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, Â 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 Â£200 a day. Â Today, 25 years later, there is, undoubtedly, a wider range of price points – you can quite easily pay up to Â£1,000 a day. Â But the fact remains, the standard middle-market day rate is still, well, a bit more than Â£200 but probably somewhere between Â£250 and Â£350 – while even on the basis of inflation alone, it ought to be Â£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 Â£200 or so a day.
It may be that a lot of these people simply aren’t very good. Â£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.