Get the Most From Your Freelance Creative Team

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You want to find a creative resource that has what it takes to beat your control and send subscriptions through the roof. There's no magic bullet to catapult your direct mail piece into breakthrough results, but there are guidelines to reduce the number of obstacles your team encounters and boost the chances they will develop a winning mail piece:


Choose the right team. Some freelance creative resources consist of a copywriter and designer who work as a team. Some copywriters work with several designers depending on budget, availability and other factors.


To improve your chance of success, select a creative resource with controls in your category or in the type of promotion you're doing. Most copywriters are better at some categories of magazines (or newsletters) than others. Some focus on a category such as financial publications or thought-leader titles. Many of the top writers are versatile and have created winning pieces across many categories, but these people also can be expensive.


If you plan on a sweepstakes, ensure that your creative team has a strong track record in sweeps. If you're going with a magalog, consider using a team that specializes in magalogs. Another specialty area is in-line personalized packages. If you are planning this type of package, go with someone who has written these successfully.


Look at the team's past work and read its samples. Determine whether its style matches the sophistication (or lack thereof) of your audience. Find out what titles the team has controls for. Freelancers who have unseated established winners at other magazines that do serious testing will have a much higher likelihood of producing a winner for you.


Creative fees. Pricing ranges widely for freelance creative in magazine direct mail promotion. Top copywriters command more than $20,000 per package just for copy, which can put the whole job at more than $30,000. But there are very good freelancers who are much cheaper. The minimum for good professional creative is $10,000 for copy and design.


Most freelancers are negotiable. If you give them a maximum budget you can spend for the project, and it is considerably lower than what they are asking for, there is a good chance they will meet you halfway or all the way.


These price ranges are for a full package: outer, letter, order card, lift note, brochure and business reply envelope. Simpler packages, or self-mailers, would be less expensive.


Top writers and designers get top dollars for a reason: Their stuff works. It costs more than $500,000 to mail 1 million pieces of direct mail on average, so it doesn't make sense to skimp by a few thousand dollars on a creative resource. A tiny improvement in response more than makes up for the cost.


Give them enough information. Once you select a creative copywriter and designer, you'll need to provide them information. Usually this includes multiple issues of the magazine, subscriber research and also refer them to your magazine Web site.


Should you show the team your current control or withhold it to ensure you get a fresh approach? Typically, I suggest you give them the control except in unique circumstances. If your control is fatiguing and you want to go in a totally different direction, you might hold back if you're concerned that showing the control will bias their thinking. This is a judgment call, so consult your gut.


Encourage your creative team to talk with the editor. Speaking with the editor often gives your team members a perspective they can't get from simply reading back issues and studying the research and media kit. However, this may not be advisable if the editor is extremely opinionated or would send your team down a blind alley.


Set up how communication will flow. In most creative teams the writer is the point person and the designer stays more in the background. However, there is no hard and fast rule, and the designer takes the lead in some teams. With some teams you interface with the writer and designer, others just with one of them. Any scenario can work as long as everyone is clear on what to expect.


Hammer out design issues early. Let the team know the specs. Will the package be letter-size or oversized? What are the postal requirements? Does the order form need to meet certain parameters for the fulfillment house?


Will you use recycled paper? Fancy stock? Lots of color? Die cuts? Stickers? Scratch-offs? Personalization? Polybags? Is a large four-color brochure in the budget?


This can be a collaborative process between you and the creative team at the start of the project. Creative freelancers work with many companies and publications, and they have good ideas of what formats or offers might be good to test. However, if you know exactly what format you want - a 6x9 package with a soft offer, for example - that's OK for you to specify going into the project.


Don't have the team go down a path that's too expensive if you have a limited budget. Convey as much information as you can as soon as you can so your team knows how much latitude there is. That way, the finished piece won't be too elaborate or too bare bones. Supply your designer with the P.O. box numbers, business reply envelope permit, indicia, return address, logo artwork and photos as early as you can. The more organized you are in assembling these components, the smoother the job will go.


Set a schedule. Ideally, give the team six weeks from receiving the assignment to sending files to the printer. A quick project may be completed in less than four weeks, and a longer project may take eight. There will be variations due to work schedules, but these should be ironed out up front.


Typically, allow two weeks for the initial draft of copy, another two weeks for design and a couple more weeks for revisions and getting all the final art, logos and stock codes, etc., in place. Some teams deliver relatively tight comps off the Mac for the first look. Others will give you copy plus a writer's rough. Establish in advance what your team will show you and agree on dates for each phase of the project.


For revisions, I think these should occur when your creative team doesn't hit the nail on the head or there are factual errors, not because you failed to convey key information or had a change of heart. The better and more complete the information you provide at the outset, the less your need for revisions is likely to be.


Don't micromanage, but don't be hands off, either. One of the trickiest parts of the equation is how much direction to give the team. If you hired a top-notch team, let the team do what it does best. If it's a less-experienced team, you may need to offer more creative direction. In that case, one option is to ask the team to present three concepts before executing full copy. I don't do this very often. I usually let them take their best shot and try to stay out of the way.


Hiring and working with freelance creative can be challenging. There can be egos and, often, tight turnaround times and unforeseen obstacles. The more you spell out up front, the better: format, size, offer, budget and schedule.


Clarify objectives and parameters at the outset to avoid problems on the back end. Give the team guidelines but don't over-direct or over-edit. Hire a team with expertise that you trust and, as much as possible, let the team go.


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