Surviving as a Freelance Copywriter is Up to You
December 15, 2014
By Brian Bentley
Today’s topic covers some of the strategies for survival as a freelance entertainment copywriter. What exactly is this? Think of Don Draper from Mad Men, only you’re writing ad copy for something far more cool than ketchup or cold cream. You’re in the movie business. Sure, you won’t get passes to the Academy Awards, but many of the people you work for will. I have been an entertainment freelancer for years, contributing copy for over 300 films and TV shows. My work has gone to finish on posters and video boxes for Dances With Wolves, Blade and Buffalo 66.
This is a tough business and nobody makes much money because writers don’t get paid a whole lot anymore. But the rewards are plenty. Imagine you are walking down the street with a friend and you both notice a 20-foot high billboard for the HBO series Girls. The image is four young women gazing upward into white space. The tagline is “Nowhere to Grow but Up.” And you wrote that. Whip out the iPhone and immediately post the photo. You can’t buy how good that feels.
If you are starting from scratch, the first thing you will need is a copywriting portfolio.
A good creative director can spot a talented writer in two seconds, even from a spec ad. Find some taglines and movie synopses you admire and break down their components to replicate them. It’s fairly easy in many software programs to insert your own copy into existing key art and create a finished ad. Work on taglines, synopses, actor bios and sell sheets. Press kits to emulate can be found online. Once you have built a decent portfolio, the next step is to target potential clients.
LinkedIn is a nice resource. So are the Golden Trailer Awards. Any database that lists agencies to approach is good. TrailerPark.com is one of the industry leaders.
Most people will be happy to tell you the things that are so great about the biz and how you can still make it, even though the entire industry has been hammered and shrunken by technology. In the late '90s, it was mostly print and broadcast. Now it’s mainly online. But the principles of keeping your sanity have not changed. I am going to tell you things that you won’t find in typical places, but maybe they will help you keep focused and determined.
- When I was doing this full-time, I made an average of 50 to 100 cold calls for work every week. I kept detailed logs of each prospect, when to call back and what my follow-up strategy would be in each case. If you are afraid of rejection, realize that this is a numbers game. The more people you call/contact, the easier it will get and the better the chance you are going to hook up with someone (kind of like dating). You are not selling Internet bundling packages. You are selling a service that is going to be profitable for both you and your client because you know you can deliver the goods.
- The gatekeepers at studios and agencies are hired to keep people like us away and out of the boss’s hair. Make these gatekeepers your friends. Don’t let them intimidate you. If they are complete a-holes, then move on, you don’t want to work there. But often you can get them to see you as a determined and sincere person and they will do all they can to help you.
- Draw up profiles of all your targeted execs. Find out what they have worked on and any awards. Do your research homework. This will impress and flatter them if you are lucky enough to engage them in a conversation.
- Avoid passive communication like sending out resumes without phone calls or repeated email/text/online follow up. Cold resumes are often tossed in the trash. Rarely does anyone call back from a resume unless you went to the same college as the boss or are friends with one of their best friends.
- Try hard to make them empathize with your career goals. When someone is impressed by any candidate they will go out of their way to help them succeed.
- If you are a beginner, you can work for spec (paid only if copy used) exactly ONCE for the same client. After that, ask them if they could “pay their bills working for free?” and tell them diplomatically that anyone who works for free is getting paid what they are worth. If they get snippy or claim that other writers work for free, move on. There are more clients out there than you think and the harder you look, the more you will find.
- Once you get a client or two, then your job is to not lose them.
- Be aware of idiots in the front office who will absolutely destroy your chances of success at the company. If you find yourself taking copy direction from someone you sense is incompetent, diplomatically confirm with higher-ups that the direction you are being given is what the brass really wants.
- This can be done delicately, but sometimes you just have to be forceful. Better to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m getting mixed messages here and I want to make sure you guys are happy with my work.”
- One reason you are doing this is because your time is valuable. More importantly, if you are sent in the wrong writing direction by a well-meaning but clueless lower level employee, the boss you are working for will usually blame you, the writer.
- Deadlines are the most important facet of this. Whenever possible, get them verified in writing. Even if you agree by phone to deliver them by 5 pm on a Tuesday, send a follow up text or email that confirms that in a casual way. This gives you a back-up note to send to the boss that proves the deal was made for a certain deadline.
- Use a Purchase Order (P.O) whenever you do a job for anyone, and have the fee plainly stated. E-mail is OK to confirm your fee, but some people can claim to lose an e-mail, so I try to make it an official P.O. with my company and address at the top.
- Sometimes no news is good news. Just because you turned in an assignment and didn’t hear back, it doesn’t mean they are unhappy. If you are satisfied with your work and convinced you put in 100% effort, it just stresses you out to project anything negative. Creative Directors are swamped with things to do.
- There is one constant in this. If they like you and you gave them their money’s worth, they will use you again. But often they won’t compliment you in the slightest because they are worried this will cause you to want more money, or, even worse (if they really like you), disappear and start working for their competition.
- The flip side is if they didn’t like the work they will never tell you why. They just won’t use you again.
- When it comes to assignments, always promise less than you can deliver and then deliver more than you promised. Ask for more time than you really need and then give them more copy directions than they asked for. If they ask for 25 taglines, give them 50.
- Rewrites are free. If the first pass isn't exactly on target, let them know that you will write one revision and maybe a little more. But if there are major changes in direction on their end after you submit copy, then the fee needs to be renegotiated. Money really is about time spent. Your time.
- When negotiating fees, be honest but clever. Most budgets are loosely set by companies before they contact freelancers. But there can be considerable wiggle room. If they think you will take bottom dollar, they will presume that you suck. You want to be near the top end of their affordable range. Ask other writers what they charge. Try to find one exec who is sympathetic and ask them straight out what they usually pay. I was once called for a fees quote to write radio spots for the movie Shrek. The woman on the phone asked me what I charged and when I gave them a figure, she told me that my quote was half of what the other writers asked for so I “must not be any good.” I replied, that I would be happy to charge her more if it would make her feel better.
- Friends are good. Industry friends are even better. My best and longest contacts were people with whom I enjoyed a certain camaraderie. There was one guy who was a musician and we were on a great social wavelength. He’d call to give me the background info on an assignment and we would spend most of the conversation talking about bands and gigs and then he would finally say, “Oh yeah, the tagline concepts are blah, blah, blah, same old shit,” and then send me all his coverage to work from. If you can find a relationship with a freelance employer this natural and real, you have struck career gold.