Alex Singleton was brought up surrounded by a family business, which taught him the power of words and direct marketing to grow a business. He later worked as a journalist and editor at The Daily Telegraph, before going full-time into marketing. During six years running marketing and digital for UK’s largest private hospital group, a central part of his strategy involved raising revenue by growing relevant organic traffic generated through Google. As a result, he was a regular commissioner of copy and can give an insider’s perspective of how large corporations think about working with copywriters.
Many new copywriters instinctively think of pitching their services to startups and microbusinesses. They seem easier to approach. But larger companies have the budgets to afford significant copywriting budgets. They already buy copywriting, so they understand why it’s useful and what it should cost. And they have a reasonable view on what copy can achieve, rather than thinking that 1,000 words should completely transform the entire finances of their business.
I don’t know about you, but many people find the way big companies choose copywriters to be impenetrable and confusing. So, having commissioned well over a million words from a variety of copywriters for one of Britain’s larger companies, I’d like to give you an insider’s view of how it works.
Sell to people who buy copy
You might think the best way to sell is to approach people who have an obvious problem with the quality of their copy. In fact, it’s much easier to sell copywriting to people who buy good quality copy already but need more of it. They already value what you can offer and you won’t have to deal with the sort of nervousness expressed in questions such as: “If you write me a webpage, how much revenue can you guarantee it will generate?”
The market is different than in ye olde days of direct mail. Then, a company would have a fairly limited quantity of copy they needed to commission, and might rely on a single copywriter for a project. Nowadays, content marketing and search engine optimisation means companies are much hungrier for words. Agencies are expensive for writing at this scale, and what’s needed is often far too much for an individual copywriter.
Facts about fees
There is a fairytale in which doing copywriting is a get-rich-quick scheme. Supposedly, talented writers earn seven-figure incomes on the sales commission they earn from writing a few pages of copy. This is not how it works.
Most mid-sized and big companies will find the idea of paying through commission too complicated and weird. They are used to a world in which they set up a supplier, issue a purchase order, receive an invoice related to that purchase order, approve the invoice and then pay it. Their accounting systems are not typically geared up to paying suppliers based on, let’s say, the number of sales leads tracked on Google Analytics. In practice it would rely on too much manual intervention to make it worthwhile.
Besides, copywriting is collaborative – if you want to retain clients. Not everything you believe will deliver the biggest response will appeal to the internal sensitivities that your client has, such as their perception of their brand. Pricing, choice of promotional offers and so forth are entirely up to your client – and they have a huge effect on response rates. So if the client can edit your copy however it wants, and decide when and how to disseminate the message, how is a commission-based model fair?
The real options are being paid per word or being paid per day. Being paid per word (or on the basis of a fixed fee for a project) is often easier as the client doesn’t worry that they are being fleeced by slow work, but being paid per day is more appropriate if the client wants lots of meetings, or if the work involves more general marketing work, such as developing a content plan.
Over time you can increase your fees to new clients, but when getting going it’s worth letting big clients tell you what they normally pay. This may be more than you would have requested. Big companies are less likely to be worried about getting a cheaper price, and more interested in whether you are reliable and easy to work with.
When setting rates, remember: you’re competing in the quality part of the market. You don’t need to worry about websites where people can commission words written by bots. Your competitor is the Bristol University English literature graduate who spent a decade in-house in a FTSE100 company. They, like you, have a reasonable expectation of earnings and, in return, write crisp, elegant copy.
Big companies are inevitably a bit clunkier than small ones when it comes to paying invoices, but are unlikely to not pay. Nonetheless, there are five rules for getting paid as smoothly as possible.
The first is to get approved as a supplier by your client’s finance team. When being set up as a supplier, they are likely to do some due diligence. They want to make sure that invoices they receive are from genuine companies who are delivering genuine services, rather than fake invoices that an employee has produced in order to commit fraud. It’s hugely beneficial at this stage to be an incorporated company rather than a sole trader as it lets the finance team look you up. A business website and a landline telephone number help.
The second is to ask for a purchase order number at the start of the work. Not all smaller and mid-size companies routinely issue them but the big ones do. The purchase order number confirms you’ve been created as a supplier and reduces the risk that payment for your invoice will be delayed.
Thirdly, in any contract or standard terms of business, always put in place 30-day payment terms. If the client sends you a contract with 60 or 90 days, politely say that you’re a small supplier and that you need to change this to 30 days. If the client is small, especially if it approached you, you can ask for money up front.
Fourthly, when starting the relationship, ask for the details of the accounts payable department. Then, when you issue an invoice, you can send this both to the accounts team and also your marketing department contact. The accounts payable team will typically add the invoice to the accounting software and it will then be in the system ready for your client in the marketing team to approve it. If you don’t include accounts payable, it might get forgotten in a busy client’s inbox.
Fifthly, if your invoice doesn’t get paid on time, it’s good to chase it but in a polite and friendly way. The key question is to find out the status of the invoice: ask accounts payable on the status – for example, is the invoice waiting for approval? You might like to ask when the next payment run is so you can set your expectations.
How to ensure repeat business
People like to buy from people they like. If you’re easy to deal with, you’re more likely to get repeat business. For clients that are not commissioning new work all the time, a good email newsletter can remind them that you’re around.
Alex Singleton is a marketing consultant