Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

by Peter Bowerman on November 27, 2012

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.

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Does Your Passion Get In The Way of Your Profit? - Big Picture Coaching
February 19, 2013 at 5:02 am

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Mike Klassen November 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

It’s now been 9 years since I started as a freelancer and probably the best thing I did early on was accept that I was going to make mistakes in estimating my time. So one piece of advice I have is not to beat yourself over the head when you realize that you’re spending more time on a project than you thought you would. Keep making course corrections on future projects and you will get to the point where quoting a price is far easier.

I don’t give a price list, nor a range. The problem with a range for a project is that most prospects think they should be on the low end of that range. Or, in the case of one client, he would have wrongly assumed his project was going to cost him far more than it did because he was referring to his need by the wrong name. If he had just seen a list without talking to me, he might never have called if the price (for the wrong type of project) was far more than he wanted to spend.

When I started, I hated the thought of losing any potential 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 e-mail 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.

The point of that story is that, for me, 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.

One other quick tip… when the very first question out of the prospect’s mouth is, “How many revisions are included?”… run and run fast. Didn’t appreciate that red flag once and boy did I regret it.

Brooke Sobol November 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Hey Peter and everyone,

I think Mike made a good point in suggesting we prepare to estimate incorrectly. I’m just starting out, and I have little idea what to charge since I don’t know how long things will take me. I bought the pricelist Steven Slaunwhite put together (hope he’s not an arch enemy or anything, Peter! ha ha) which I found helpful because it’s really comprehensive. But I cut my fees about 25% lower since I’m just starting out. I customized a price list (range) for my own use based off of that and figured I could adapt it as needed. At least it is a starting point, and if someone asks me to quote something I’ve never done before, I can throw a number out there somewhat confidently and “fake it till I make it”.

I agree it’s going to be a learn as you go process. Luckily, I work FAST! Which we all know translates to a higher hourly rate… eventually! Yipee!

M November 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I agree with Mike. Give yourself a break from perfection. You will make a few mistakes along the way. It’s part of the process, accept it. It’s not always about price, or at least price alone. The long term client relationships will take time. Give yourself time to grow into being a freelancer by letting yourself BE a freelancer. It’s totally worth the time the process takes.

Peter Wise November 28, 2012 at 5:33 am

Excellent article and nothing to disagree with there. Ditto Mike’s and M’s comments. Questions are vital – you have to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and a phone call is much less time-consuming than a meeting.

I never quote by the hour, and I don’t put rates on the site either. Call them, give them a briefing form to complete, have written Ts & Cs, and get costs, timelines, and all in writing (so that they can trust you, as well as you trust them).

Personally I always carefully specify “up to two sets of amends, if required” as well, and have a written cut-off period for amend requests (although some flexibility can help smooth the path).

Good clients will need one round of amends (sometimes none, sometimes two, never more, unless they’ve changed the brief, in which case charge more, or there’s something simple they’ve forgotten or a couple of details have changed, in which case it’s not a problem.)

All that helps to concentrate the mind right from the beginning, making it much more likely that the project will involve around the amount of time you originally planned.

Matt H November 28, 2012 at 11:44 am

Mike, what I suspect you were experiencing was someone collecting comparisons to justify a decision they already made. A friend sells sporting goods and sees this frequently. Someone who is not a current customer sends an email or letter wanting his “bid” on a sale – usually a number of items for a school swim team or something like that. He tells me that he used to get excited and spend a lot of time pulling together the figures. Now he largely ignores them unless he has a conversation. 90% of the time it’s someone filling out forms and going through the motions. They’ve already made a decision before contacting you (or me).

Relationships are key.

Mike Klassen November 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Matt,

You may be correct and I’m sure that’s a common scenario.

Although I’ve seen this happen for a different reason, and it’s related to this topic.

I’ve had many e-mails over the years from people looking for a price, but not wanting to give details. The reason? They were other freelancers trying to figure out what to charge for a project. They’re just starting out and haven’t got a clue what an appropriate price might be for some project they’ve never done before.

(I’ll resist the temptation of writing an essay on why that approach is a bad idea.)

I know this because, in some cases, I’ve asked follow-up questions and they fessed up. In other cases, embarrassingly for them, a simple Google search on their e-mail address led me to their freelance site.

