On Billing for Creative Work

I was sitting in my first big client meeting where we were rebranding a Fortune 200. There were four of us from the agency at the table, while the other six seats were filled by C-level folks from the company. About ten minutes into the meeting, after the executives from the company had finished their introductory arguments on why they needed a rebrand, I wrote a tagline on a notecard. As the clients continued to talk, and reinforce what I wrote, I stealthily slid the notecard to the AE on my left. He glanced down at it, and then slid it under his notebook—smiling at the client the whole time. 

We didn’t show the line to the client for about six months—during a period when we showed them a lot of other creative. When we finally did present the line I wrote during that first meeting, they jumped on it and it went on to become their corporate tagline worldwide. 

Over the years this ability to deconstruct and filter fast has played out time and time again. It’s why I no longer bill by the hour, but by project. And I don’t do this to make the most coin possible, but rather in the spirit of fairness and efficiency. For both the client, and me. 

Back when I first got into advertising as a freelancer, I billed at something like $25/hour. And I diligently kept my time. Most clients never had a problem with my billable. Others, ones I’d avoid in the future, would quibble over my time like they were haggling with a Tijuana sombrero salesman. 

Look, every project has a budget. A client might say it’s $25/hour, but they know how much they’re willing to spend for a final product. It’s not like they have an unlimited budget. The thinking is that if you work hourly and come in under budget, good for them. But if you come in over—it’s haggle time. 

This whole idea makes me crazy. What we do as creative professionals isn’t contained by a clock.

I wrote the tagline for that Fortune 200 in about fifteen minutes. Because I was a junior copywriter, I was probably being billed at $75/hour (while being paid a fraction of that, obviously). So in essence, the agency should have billed the client $18.75 for the line. Right? But they didn’t. They billed them the whole project amount which included all the time of all the people involved. 

Just as every project has a budget, every project has an estimated value. A “worth” to the brand. 

It’s not just a landing page, it’s data capture. 

It’s not just an ad, it’s a lure. 

It’s not just a tagline, it’s the literal embodiment of a culture. 

There’s no value in being fast in advertising. Besides, the value of our work is nearly incalculable. Sure, we can monitor analytics to prove the effectiveness of an ad, but when something is effective the value is oftentimes beyond measure. Especially in branding. 

Just Do It was the brainchild of Dan Wieden in 1987. How long do you think it took for Dan to come up with that line? Some (including me) might argue that it took his whole life—all of his experiences that lead to that epiphany—but the truth is, it probably just appeared to him after immersing himself in the problem for a while. Hell, it probably appeared to him in the shower. Don’t laugh. That’s how it works. 

So … that highly resonant, deeply personal tagline helped catapult worldwide sales for Nike from $877 million to $9.2 billion between 1988 and 1998, and is currently the cornerstone of a cultural icon. Unless Wieden arranged for a % of future sales, I’m pretty sure the line was worth waymore than the agency fee. I just hope that it was equitable—but given the story of the $35 swoosh design, who knows? 

My point here is that creative work can’t really be contained by a clock. Even though neither the client nor the creative professional have unlimited budgets or buckets of time to work with.  

I recently wrote the tagline for a branding project as I walked through the client’s parking lot after our kickoff meeting. I showed the tagline as part of a creative presentation 10 days later, along with two other options. They went with the line I wrote in the parking lot. Sure, I spent a lot of time framing the problem and researching it after the meeting, but because it was a project rate, there was no need for me to obsess over every minute. I know how long it takes to get from tabula rasa to keynote deck. I know how long it takes to refine concepts. I know how long it takes to go live. Client is happy. I’m happy. And you know what? So what if it took me ten seconds or 100 hours to solve the problem? The value of solving it didn’t change. And as long as it’s on budget, based on a previously agreed-to project rate, everyone’s happy. 

I get it, sometimes we have to work by the hour. Especially when you’re starting out. But when you can work at a project rate, I implore you to do so. Your final product will be better because you’re not sweating over every minute you spend thinking about a thing.



How to Write Branding Copy

I never show clients what they want to see in the initial round of branding copy.

