), the hours you can dedicate to them, and your monthly rate. The proposal doesn’t need to be some extensive legal document; one or two pages will suffice. If it’s a large company, they’ll most likely have you sign a legally binding vendor agreement. Read it carefully.

Make sure to include language in your proposal stating what will happen if you exceed—or don’t reach—the hours you’ve agreed upon. When the client has a light workload one month, I still ask to be paid in full (that’s the beauty of a retainer).

On the flip side, during busier months, I reserve the right to charge my hourly rate for excessive overages. Now, I have strong relationships with my retainer clients. As such, I will often not charge for a few extra hours here and there. However, when there’s an unusually heavy workload, I will let my client know that I’m approaching the cut-off and there might be some extra fees involved. That way, they can plan accordingly and either give me the go-ahead to move forward or hold off.

Also, revisions to your proposal should be expected while negotiating the agreement. Be prepared to be somewhat flexible with your rates and the hours you commit to. You may also want to start with a one-month contract to see how the partnership works, then make changes to the agreement down the road.

If negotiations aren’t as smooth as you’d like, be patient. Remember that this is a mutually beneficial situation––you’re guaranteed consistent income for an extended period of time and they’ll have dependable access to an expert in their industry.

If you’ve had experience with retainers, how did yours unfold at the outset?

How did you structure them?

Has the tougher economy opened doors to possible retainer scenarios?

Have you had retainers that didn’t work out well, and if so, what would you have done differently?

If you haven’t done any retainers, do you have some clients who might be a good candidate for such an arrangement?

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.

14 replies
  1. Chris Vanasdalan
    Chris Vanasdalan says:

    This is a great situation if you can get it. I know a few freelance video production folks and designers who work this way. Many of their clients pay a retainer in exchange for a set number of hours of work per month. Most of the clients will never need all the hours they’re paying for, but will gladly pay the monthly retainer in order to advertise video production, editing or web design services to their clients.

  2. dava stewart
    dava stewart says:

    The vast bulk of my business is retainer business. I work with really small businesses, and my approach is similar to Tim’s, with a couple of differences:
    I mention a retainer agreement in the original pitch, then offer to do a project at lower-than-my-normal rate so they can feel confident in my abilities.
    Rather than agreeing to a set number of hours each month, I agree to a set amount of writing. For example, one client wants five articles a month, another wants four blog posts and an email newsletter. The reason I do it this way is that it takes less time to write for a particular client after I have done some research and become more familiar with a field or industry or company. In other words, the longer a client stays with me, the more per hour I make. My hourly rate stinks for the first few months, but then improves.

  3. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    That’s an excellent article with some very useful tips in it, thanks Tim. I can think of a couple of clients it could be worth talking to about retainers.

  4. Jim Anderson
    Jim Anderson says:

    Great article and solid advice. I seriously wish that I had followed step number 3 when I found my first client. Long story short, there was nothing in writing and I ended up working a whole year at one fifth of my hourly rate. I did get to grow my portfolio a little and having a steady income was nice, but having everything spelled out could have kept the relationship from souring the way that it did.

    Also keep in mind that, if you worked a 9 to 5 job for most of your adult life, retainers can lead you back to that employee mentality. And that’s not a good place for any independent contractor to be. Still, if you can get it in writing and get over the psychological traps involved, retainers are pretty much the holy grail for freelancers.

  5. Robert Roth
    Robert Roth says:

    I’ve been a freelance copywriter since 1986. Over the years, I’ve had requests from various clients to go on some type of retainer. But when we looked at it closely, the retainer model benefited me more than the client.

    For instance, someone wanted to buy 20% of my time, which sounds good until you try define which 20% they are buying. Is it one day, like every Tuesday? Or is it 8 hours spread over a week? Things usually broke down when the client realized they might be paying me for empty time. To me, guaranteeing my availability seemed short sided, should a big, lucrative project suddenly appear. As a freelancer I’ve learned you can’t forecast a damn thing. One phone call or email can rearrange your whole schedule.

    Notwithstanding all of that, I had two good retainer experiences. The first, like Dava Stewart mentioned, is based on a deliverable. I have a contract with the CDC to produce a monthly newsletter for them. They pay me a negotiated monthly fee. I have the flexibility to work on the newsletter as my time permits. As long as I don’t miss the deadline, everyone is happy.

    The second arraignment involved a design firm that was heavy into annual reports. They needed a copy contact person to shoulder part of the load one season. They gave me a generous contract for 12 weeks. In return, I was to handle the strategy and concept phase of the process for some of their clients. I ended up writing some of the annual reports, and I was paid for that as well.

    I guess the thing that made both of these situations work for me is “flexibility.” As long as I was free to pursue other opportunities, it was well worth it. In both cases, the focus wasn’t on my time, but on an expected deliverable.

