No more day rates

Day rates undervalue work and can encourage dishonesty says freelance copywriter Mike Reed. Project fees are a much better option

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The problem with a day rate is…

1 | You don’t know what a ‘day’ means. What can the writer achieve in a day? What’s their idea of a reasonable day’s productivity?

2 | You don’t know how many days you need. Many new clients ask simply, ‘What’s your rate?’ But the answer is meaningless unless you know how many days the writer is likely to spend on your job.

3 | It doesn’t recognise the value of the work. I might come up with a brilliant strapline in an hour. Hell, I might come up with it in the briefing meeting. Or it might take a week of fevered attempts, drafts and rounds of feedback.

Either way, if it’s good, that line is extremely valuable for your company. It sums up your offer in a handful of words, crystallising everything you are in a single hit.
So, do we judge it by the time it took? Ten minutes? An hour? A week? Or should we find a fee that we both feel recognises the value of that product?

4 | It’s a nonsense. Many new projects begin with some version of this conversation: ‘What’s your day rate, and how long do you think this’ll take?’

‘It’s £700 a day, and I reckon it’s ten days’ work, so that’s £7,000.’

‘Oh. I only have £5,000.’

Instantly, the day rate goes out of the window. Now, it’s about balancing the writer’s needs and the client’s. Is this a nice project for the portfolio? Might it open up other opportunities with this client, or in this sector? Will it be fun, or a drudge? Can he or she afford to let it go – or is this the first proper job to come along in months?
All the factors above, and more, are important in setting a fee. So why reduce the process to an artificial system of hours and days?

5 | It encourages dishonesty. Or at least, some form of bad faith. A writer may be confident of doing a job in a couple of days, but be equally aware that the job is far more valuable than ‘Day Rate × 2’. So he or she ends up quoting five days just to secure a fair price. Early in my freelance career someone – a client, no less – advised me to do exactly this. ‘Wait a couple more days, then deliver it and say it took four days,’ he said. ‘That’s how you make money.’ This struck me as cynical and dishonest at the time, and it still does.

The good thing about a project fee is…

1 | Everyone knows where they stand. The client knows from day one what they’re paying – unless the brief changes materially. And the writer knows what the job will bring in. If the writer has underestimated the time required, then he or she will take the hit – not the client.

2 | It can recognise the value of the work. The writer can include in his or her fee a recognition of this.

Again, a strapline is a perfect example: it’s very short, but done well its value can be inestimable. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to quote the same price for a strapline as for a large brochure. Many clients wouldn’t go for that, of course, but that’s another argument for project fees: you’re free to negotiate something that suits everyone – or not.

3 | It can recognise the budget. If the client has £XXX for a job, the writer is free to decide whether they’re happy to do it for that. They don’t have to worry about how many days it’ll take, and what that means for their day rate.

4 | It’s honest. If a job is worth £10,000, it’s worth £10,000. Maybe the writer can do it all in ten days. Fantastic. But they won’t have to be coy with anyone. They won’t have to quote an artificially high number of days – and then hold off on delivery for appearances’ sake.

5 | It saves arguments. Many writers will have had the difficult ‘It can’t take you that long’ conversation. Either during the estimating process, or the job itself, the question can arise: ‘Is this really X days’ work?’

It’s a corrosive question. The client feels (perhaps correctly) that the writer has overcooked the number of days. The writer feels (perhaps correctly) that his or her work is being  commoditised and undervalued. Both start to feel they’re being done over.

Ditching day rates makes this question irrelevant. You agree a fee, you agree the deadlines, and you get on with the work – without nagging worries about how long someone is actually tapping away on a keyboard.

This article is an edited version of Mike Reed’s blog post, No More Day Rates, which can be read at Republished with permission