My job as a copywriter requires that I be two people. One is to think tactically about goals, benefits, target audiences, and so on. The other is to be completely disconnected from the brand. It’s an absurd way of thinking. And yeah, as you can imagine the process can get weird with two contradictory voices in your head. But the results are almost always unexpected, and effective.

That’s because when you’re writing copy there’s almost always an expectation of how it should play out. Especially when you’re always trying to squeeze in the who, what, where, when, why, how, blah, blah, blah. That’s the template, right? Gotta follow the rules so everyone buys off.

Only, I believe that those expectations come after the initial branding copy.

Branding copy should aspire to make the reader feel something in a way that gets them to take favorable action.

A person landing on your page via an organic search doesn’t want the mission statement shoved in their face. They want a reason to keep reading and researching what it is you do and how it affects them.

Once you gain that trust, then you can get into the guts of it.

(Granted, there are obviously exceptions to this rule. Particularly in retail when someone already knows what they want and they just want to navigate to the proper page on your site to buy it. No need to make them feel much with any initial branding copy. In these cases, just get to the point. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want a crappy website, but rather one that’s easy to use, aesthetically pleasing, and branded authentically. When you have a product or service that people like, the brand will take hold.)

Over the years I’ve had good clients who have trusted me to capture the voice of a brand in a way that moves its audience to take action. I’ve also had clients who wanted to micromanage each syllable because they know their product best. And of course they’re absolutely right. But, ironically, this proximity to the product/service is why they have a hard time seeing past the who, what, where, when, why, and how to make their reader feel something. Many times these clients are pressed for ROI, so it’s easy to resort to tactics that have proven effective in the past (SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!).

But branding and storytelling take time. As does improved ranking (unless you’re paying, of course). People want to like the brands they buy. And that means more than a hard sell on your homepage.

It means having the courage to change.

No, most clients that micromanage branding copy can’t separate themselves from themselves to see things clearly. They can’t be two people.

So when I pitch that first round of initial branding copy, I read it aloud. I want that inflection to sink in. I want them to feel it from the voice of ‘another.’

This is usually the copy we end up using. With a few tweaks, of course. I’m an effective writer, but God knows I will never know everything about every brand.

When a client isn’t sold on that copy direction, I suck it up and create something more in line with their expectations. Then it’s usually a “hurray” moment because the client is happy. Even though the message could have been stronger.

What about clients that hate the initial branding copy? That hasn’t happened yet, so I have no idea. I reckon I’d refer them to someone else. But when a client choses to work with me they’re hiring me because they like my work. Not because I take them to fancy lunches.

And over my career I’ve learned that the work that works best, is almost always what clients don’t expect to see.

Taglines Glorious Taglines


Sometimes being a copywriter is like being an archaeologist. Only, instead a mastodon graveyard in Utah, one of the best assignments for a copywriter is writing taglines.

A tagline is a succinct phrase that represents an organization’s core value while working in concert with the name and logo to form a powerful branding tryptic.

Taglines can be either descriptive (“Nothing Runs Like a Deere”) or a call to action (“Just Do It.”) Some people call them slogans, but to me a slogan is part of a campaign that routinely changes. Taglines, the best ones anyway, don’t change. As a brand or organization grows and evolves, that tagline is the tether back to the heart of the company.

Taglines are also not headlines. A headline is the primary line in an advertisement. Which is not to say that a tagline can’t be a headline. It can. Headlines just can’t be taglines.

Confused? Fair enough. Think of a tagline like a birthmark. No matter how much you change, you’ll never escape the fact that you have a birthmark on your right thigh in the likeness of Che Guevara. It’s part of who you are (not Che, the birthmark.)

The fact that McDonalds has used “You Deserve a Break Today” (1970s),  and then went to “We Love to See You Smile” (2000s), to the current “I’m Lovin’ It” proves that what they use are slogans. Their name doesn’t change. Their logo doesn’t change (much). Just that line.

Off the top of your head, can you recall Nike’s tagline before Just Do It? Exactly. Just Do It is the epitome of a tagline. Succinct. Powerful. Common language. And it’s a CTA.

Just Do It is the holy grail of taglines. 