    That’s my experience in a nutshell.

  6. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Great post! I love this idea for my script writing business. Currently, I’m developing concepts and writing spec scripts for online branded entertainment (web tv stories portraying client products and services). I would love to write X number of scripts for a healthy monthly retainer.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all for weighing in! (S0rry I’ve been a little absent…at the tail end of my yearly summer sojourn in Maine, blessedly cool, but I’ll be back in the Atlanta furnace tomorrow… 😉

    Interesting angle, Chris… Hadn’t thought about this, but if a company contracts with a particular vendor for a certain service – even on a limited basis – they can claim to offer that service as part of their value proposition. It’s yet another benefit for the client that we can suggest to them as a reason to consider the arrangement…

    Thanks, Dava and Robert, for the helpful detail on your situations. And as Robert points out, retainers often DO benefit the writer more. After all, we make more if we go over our set # of hours, but don’t make less if we don’t reach that threshold. What’s not to like about that? The key, of course, is offering enough value/expertise to that client that they’re willing to make that trade-off in order to have access to you. The ultimate professional compliment, I’d say!

    And good luck Mele, in making that happen! If you don’t ask/suggest it, it won’t… 😉

    Anyone else?

    PB

  8. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    Right now, I’m indulging in a client relationship that everyone warns you against. I have a retainer with a single client who provides 99% of my work. I did some work for this client last year, and we really hit it off. It soon became clear that they had tremendous copy needs and liked my work. So I proposed becoming their independently contracted Copy Director, and it’s worked beautifully. I love the company, love the client, love the work, love their team, love the collaboration, and of course, love the steady income. The work is defined by a set amount of monthly deliverables, and anything over that carries a surcharge. I outsource some of it to other writers and handle the project management. And if this relationship went away tomorrow, I’d be perfectly okay with that. Business relationships like this one are so rare that I want to enjoy it for however long it lasts – whether it’s another month or two, or years and years. Having said all that, my spouse has a steady job with great benefits, so if I lose this client, we can take the hit while I rebuild my business. Do I accept assignments from other clients? Yes, but I don’t go looking for them, and I’m very particular about the ones I do take on. I know retainer arrangements don’t work out for everyone, but this particular retainer relationship rocks.

  9. Jason Leiter
    Jason Leiter says:

    Another way to structure this is to cut the cord between money and time. If you’re getting paid for a set of hours every month, the profitability of a situation like that DECREASES over time in my opinion. Why would it decrease? Because of opportunity cost. Ever hour you commit at your current rate is one hour that you can’t commit at a higher rate. Over time, your rates should go up right? And that’s why you might consider structuring a retainer agreement based on what the clients GETS instead of how long you sit in a chair.

    The goal is to increase the profitability of your business over time. That requires that you generate more income with less effort.

    Not sure you can retrain your client once you’re in it, but you can use something like this with new retainer clients.

    They care what they get because of what you do, not how long it took you.

  10. Mark Berry
    Mark Berry says:

    As Robert said:

    “As a freelancer I’ve learned you can’t forecast a damn thing. One phone call or email can rearrange your whole schedule. ”

    There it is! :-))

    With one exception…

    The one thing you can generally guarantee is that as soon as you’ve agreed a reasonable retainer with one client another will appear out of the blue with a ludicrously attractive one-off gig!

    So I’ve had some great retainers in the past, and I’ve also had some good times riding the roller coaster and just going from gig to gig.

    But I’ve never been able to predict just when either would come along !

  11. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Interesting timing of this post, as it looks like yours truly might have just picked up a retainer agreement, the first in a very long time… 😉

    An agency working on a big high-profile account needed someone to handle the regular direct mail this end-user does. And in a meeting, one of the agency folks emphasized that one of the client’s biggest hot buttons is consistency. They want the same “voice” to run through everything. Only logical. So, the agency, looking at a pile of work for the next 2-3 months, wants to make sure they can count on being able to get me when they need me. So, they’re locking me into a contract for those few months. No complaints here…

    PB

  12. Mary
    Mary says:

    I know this is late to post, but i was just asked to enter a retainer with a client of mine (i am a copywriter). They want 20 hours a week. I assume that i simply take my hourly rate and times it by 20, right? And that is what i charge per week? Thanks!

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hey Mary, Welcome!

    There are different ways to go about it. And what you describe above is one way. If you can indeed get 20X your normal hourly rate, great! If you feel that might be too much for them, and you want to give them a break on your normal rate (in return for the guaranteed number of hours), that’s also pretty common as well.

    Personally, I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with retainers, but I did a quick Google search and came up with this, which should provide more details. I’d read several of these articles to ensure you make the deal that works for your client AND you.

    http://bit.ly/2kcEewv

    All the best!

    PB

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