Which is another reason I don’t list prices or give them out without a conversation. I’m happy to talk to beginning freelancers about freelancing when they’re upfront and ask for help. Not as much into people squeezing me for info under false pretenses.

Chris Vanasdalan November 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I find it’s helpful to keep a log of how much time I spend on each project. I break things down into components than track how long each task takes. That way at the end of a project I can calculate my hourly rate (even if I don’t charge that way.)

Having a record of each project helps you estimate when a similar gig comes up again. it also lets you audit your time so you can identify what type of jobs you do quickly. It also helps classify the more profitable projects and the clients that don’t need to have their hands held.

Also realize you don’t have to use the same formula for every quote. You can create different estimates based on an hourly rate, a per diem or weekly rate (for onsite jobs). Consultants have mastered this art.

By using different formulas you can compare your estimates and submit the one that lands you the most profitable price.

Diana Schneidman November 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I don’t post prices and I don’t recommend doing so. There are vast differences in how different types of assignments pay.

Marcom managers at large, prestige companies who look for industry expertise as well as writing ability generally pay best. In contrast, it has been my experience that article writing for SEO purposes, even if paying many multiples above Elance rates, pays less.

Peter, do you call ad agencies that you do not have a prior relationship with to ask what they pay freelancers? And if so, do they tell you? I commend you—this is a task that makes cold calling for assignments look like child’s play in comparison.

-Diana

Peter Bowerman November 28, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Thanks to all for your comments. Gotta smile – when Mike weighs in, I can just sit back and chill out – I know it’s bound to get people engaged.

Great stuff, Mike, and the product of a lot of “learning experiences”… ;) Yes, just know that you WILL make plenty of estimating mistakes early on, but assuming most are of the kind that has you “eat” hours on projects because you underestimated (as opposed to losing the job completely because you overestimated), just keep reminding yourself that you’re being paid to learn. That’s a pretty good deal all the way around. And you’ll get closer the next time.

Of course, a lot of what Mike is talking about here (in the guise of estimating advice) is knowing your value, not being a doormat, and drawing your line in the sand. And when you do that, you’ll attract the right kinds of clients.

Sounds like most agree on the importance of questions (duh… I mean, how else can you know?) and not posting rates. Peter, I like your “two rounds of revision, if required” verbiage. Gives the client permission to NOT insist on a round just because it’s offered… ;)

I think it’s interesting that writers will resort to all manner of subterfuge in calling other writers, but I’m not surprised. When you’re starting out, and not quite sure of yourself, you might very well be operating out of a mindset of, “Why would he/she help me? I’m his competitor.” But, of course, it’s precisely because you ARE starting out that it’s unlikely that established (and enlightened…) writers would consider you as much competition.

I had very good experiences calling other writers when I first started (being straightforward about why I was calling), and found almost all to be very helpful and encouraging. And if you find someone who isn’t, then that’s more about them than you.

Good comments, M and Matt, and thanks Chris for the useful ideas!

Diana, as for your question (and thank for weighing in), I don’t call ad agencies because I don’t need to… ;) And I honestly can’t recall if I did way back then. But, I see no problem with it whatsoever, and, unless I’m missing something, can’t see why it would be an issue for them to share that info. Especially if you’re upfront about why you’re asking, and phrase it like, “Wondering if you might be able to help me out…. ” People love to help people out.

Designers would no doubt be easier folks to call, and just as likely to have that information.

PB

Peter DeHaan November 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

This is a great post and discussion. As far as quoting projects, there’s a lot of similarities between consulting and freelance writing. This brings back some memories of my days as a consultant.

Sandy P November 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Peter –

Thanks for such a comprehensive and timely post! As an infant FLCW, I’ll be converting over to FT status in 5 mos, thanks to an opportune layoff at the day job. I’ve done a few freelance projects in the past, though nothing consistent. In my short experience, I’ve found that I routinely under bid the projects. Partly because I underestimate the time (your breakdown chart will be immensely helpful in that aspect!) and partly because I’m afraid of overbidding and scaring them off.

