What’s happened to the market for freelance copywriters?

Not that I’m that close to it these days, but as far as I can see the answer is: “Very little.” It is, indeed,  the story of the curious behaviour of the dog in the night-time.

Way back in the 80s, when I was first buying the services of copywriters (and also art directors and designers), the standard rate was £200 a day.  Today, 25 years later, there is, undoubtedly, a wider range of price points – you can quite easily pay up to £1,000 a day.  But the fact remains, the standard middle-market day rate is still, well, a bit more than £200 but probably somewhere between £250 and £350 – while even on the basis of inflation alone, it ought to be £440.

Why is this? The obvious explanation is about supply and demand. Freelancers have been coming onto the market in large numbers, and from various directions (colleges, art schools, shrinking ad agency creative departments). But on the other hand, you’d think that a parallel increase in the volume of stuff being produced would easily take up the slack. And this would certainly seem to be true of copywriting: just look around at those trillions of words that firms have had to produce for the Internet, and try to imagine just how many copywriters they must need to churn them all out.

In fact, I suspect that amidst this monumental amount of out-churning, the real explanation for the fall in real-terms day rates has less to do with supply and demand and more with the commoditisation of creativity. Faced with the need to generate hundreds of thousands of words that hardly anyone is ever going to read, both buyers and sellers alike find it hard to maintain the myth that copy is something rare, precious and valuable. It’s become something that’s bought and sold by the yard.

But these changing attitudes haven’t just depressed copywriters’ earnings – they’ve all too often depressed the people who’ve had to read this stuff too. I know it’s wrong to look back to an imaginary golden age, and as soon as you slip down from the highest peak of the quality pyramid the standard has always fallen away pretty rapidly. Still, I really do hate to think of all those freelance copywriters sitting at their machines right now, cranking out commodity copy as quickly as they possibly can, in return for a mere £200 or so a day.

It may be that a lot of these people simply aren’t very good. £200 a day is a pretty mediocre day rate for any kind of skilled labour – plumber, decorator, mechanic – and it may be that a fair few of our commodity-copy-crunchers belong among this kind of peer group, and on that kind of rate, rather than among brain surgeons and rocket scientists. If so, then I suppose they have no grounds for complaint.

But if you really care about all those things we’re meant to care about in our branding, marketing and communications – distinctiveness, engagement, clarity – here’s something you might try. Next time you have any work for a freelance copywriter, offer twice or even three times their usual day rate. (It isn’t going to break the bank – it’s still a small fraction of what you pay other suppliers like, for example, me.)

Just make it clear, at the same time, that you’re looking for something that’s twice or three times as good.

2 thoughts on “What’s happened to the market for freelance copywriters?

  1. ADVERTISEMENT

    Mark, several of your words subvert your intention – Brilliant, churning, rubbish, suits, writer, dozen, talentless, hacks, crap [and] work.

    It is a great skill to interpret what the client wants via an intermediarial account handler, who has his or her eye too myopically close on the numbers for the agency and his or her job.

    It saves time and fuss – there is less need than ever for advertising.

    This skill should, indeed, be well paid so that the interpreter may afford salve for his or her worn, scuffed, over-compromised, late-at-night-anxious life.

    Still.

    It is indeed amazing that the average remuneration – money – monkey pay – for typewriter monkeys with a mischievous and engaging spirit, has gone down with time and maybe with cultural apathy.

    Listen. Attend.

    Ron Collins has just died, the jack-in-the-box jester of WCRS. This man had enormous skill in bypassing the stranded, stagnant, ox-bow lakes of conditional, subjective, poor-vision, scaredy-cat, big-macho-brand-directorship, pathetic “hopefully-we-will win” senorial dither, with direct, fluent, to-the-point empathetic and intellectual, human-connective, instant, dynamic current.

    An agency once launched a new car during the tin-is-king, hi-nrgy, car-marketing times. Ron absolutely insisted on running a press ad and poster pre-launch, pre-product-reveal (“a teaser”) with the picture of a human beneath a white sheet, rather than the car, as had been the convention. The headline was, “Are you the kind of person who will drive the new [blah blah] car?

    It was a simple reverse, a seemingly perverse and brilliantly simple invitation.

    The best thing about the notion was that he heroically insisted on holding a casting session for the person beneath the white sheet. The client and the agency were aghast. What for? they gasped. What a waste of money. We want to shift tin, get pre-launch sales interest, not look daft.

    Ron had no reason, financially, to be there in the agency – he had made his money long ago. He was roped in, or rather begged for, to be there.

    Ron’s status, too, was therefore a conundrum, a bag of Pandora’s box contents – including her sensationally alluring heels and knickers – around the question of what’s, so-to-speak, good for everyone who buys or doesn’t, is involved or isn’t in business, or what’s, in a phrase I have treasured for many years, merely …

    “For you convenience.”

    To conclude, it doesn’t take courage to employ good creative minds, it just takes good judgement.

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  2. “For your [not you] convenience” is phrase I treasure, forgive me, I am tired – “weary wordsmith” used to be a phrase to describe shot copywriters.

    However, I am tired through playing football with 5 years-olds in the park. Anyone who has played at an international level will know that that is nothing compared with facing unpredictable, large toddlers.

    You’re right Mark, Lucian’s post has an interesting, subtle point about paying copywriters who write clearly and engagingly.

    Maybe a constraint that produces boring copy is the need to write for the web, where you have to drop in certain words that will be picked up on a search.

    Oddly enough, the compliance and dullness requirements of financial and similar copywriting can sharpen the wits. I once was really impressed by and gave a job to a copywriter who had served a long, tough apprenticeship writing black-and-white ads for Fidelity, getting the brief (basically the current percentage rate on a product) late in the day, often a Friday, and having to make something special with it.

    She is now high up in Saatchi.

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