A freelance copywriter recently told me that he’d provided some copy for a new client who then ghosted him. ‘But did you ask your client to sign your terms?” I asked. “Did you get a down payment from them?” I continued.
Sadly, his answer was “No” and “No”. And this misfortune had happened to him not once but twice in the last few weeks.
Next time you’re asked to provide a quote for a brilliant project then pull together a sizzling proposal — which includes an estimate that you’re happy with and think the client will be too — add in that all-important request for a down payment. And get your terms signed before you start.
Here’s why getting a down payment is so important for a freelance copywriter
Just like the five lights signalling the start of a Grand Prix, having a down payment means the work can officially commence.
It demonstrates commitment from the client and shows their trust in your abilities and work.
Hopefully, it also shows that the client is financially secure — although there are no guarantees, of course.
It creates revenue flow: unless a client needs something right away due to an urgent deadline, such as because media space or air time has been booked or they’ve an upcoming trade exhibition, it’s very rare that everything will be signed off by the time they said they wanted the job done. I’ve had requests for work needed in a matter of weeks — yet months have gone by before the client was in a position to sign off the copy. Such delays can also make project planning hard. (See How To Deal With Freelance Copywriting Project Delays)
Even if you’ve already worked with a client and they’ve been prompt in paying, I would still request a deposit upfront on anything more than £500. You can read why in The Secret To Getting Clients To Pay On Time
How much of a down payment should you ask for?
There’s no hard and fast rule. Some copywriters request 50% upfront and 50% at the end, but I’m not keen on that option.
For a start, I like to provide a small copy sample without obligation. It’s as much for the client to see what I’m like to work with, as it is for me to see what they’re like to deal with.
If your estimate is, say, £1,000 or less, ask for payment in three stages. For instance, an immediate down payment of 50% before starting, 40% after sending the first draft, and 10% at the end. These figures aren’t sent in stone — you need to decide what you’ll be happy with and think sensibly about what the client will be happy to agree to. I prefer to ask for a third, small payment once everything is signed off because, as mentioned above, it can take months for that to happen. Yes, months.
What about arranging a retainer? If the work looks to be a regular gig, then it’s a good idea. However, if working with a new client, I would advise a trial period of three months before committing so that you both have a better understanding of how much time and effort will really be involved. Plus, you can then see if that promise of constant work was only a promise and nothing concrete.
Three important points to consider when requesting a copywriting down payment
If the project is worth considerably more than £1,000, then think about the best way to stage payments to keep the cash flowing in. With a large website, I might request a payment after sending the first half of the first draft. Or, you could keep an eye on hours spent and arrange to invoice twice-monthly or at the end of the month. If you find it hard to organise yourself, consider an online invoicing tool such as FreeAgent, QuickBooks or Invoicely.
If I’m writing a sizeable website or brochure, I prefer to request a decent chunk after sending first draft copy. Otherwise, you’re not only waiting for the client to give feedback but may also then be waiting for the designer to do their bit which will, in turn, be dependant on waiting for client feedback. That has the potential for a delay of even more months! To cover yourself, consider include wording like this in your terms:
If copy is uploaded to see how it looks before I have invoiced for the final copy stage, I reserve the right to invoice in full for the agreed amount outstanding.
If a potential client says a deadline is urgent, then check why. (Is it because they’re going on holiday and want to cross off the task on their To Do list???) If the work really and truly is needed like there’s no tomorrow, or involves work over the weekend, then request a late-project fee and increase your costs by 50% at least.
Which ever way you decide to structure your copywriter payment terms, don’t forget to get your terms signed off. And make sure the project deposit is in your account before you put pen to paper.
Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter with a few essential legal and accounting skills thrown in