“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” sang Dr Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. When it comes to setting fees for your copywriting service, I’d have to echo his sentiments.
I have a few very close friends who happen to be female freelance copywriters.
They are all very well paid.
They happen, also, to be extremely talented copywriters.
But that is not why they are very well paid.
They are very well paid because they ask for lots of money from their clients.
If they asked for not very much money they would be low paid. (Though still very good at writing copy.)
Forgive me if this argument sounds obvious, or even circular.
But it’s worth making because the link between income and fees is clearly quite mysterious to a lot of copywriters of both genders.
Let’s create an imaginary copywriter. Dave.
Dave is a man. He is a good copywriter. He has three years’ experience under his belt
When a prospective client rings or emails and asks for his day rate, without hesitation Dave says £400.
And Dave gets hired.
Now meet Diane.
Diane is a woman. She is a fantastic copywriter. She has twenty years’ experience under her belt.
When a prospective client rings or emails and asks for her day rate, Diane hesitates and then says £300.
And Diane gets hired.
Dave and Diane both bill about one hundred days a year.
Dave makes £40,000 a year. Diane, £30,000.
I have met many Daves and Dianes.
I interviewed quite a few for my book Write Copy, Make Money.
I call them occasionally when I see them tweeting their pain and frustration.
And I regularly chat to them at #copywritersunite nights in London.
So with a certain amount of confidence, I assert here that I am not making this shit up.
Here’s a thought experiment I like to present to copywriters who wish they were making more money.
“Imagine doubling your fees,” I say.
“OK”, they say, looking doubtful, as if this were impossible.
“Now,” I say, “Imagine that you lose half your existing clients as a result. You’re making the same income as you were before, but in half the time. Not only that, but if you pick up a single new client in all that free time, they will be paying your new rate so you’re now making more than you were before.”
And you know what? Nobody believes me.
Well, not nobody precisely. One person who took my advice was Katherine Wildman.
Katherine is Creative Director at Haydn Grey Ltd.
That’s her own company and she is, essentially, a freelance copywriter.
Here’s an extract from an email she sent me.
“Since I took the course I have quadrupled my rates and am now getting the type of clients I wrote down in my A4 pad on the day of the course as ‘ideal’. Pretty good going, huh? Thanks again!”
Her email illustrates another simple point.
A lot of freelancers I meet say they want to work for higher paying-clients.
“Put your prices up, then,” I say.
They don’t do it.
So they will never work for higher-paying clients.
Because clients only ever pay what you ask them to. They won’t offer more.
So if you routinely quote £200 a day, they will happily hire you till the cows come home, but they will never, ever, offer you £300.
The logic is watertight and irrefutable. To win higher-paying clients, you must charge more.
But hang on, you say, income isn’t simply a factor of day rates. It’s also a factor of the number of days you bill.
The formula for freelance earnings could be expressed algebraically as:
E = nR
Where E = Freelance earnings, n = number of days billed, and R = day rate.
The assumption is that by keeping your R low, you increase n and therefore E.
But in my experience, everybody has periods of feast and famine, and they rarely correlate to day rate.
In fact, the busiest copywriters I know both charge way above the average.
Which, let’s remind ourselves, is £339, as recorded by the PCN in its recent copywriting survey.
I don’t believe n is determined by R.
As you increase your rate, you move up the tree in terms of the size of budget your clients command.
The market for £100 a day copywriters will probably keep you in work for about 100-150 days a year.
But so will the market for £500 a day copywriters.
At the lower end you are mainly working for small companies, schools, local charities, start-ups and one-person companies or other freelance professionals.
They don’t have much money and are extremely cautious with it.
At the higher end, you are mainly working for large companies, government departments, major international organisations and professional service firms.
They have massive marketing budgets. They need and recognise that they need professional copywriters.
Yes, it’s competitive, but there are many, many hundreds of thousands of these organisations all over the world.
I would say, having specialised in working for this type of client over the years, that I am writing copy for fewer days of the year than I was twenty years ago.
But I am making more money.
Lest you point to this length of experience as the reason for my income, I need to point out that when I started out as a freelancer, I was charging £680 a day.
That was back in 1996 and it was twice the 2017 PCN average.
Was it because I was a man?
Was it because I had high self-esteem?
