Snowplow races and why paying a project fee beats hourly every time.


My house backs up to a cemetery and fronts up to a small but busy cul-de-sac maintained and plowed by our town.

During a snowstorm, the cemetery side is where all the action is. Without exception, the guy who plows their roads has theirs cleared and salted hours, sometimes days, before the city sends someone to dig me and my neighbors out.

My reason for telling you this isn’t to get you to sign a petition. Rather, it’s to illustrate an important point when it comes to contracting for freelance copywriting services: the city’s snowplow operators are paid hourly, while the cemetery’s is not.

What’s true in the snow business is true in other areas, too. Whether you’re paying for snowplowing or copywriting services, project fees—or fixed fees as some like to call them—work best for clients in every case. My city’s snowplow drivers provide a classic example why, and it’s only the beginning of the reasons to favor fixed fees.

Paying hourly actually rewards inefficiency.

It’s twisted, but true—the longer our city’s snowmen take to clear our streets, the more money they make. Conversely, the faster they go, the less money they make. That’s the main problem with paying hourly. On the other hand, paying a project fee rewards freelancers for working hard, smart and fast because the emphasis is on doing the job, not the hours.

When you go project fee, the freelancer carries the risk, not you.

With hourly, you never really know what your final bill will be. Sure, it could be less than you expect. But it could also be more than your budget. With a project fee arrangement, it’s up to the copywriter to manage their hours; if they go over their estimate, it’s on them—not you. And you don’t have the risk of running out of hours because fixed fee projects are all-inclusive.

You get what you pay for with a project fee.

With fixed fee assignments, all the details are laid out in the contract, which sets the expectations for all parties. It establishes deliverables and deadlines for both the client in terms of approvals and provision of source materials, and for the copywriter in terms of when the copy is due. The contract supports an orderly revision process and delineates how services over and above the agreed-upon scope will be handled.

Fixed fees inspire efficiency.

With their clear details and parameters, fixed fee contracts help clients stick to their own timelines and provide a framework that ensures success. In essence, there are rules that guide everyone to do what they agreed to do, which encourages the project to go the way it’s supposed to go. In contrast, hourly agreements don’t usually have contracts. The lack of defined parameters can lead to loosey-goosey workflows, false starts and unrealized project objectives.

Hourly creates a psychological disconnect from value.

Hourly arrangements lead to hourly mindsets that can distract you from the big picture and the value of the project to your business. That may lead you to treat the project with less care than it deserves. Let me put it this way, is it “just an email that will take a few hours of work” or is it really a message that’s going to thousands of prospects that could net you millions in sales?

Hourly rates defy logic and cause discomfort.

Let’s be honest. It is impossible to look at someone’s hourly rate and not compare it to other, completely unrelated rates—be it your lawyer’s, your plumber’s or even your own. It is best not to go there. What difference does it make, anyway? With project fee, the focus is on the value of the work to your organization—as it should be.

Negotiating a project fee keeps you in the driver’s seat.

With project fee, you control the cost and the deliverable. But with hourly, the cost can vary. It’s just the nature of creative work. Sure, you can try and impose a cap on the number of hours a copywriter can use, but that can lead to varied results. Every creative person has their own process and pace. When you mess with their way of doing things, you do so at your own risk. It’s better to just agree on a price you’re comfortable with and let the copywriter deal with how much time it takes.

Project fee relationships bring unexpected value-adds.

With project fee, when an hourly copywriter exceeds the expectations of the project, it’s an unexpected gift, and it’s free—as it should be. Not so with hourly. When your copywriter goes over and above the call of duty, they’re exceeding the project scope. That means you the client end up paying for something that you didn’t ask for, budget for or really even think you needed.

Fixed fees work on any project you can imagine.

It’s possible to propose project fees for everything from the biggest jobs to the most piecemeal ones. That includes projects like website prompts, headline projects, tagline explorations or amorphous copy editing jobs. That said, it’s true that working on a project fee requires more work up front for the copywriter in estimating. It’s also more work for clients because they have to articulate their needs clearly. But I’ve found the extra planning to be well worth it in the end because it helps ensure clients get what they need without going over budget.

Remember the tale of two snowplow drivers on your next project.

One was fixed-fee driven and focused—the other was last seen texting his girlfriend in front of the Bulldog Deli.

And don’t forget, if you need help digging yourself out from a mountain of work, I’m here to help. Email me anytime to set up your free consultation.