Yes, taglines can change. Just like a logo or a brand’s color scheme can change. It happens. But when you’re creating a tagline, you’re thinking about core, unchangeable truths. Unlike a slogan that might last a year, or a headline that could change from ad to ad.

Over the years I’ve written a ton of taglines. Here are four, and the process from which they were born. Granted, some brands I’ve worked for have disappeared, and others have changed their brand identity (including tagline), but the process was the same.

Client: Vision 360

Problem: Vision 360 was a startup in the mid-2000s that built a camera which captured 360 degree high-resolution photographs that were stitched together to create something like an interactive video experience. Think about visiting a museum website—V360 would go in and create this totally immersive photograph that allowed website visitors to move around inside of a room and drill down to intricate details. It was a cool concept that lived for a while.

Tagline: Take a Good Look Around 

Why it worked: As with all startups, one of the problems is getting people to notice you. Take a Good Look Around was a strong CTA that both overcame the hurdle of getting prospects to consider the brand, while also effectively representing the primary product—360 imagery. Unfortunately, the company is no longer around. But it’s not the tagline’s fault.


Client: National Gypsum 

Problem: The year was 2000, I was a junior copywriter at a large ad agency and was sitting in my first rebranding meeting. The client’s primary product was wallboard. Wallboard is the stuff you have in your house or apartment that separates rooms. Wallboard is made of gypsum (a type of pulverized rock). It’s pretty boring. Also, wallboard is pretty much all the same. In fact, during the meeting the client even said, “The problem is that there’s almost no difference between our product and our competition. Even our pricing is similar.” However, in the SWOT analysis portion of that initial rebrand meeting, I learned that the client prided itself on customer service. Hmmm.

Tagline: Excellence Across the Board

Why it worked: So yeah, almost every business thinks their customer service is great. Even when it’s not. But with that little bit of info, the line came to me right there in that first meeting. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lines later, we presented our potential solutions and the client loved this line. It was pretty cool to go into Home Depot after that and see my tagline on their products. Note: this is one of those instances where the client has since rebranded, sending this line to the archives.


Client: Boxman Studios

Problem: As most of you know, I branded this company from the ground floor and grew it to #120 on the Inc. 500 in just three years with no advertising budget. Which is awesome and all, but I don’t think we would have seen any of that growth without a great brand in place. And part of that brand (along with the name and logo) was the tagline. The problem was that the concept of repurposing shipping containers for entertainment purposes was completely new. We literally invented the sector. It’s hard growing a brand in that environment whether there’s an ad budget or not.

Tagline: Just Add People

Why it works: We had big plans for repurposing shipping containers. But from temporary and permanent housing, to popup retail, to (our core offering) mobile entertainment venues, the one thing that all of the potential uses had in common was that we were taking these massive metal boxes that carried sneakers from Asia to North America and turning them into structures for human beings. Add to this that we had a new product which required people shift how they thought about shipping containers, and the simplicity of the line worked well as part of the brand tryptic (name, logo, tagline) to take the conversation to the next level.

boxman tagline

Client: Kangaroo

Problem: Back in the mid 2000s, the oil and gas industry was booming. And my client, the convenience store/gas station chain Kangaroo, was growing like crazy. We were hired to help the HR department create a campaign to attract new talent to help staff and manage all their new stores.

Tagline: Bound for Greatness

Why it worked: Kangaroos bounce. Everyone wants a great career. Get it? And it’s a CTA to boot? And a double entendre? Fuggedabout it. Ok, so this one was on the pun side, but it worked and the client loved it. Oh, and within three months of building the HR brand and website, they were receiving 10,000 hits a day on the site. But then the recession hit, gas margins took a beating, and the hiring stopped.


So there are four good examples of taglines I’ve had the privilege to write over the years. Clever, right? But here’s the thing, I never once felt clever writing them. Taglines already exist within brands and organizations. It’s up to the copywriter to discover them. And the way you do that is by asking the right questions of your clients. Not just their sales goals, but the important stuff. The “why do you exist” question that goes beyond sales.

So grab a brush and trowel and get digging.


Jim Mitchem