I never thought to ask the client about how much involvement would be anticipated in each of those categories either. I assumed that was something they would expect me to know (more of my newbie shining through). And since we’re on the subject of my neon Newbie sign…Matt, what are Ts & Cs? I’m sure your answer will result in a slap to my forehead and a “yeah, I shoulda known that,” but for the life of me, can’t sort that one out.

So if I underbid a client on the first job and they come back for more projects with the same parameters, am I more or less obligated to keep them at that cheaper rate for similar projects, or explain I had a rate hike? I’m a little at a loss on how to correct this situation without revealing I’m a total idiot when it comes to quoting. I did have one situation like this in the past and continued to work for that client at a lower rate. I simply couldn’t figure out a way to explain a rate hike at the time and “hey, I know it’s not your fault, but I misjudged the time involved, so you got the first one on the cheap” just didn’t sound right. LOL. Anyone else tackle a similar problem?

Mike and M offered great reminders on allowing and accepting mistakes and advice I need to take to heart. I’m definitely that beginning tennis player who wants to know the “secret” so I do it all right the first time. Good reminder to take it one step at a time and allow that time for learning.

Chris, good point about the log. Sounds like a great way to help quote out future projects and also identify those that are most profitable.

Lots of good things to think about.

Sandy

Lori December 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Love this topic! It’s one plenty of writers struggle with.

I estimate this way:

How much time it will take X my hourly rate X an “aggravation” fee for things that crop up (too many editors, indecisive clients, multiple revisions…) = my estimated project fee. I always stress estimated, too. Too often clients will come back with other things to throw on the pile. They need to know that those additions are going to mean a higher project fee.

Questions are essential to my estimating process. If you don’t ask questions, you can’t know that their “brochure” project is actually an eight-page newsletter they’re including in their media kit or that the “sales sheet” is 16 pages of research. I don’t do any estimating without first asking them what they envision as a final product, who their audience is, what the message is to be conveyed, and where this piece fits in with their other projects/marketing materials, etc.

I’ve never put a price list up because I’ve never found it to be necessary. Also, like Diana says, I’m not sure you can say “I will charge $600 for a sales sheet” and every job will be a $600 job. Instead, I offer a free consultation to get to the price.

Like Mike, I weed them out by asking for a conversation around the project itself. If they’re serious, they’ll accept. If not, they’ll dance around it. That’s when I thank them and move on. :)

As to helping freelancers, I’m all for it IF they’re up front about it. Like Mike, I’m not a fan of the covert attempts to get my fee –hell, I’ll tell you if you ask! I’ll even help you price your own project. I’ve done so for many writer friends. I value honesty in writers, and there’s so much work out there, there’s little chance any of us will be “stealing” work.

Cathy Miller December 4, 2012 at 9:44 am

Great discussion. And I used your “nuts and bolts” approach, Peter, in the beginning. Fortunately, for me, your WFW book was one of the 1st I purchased. ;-) That doesn’t mean I didn’t mess up plenty.

I tweak it for projects and now have a quick Excel spreadsheet I use to focus me on each project to come up with an estimate. It calculates my “normal” fee and my “bottom-line” fee, which are based on two different hourly rates.

I love Lori’s “aggravation” fee-LOL! :-) Call it your “fudge” factor or whatever, this was one area I often left out. It tends to grow with experience. :-)

Mike Klassen December 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm

> So if I underbid a client on the first job and they come back for more projects with the same parameters, am I more or less obligated to keep them at that cheaper rate for similar projects, or explain I had a rate hike?

Sandy, I had this same problem and I’ll be perfectly honest… I never did solve it properly with those early clients. I do think it’s solvable, though.

First, let me tell you what can happen with _some_ clients when you try to correct your rates too fast: they go somewhere else. Some clients will be in such a tight financial situation that a change in rates will prompt them to consider other options and there’s always (always!) someone cheaper than you. The trouble is, you often don’t know if your client leans that way until it’s too late.

In other cases, you’ll find that if you slowly adjust your prices on an annual basis (and perhaps give early warning that it will happen), it won’t be much of a shock as they’re probably adjusting their prices, too.

Here’s what I ended up doing early on which was bad… I kept doing the projects for a low fee because I was afraid to raise my price and lose them. When new clients came along, I priced better. But I was spending way too much time on those lower paying projects and getting angry with myself for doing it.

