July 20, 2012I don’t give out free samples — here’s why.

Cheesy. Image by Daniel Farrell

Free samples are for supermarkets. When a client asks me for sample work before signing a contract, I have to decline. It’s lost me a couple of jobs recently, and I’m seeing the request pop up more and more, so I decided to blog about it and explain my reasons why.

I’m not talking about spec work on a major project that could get your foot in the door at an agency, with a big brand, or signed up to a major contract. I’ll happily give up an afternoon if I think there’s a reasonable chance it will feed me for the next six months. I’m talking the small £1000 budget jobs that are the bread and butter work for most freelance copywriters.

Here’s three reasons why it’s simply not cost effective to give out free samples to secure small contracts.

1. Tone of voice is everything

When a client asks for sample copy, they are actually asking you to do 50% of the work for free. It might take half a day and ten failed attempts to come up with the right tone of voice. Like building a house, you have to build the foundations — the bit that never gets seen — first. I have to do all that before I can write your sample page or paragraph. That takes time. And time is money – which you’re not giving me.

2. I know nothing about you

Even if the tone of voice is set, I still need time to get on top of your brief and do my research. I need to know what your company does, what your product is, what your competition are doing, and choose an angle of attack that meets your objectives and lives up to your expectations. I can’t do any of this before I’ve done my research. Again, this takes time — which you’re not paying me for.

3. I have no idea how many other writers you’re talking to

Let’s say I really want this job and it takes me half a day to do the research, scrape together a couple of ideas, and send them over to you. What I don’t know is that you’ve approached ten copywriters in total. My suspicion when I see demands for sample copy in my inbox is that you’re fishing — looking for 10 free ideas from 10 hungry freelancers. But even if you’re not, if I only have a 1 in 10 chance of winning this job, the true cost to me of this sample work isn’t half a day, it’s five days — because I’ll need to do ten pieces of sample copy for ten different clients before winning a job.

In conclusion

“There’s so goddamn many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing” – Harlan Ellison

To borrow a saying from Harlan Ellison, “pay the writer”. Our time isn’t free — and your paragraph, page, or 100 words of text actually take a great deal of time to create in terms of research, tone of voice choices and, of course, the opportunity cost of not working on actual paid work.

My work, and my time, isn’t a slab of cheese I can quickly cut up and hand out on sticks to entice people in. It’s carefully thought out copy that’s unique to each client. I don’t have a “style” I can crank out. My work is unique to you.

Everyone wants something for nothing. But if you want good copy, be prepared to pay.


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This entry was posted on Friday, July 20th, 2012 at 12:37 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Too right. I lost a big job because I wouldn’t provide the sample. I have been suckered enough times to provide freebies and not getting the job.

    When somebody offers you a free piece of cheese they are not giving away the recipe, aren’t they? So I refuse to create a voice for free. I did explain to the potential client that the sample was inappropriate because it was the main message of the website, which, in a similar job, took me ages to hone to perfection. They said: “yes, send us your thoughts then…” Later in the day they emailed they were going with another copywriter.

    Since I was a good candidate for that job having done the same campaign three times, did they actually have that account or where they after a freebie so they could pitch for it at no expense/risk to them?

  2. Romet says:

    It’s ridiculous for a tiny company or an entrepreneur to make you audition and keep the actual paying customers waiting for them. Time is money, so they are basically asking for your money without even promising to pay it back.

    If you have doubts about the quality of work, you can always purchase a smaller portion at first, as a trial. Some people seem to be taking the “client is King” line literally, only a truly high profile client should expect free trials.

  3. Łukasz Gos says:

    I wonder if there’s a way to work around the problem. Can you tweak a portfolio into a collection of tiny case studies/samples showcasing a number of different voices while also proving that you can be versatile and adapt? Or in any other way basically use a piece of your own preexisting sales literature to make ad-hoc client-specific no longer necessary or relevant? Sort of a blue-ocean thing where instead of competing for the client’s favour you readjust demand? Translators can get away with this sort of thing.

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