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.



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