With one client in particular, I wasn’t going to get a significantly higher price. I knew the inner workings of the company pretty well after a time. And as they were one of my first clients, I had priced horribly. After some years, we just naturally parted company which was such a relief. I should have cut ties earlier.

Some times, moving on from a low paying client who won’t or isn’t able to pay your rate is the route to take. But I want to stress that, if it’s a good client you like, it’s the last resort.

I think that when you realize a price is too low, find a non-threatening way to move your rates up. A lot of times, that’s an annual nudge upward. I’m sure others have handled this better than I did, but I wanted you to know that it’s worth fixing in some way so you don’t resent it every time a project from that low paying client comes in. (And it seems like those clients know they’re getting a sweet deal, so they pile it on you.)

A final thought. One way to make your rate raises go easier is to be more than just a writer in your client’s eyes. Are you easy to work with? Do you respond quickly to their calls/e-mails? Are you able to give them input that’s not really part of your job, but something you observed that they missed?

When they start to see you as a valued member of their team (even as a freelancer) and feel you are truly interested in their success, your value in their eyes goes way up. Among other benefits to you, that makes rate increases easier to accept.

William Reynolds December 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I offer an “a la carte” menu of standardized products at fixed prices for clients who are scared of hourly billing or suspicious of hazy total estimates. These jobs typically offer a bare-bones set of features, such as minimal intake consultation/research, with the option of adding more bells and whistles for an additional fee. This allows the client to dictate the upper limit of the job based on what he wants to throw onto the pile while allowing me to offer non-intimidating but legit base numbers on my price sheet.

Sandy P December 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Mike – thank you!

> Here’s what I ended up doing early on which was bad… I kept doing the projects for a low fee because I was afraid to raise my price and lose them. When new clients came along, I priced better. But I was spending way too much time on those lower paying projects and getting angry with myself for doing it.

I’m big on relationship-building and this is exactly what I’m afraid I’ll run into. I’d hate to spoil a good client relationship due to my own frustrations. You gave some great ideas on how to preserve the relationship and still work your way out of a situation like this. I especially like your point that this scenario is worth fixing so we (both the writer and the client) continue to mutually benefit.

And it’s a good reminder that some clients are going to walk due to price increases and won’t give an option to negotiate. I guess that leaves the door open for other, better paying clients. (At least that’s what I’ll try to remember! :)

Matt Brennan December 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm

The best advice I ever received on this issue is that if you don’t value your work, no one else will. You have to stick up for yourself in any discussion involving money, and not let anyone bully you around. Be polite and professional, but don’t settle. You don’t want to get involved in a project that a few weeks later, you’ll think of as a waste of time. Good post!

Matt H December 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Sandy,

Sandy (and all)…

I took a small business marketing class about 6 years ago when I started my business, and one concept I’ll never forget is to once in a while “fire” a client. The client to which you politely say “sorry, I can’t continue due to my other commitments” is the low paying, high time client who you probably started working with when you opened your business. My market is almost exclusively nonprofits (or businesses that serve nonprofits) and EVERYONE pleads poverty – even the biggest. Yet most pay my prices. Once in a while I feel especially interested in their mission so that I do a better price, but that’s out of my choice, not their request.

So fire someone today and replace that client with one you’d rather have because they pay you better, take less time and you’re happier to do the work!

Forrest Buchly December 6, 2012 at 10:59 am

The only thing I’d add is that I think it’s helpful to develop some general rules for how long certain components take you (this may take time, along with trial and error). For example, a single web page, 100-250 words, takes two hours. You probably have a longer estimate for pages that require significant research. Editing or revision time takes 33% of the time required to pen the original piece. That way, once you have your components broken out in a spreadsheet, it should be quite easy to go through and plug in the numbers.

Sandy P December 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Matt H – that is a good point. I imagine at some point we’ll all have a client where all the aggravation fees in the world (love the aggravation fees – never would’ve thought of that!) just aren’t worth it and it’s better to just let the client go and move on. Kind of ties back in with Matt’s reminder of making sure you value what you bring to the table. That’s good advice for no matter how long you’ve been freelancing.