Was it because I needed to maintain the lifestyle I had been enjoying from my full-time salary?
I would answer, Possibly; No, I had low self-esteem (I had just been fired whilst on holiday); Yes.
Which brings us back to the question of gender.
What is it about men, or to be more specific, male copywriters, that enables them to command higher fees than their female counterparts?
The gender pay gap reported by the PCN was 29%.
To put that another way, on average, women’s earnings are less than three-quarters of men’s.
In-house writers, whether client- or agency-side, suffer, I believe, from ingrained attitudes to women that we see repeated across a great many industries.
But freelancers set their own rates.
So why do female freelance copywriters (on average) set their rates so much lower than men?
Here are some of the reasons I have either been told in person (by women) or heard/read on blogs and social media.
“I don’t feel confident about asking for more money.”
“I don’t really like talking about money so I pitch low to get it out of the way.”
“I’m just naturally good at writing so it doesn’t seem right to charge lots.”
“I love it so much I don’t feel it’s fair on the client to ask for more money.”
“I mainly work with start-ups so I lowball.”
These answers give part of the reason for the gender pay gap.
I am sure there are men who feel the same way, but what I have seen is that they rarely allow their feelings to dictate their fees.
Instead, they look the prospect in the eye and ask for a big number with a straight face.
When I started out, I knew I was talented. And I loved writing copy.
But I didn’t feel at all confident talking about money.
So what I did was, I pretended.
I pretended I was super-confident.
I pretended I was stooping by asking for the amount of money I was asking for.
I pretended I was worth it.
As they say, I faked it till I maked it.
And little by little, as the evidence piled up, in the form of repeat business, testimonials and referrals, I learned to be confident.
But please note, the emphasis is on ‘learned’.
I practised. I agonised over the best way to phrase my elevator pitch. I took courses, including the masterly Steve Slaunwhite’s.
And what I discovered was that clients are willing to pay for quality.
They are, in fact, usually willing to pay a great deal for quality.
This is because the financial return they derive from their investment in my services is FUCKING HUGE.
Let’s go back to the anxious copywriter who lowballs because she works for start-ups.
In five years, when the founders sell the business to Microsoft for £250 million and cash out with £10 million apiece, how is your £300 fee to write their website going to look?
(Incidentally, they will almost certainly have paid thousands for the design of their website.)
The answer does lie in confidence.
But it also lies in adopting a determinedly professional outlook.
This article is appearing on the site of the Professional Copywriters Network.
Not the Amateur Copywriters Network.
Not the Dilettante Copywriters Network.
Not the Hobbyist Copywriters Network.
The Professional Copywriters Network.
And yet, and yet…
I see too many members whose approach is about as far from the meaning of the word as it’s possible to imagine.
Photos of the professional copywriter with a pet. Or on holiday. Or at a party.
An “about me” page that refers to unpublished novels, poetry prizes won at infants school and a passion for cupcakes (yes – this is still a thing and it makes me very angry).
Twitter bios that mention the “cheeky little monkeys” that the writer is parent to.
Commercially ridiculous offerings such as a one-hour marketing consultation that includes free coffee and cake (again) for £20.
Are these copywriters among the 41% of fee survey respondents who said they wanted to be making more money?
I’d assume not.
So, let’s divide the universe of freelance copywriters into two groups.
We have ambitious commercially-minded people of both genders, who want to get on.
And we have the amateurs, the dilettantes and the hobbyists for whom, actually, the money is secondary, or even tertiary.
To the second group, I say, “good for you!” There is more to life than money and if you’re happy and fulfilled I can’t fault you.
To the first group, I say, “Right. You want to make more money? You want higher-paying clients? What are you going to do about it?”
Here are my suggestions for what to do about it. With costs.
Increase your fees right now. By at least 20%. £0
Form a limited company. £12.
Rewrite your website removing all personal references. £0
Rewrite your Twitter and LinkedIn bios ditto. £0
Buy my book, Write Copy, Make Money. £6
Join my Well-Paid Freelancer masterclass in June. £170 (refunded if not made back in six months.)
Because, in the end, and despite our trade, actions speak louder than words.
So what are you waiting for?
And if you need one final incentive, my window cleaner can clear £300 on a good day.
— Thanks to Andy Maslen for this guest post.