This has been such a helpful discussion – I feel like I’ve got some good tools now as I’m getting started. Really appreciate everyone’s willingness to share and answer questions!

Ken Norkin December 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm

The only way you can price jobs accurately is by knowing how much time they are likely to take. The only way to know how much time it takes you to do certain jobs is to keep accurate track of the time — all of the time — you spend on them.

There are many ways to do this. Notes on pieces of paper that you keep in your project folders. Daily calendar or day-planner books, the type with the day broken down into half hours or quarter hours. Your own time sheet form. Spreadsheets or word processor documents. My personal favorite — and what I’ve been using for over 20 years — is Timeslips software. It’s time tracking and project billing all in one. I credit Timeslips with making lots of money for me — both in improving the profitability of my flat fee projects and assuring the full and complete billing of my hourly projects.

Timeselips has grown very big, full featured and expensive over the years. It’s probably more than most solo operators need. I went with it early on because it was similar to the billing system I worked with at the ad agency I quit to go freelance. There are several programs that do pretty much the same thing for a lot less. You can also get software that simply tracks your time — an electronic stopwatch; then you use that info in generating your invoices.

The point is, you need to track your time *as you are working.* If you wait until preparing your invoice to try to remember the hours you spent, you will underestimate and undercharge. Every time. Guaranteed.

I agree with all the comments about asking questions and clarifying with the client up-front what they have in mind. I also don’t provide the client a specific project quote until we’ve had a discussion — preferably by phone, but email is OK — to define their expectations and agree on the project’s size and scope.

That being said, I do provide typical ranges of project costs on my website. I do that to keep from spending even one minute with the type of prospect who expects an 8-page brochure for $250. I also do it to show the prospect who knows that such a project is likely to cost at least 10 times that much that they’re the type of client I’m in business to serve. My pricing tells the client that I’m qualified for their job. On the rates page of my site I also describe my typical working relationship and what clients get for their flat fees. In the FAQ section, I address the difference in pricing between copywriting and copy editing projects.

Has posting pricing information hurt more than it has helped? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing who has not contacted me for a quote after seeing my rates.

I do know I spend very little time with under-funded, bargain-hunting tire-kickers. And I know that every year I do a few projects for new clients who find me on the web and who have no problem with the rates I charge. I just completed a white paper for one such client for over $2,000. I actually underpriced it by a few hundred dollars. Took me a bit longer than expected (in work hours, not delivery date) to get fully comfortable with their technology and get to first draft. Still, there were very few changes after first draft. I think some of that learning time will pay off in future projects (if there are any) going faster and being more profitable. And I’ll ratchet up my fees a bit just to be sure.

Stephen Marsh December 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I always consider my other work too.

Recently I quoted for a job that I was far too busy to take on. I quoted above and beyond what I would usually charge.

But this just added a sense of value and the client wanted me to proceed.

It’s so tough. I can never guess how long work will take – particularly right now when I’m quoting for slogans.

So I try to sidestep time and concentrate on worth.

Ken Norkin December 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Well, I think pricing of slogans should be based on value to the client rather than the value of your time. Of course, you want to be compensated for all the hours that go into developing the slogan. But I think the price should exceed the cost of the expected or actual hours. What if you come up with a great slogan in one hour? Are you going to send the client a bill for $100-$150? I don’t think so.

Peter Bowerman December 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Really great discussion, everyone!

You guys have covered so much ground that there’s little left to say. But, had a few observations…

On the whole idea of firing clients… Obviously, the safest time to do that is when you don’t really need them anymore, when you have plenty of higher-paying work on your plate.

But, some would say you should do it even before that, so you can make room for those higher-paying clients to take their place. No one would blame you for taking the former approach, but examples abound of the latter approach paying off (i.e., you take the leap of faith, knowing that better clients will replace them, and they do…). ;)

Also, allow for the possibility that a client whom you’ve been charging too little (perhaps one of those “early-days” folks…) knows they’re getting you for a bargain, and would be more than willing to pay you more, but as yet, you haven’t asked. And when you finally are prepared to cut ties, much to your surprise, they suddenly become a better-paying client. Not saying that’s typically how it works out, but don’t be surprised if it does—especially if they’ve seen firsthand for a very long time, how valuable you’ve become to them.

On a related note, and as a response to the conundrum of how to tactfully raise your rates over time… Whenever I’m talking with someone about pricing a large project (like a book ghostwriting project, or say, a content marketing project with, say, 20 different parts), I always recommend they suggest to the client that they do a part of it (one chapter, 2 modules, etc.) first to see how it goes.

This is in both sides’ best interest: you don’t know how long it’ll take, but doing a piece of it can give you an excellent measuring stick by which to price the rest of the project. And they don’t know what it’ll be like to work with you, so this gives them a chance to “test-drive” you (and of course, you’re “test-driving” them just as much).

After you’re done with that first part, you agree to review how it went, and make adjustments to future estimates based on the outcome. Guess what I’m getting at is this: nothing saying you couldn’t take that approach with any kind of project that you know or suspect will be recurring.

Obviously, you wouldn’t want to say, “I’ve never done this kind of project before,” but I’m not sure I see anything wrong with saying, “Every client is different, and every project for a given client is different even from the same type project for another client. As such, this is my best estimate for this kind of project. After we finish this first one, we’ll see how it went and make adjustments for future similar projects.”

Haven’t actually ever done that, but does anyone see a problem with that approach? Obviously doesn’t help with existing situations, but could for future ones…

Finally, to Stephen’s comment about slogans, I definitely agree with Ken on this. You want to price a slogan/tagline based on the value, not the time. I try to get $1200-1500 for a tag, and have often succeeded (though not always, as some clients just don’t have the budget…). At the very least, I end up earning $150+ an hour for my tagline efforts, and often, far more than that. So, as Ken says, you should approach your pricing strategy from the standpoint of what a tagline is worth to a company (a LOT), not the time you spend creating it (possibly a little).

Especially true in the tagline arena, which is a very specialized niche, and if you are good at it, you’re a rare breed and deserve to be handsomely compensated by virtue of that fact.

PB

Star December 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Lot of good stuff here. I would re-emphasize TALK TO THE CLIENT. Who will aggregate comments–how many people’s ideas will you have to accommodate–this can lead to immense irritation. I once had a job that suddenly had 30 sets of revisions. If the client starts bitching about a past vendor–delve into that. It could happen to you in a month or two. Always get half or a third on deposit. Don’t use the term “in advance.” If this is shocking to the person, they don’t know how to buy creative services–heartbreak ahead. Try to figure out how many in-person meetings you will go to or want to go to–those burn money. Do or get them to do a schedule–this at least shows you want things to pop along.

Robert Gorzegno February 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm

One suggestion I have is to buy software that measures your time. The software I use, Allnetic Working Time Tracker, will track and record the time spent on daily tasks. After a while, you will have an actual database of all the tasks you perform. It is very generous in tracking subtasks and sub-subtasks. With this detailed information, you really can “go atomic” and construct new projects that cover new territory with known subtasks in different combinations.

Beware, though. When you begin measuring, you will find that time races and all your tasks take longer than you think. Hope this helps.

(By the way, I love reading the comments on this blog. Since everyone is a copywriter, the grammar and style are impeccable!)

Joe Mullich February 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

This is a good piece. Another element to remember is this is not just about estimating how much work will be involved, but in specifying what you will be required to do. Take the point about asking about the number of meetings. If your quote is based on discussions with the client that you will have 3 in-person meetings (or whatever), I would suggest making that part of the scope of work in the contract.

You may decide to be accommodating and meet more often, which is fine. However, if the client becomes unruly and demands an excessive amount of meetings, it is good to have a contract/work order that you can point to, and politely point out the client is asking for additional services that may require a new fee. You wouldn’t after all, simply toss in an extra brochure for nothing; why should you toss in extra meetings if your quote is based on an agreement with the client that you’ll meet only a certain number of times.

So get all the details down of what you’re agreeing to, but make sure the client knows what he can expect to get based on your quote.

Mark September 2, 2013 at 4:03 am

I heard somewhere once that you should always charge more than your comfortable with.

I did that recently, worked out the hours and what I would be happy with, then I doubled it. Sent the quote off to the client and they accepted it without question.

Why didn’t I do that years ago?

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