“Danger! Will Robinson” (on taking that full-time gig…)

Jan 30, 2021

Distractions, distractions. That sums up my day today, which is why I’m getting this issue out to you so late.

Today’s topic is something I haven’t covered much before…but often comes up in copywriting and mastermind groups I’m in as well as in my mentoring sessions.

It’s about when you should consider going “in-house” as a copywriter…versus remaining a freelancer.

By “in-house” I means a few different scenarios:

1) Becoming an actual, bona fide employee (remote or on-site), with a benefits package that often includes health insurance, paid vacation time, 401k (often with some kind of employer matching), and other “perks”. In this scenario the employer pays the employer portion of Medicare and Social Security taxes, withholds federal and state taxes, and issues you a W-2. Think of it as getting “married”.

2) Becoming a contract employee, where you are “employed” by a company but you are technically an independent contractor. In this scenario, you’re responsible for filing and paying your own taxes (including both the employee and employer portion of Medicare and Social Security), you need to get your own health insurance, and do your own retirement savings plan. Think of it as “living together”.

This next one isn’t actually “in-house” but can result in a full-time, solo-client work arrangement…

3) Setting up a retainer arrangement where you agree to do ongoing work on mutually agreed-upon terms that’s often for a set period of time, either part-time or full-time. In this scenario, you’re still basically a freelancer, but you’ve got a steady stream of income from this particular client. Think of it as “going steady”, or”dating around” if you’ve got a part-time retainer in addition to other clients.

The way I’ve built and run my freelance copywriting business for more than two decades is scenario #3. I’ve done a few retainer arrangements with clients (one acted as a “bridge” between leaving my $100k-a-year marketing job in 1998 to go freelance).

But none of them have been anything more than part-time, which always allowed me to bring on new clients and maintain existing client relationships.

Because I had built connections and a reputation for being a good copywriter and marketer when I was at Phillips Publishing, when I left to go freelance I had a steady stream of referrals coming my way.

I still had to “kiss a lot of frogs” (some clients were less than ideal…but hey, that gave me some great “war stories” and they paid the bills). And I generally went from flat-fee to flat-fee project–but the work was always there.

The only dry spell I ever had happened after I’d been freelancing one year. It was the beginning of May 1999, I wrapped up a client project, and realized I didn’t have anything booked after that.

I briefly panicked, than relaxed just a bit and decide to SAVOR the break. It didn’t last long…not even a week. Within a few days some past clients and referrals had booked my schedule solid again.

After a few years, I wrote a few big (and not so big) controls and began writing almost exclusively long-form copy and collecting royalties along with bigger fees.

I share this perspective because at that point in time, the opportunity for me to build my reputation as a freelance copywriter was huge.

I had a steady flow of clients. I had a solid foundational knowledge of copywriting and direct response marketing.

And I had worked in-house with a “name” company (Phillips was at least 3 times bigger and better-known than Agora was at the time).

So with all this going for me–and the fact that after those first few years, I pared my weekly hours to no more than 20 to 30 tops (while still making, as AWAI likes to say, “more than most doctors”), why would I go “in-house”?

Well, your situation is likely different than how mine was back then. And times have certainly changed.

There are more potential clients than ever before. There is also more competition from other copywriters than ever before.

You’re competing against copywriters from all over the world for clients here in the U.S. That often wasn’t the case a decade or two ago.

The clients tend to be smaller, entrepreneurial companies, versus the direct response behemoths of a decade or two ago. Many of those behemoths are no longer around–or are a shadow of their former selves.

So there’s much more pricing pressure on copywriters in terms of the fees they can charge or whether they can negotiate royalty arrangements.

I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble…I’m just telling it like it is, the way I see it.

However (not to sound like a broken record), when you have the talent and skill set to consistently produce quality copy that gets results for your clients, you’ll never want for work.

You can charge higher fees…negotiate royalties and other “win/win” incentive arrangements…and, if it’s your dream like it was mine, work less and earn more.

So how do you get really REALLY good at copy? It’s not just learning everything you can from the right people. It’s actually DOING it.

That takes us back to the topic at hand: should you take on a full-time gig if you’re currently eking it out as a copywriter (or even if you’re already successful)?

Let me sum up my advice:

1) If you are just starting out in your copywriting career, or have a few years of experience under your belt, having the opportunity to work in-house for a well-run, respected company could be a game-changer.

Here’s why: a) You’ll get paid to learn, and in return potentially get one of the best direct response copywriting educations you can buy.

b) You’ll instantly gain a network of colleagues who “know somebody” who “knows somebody”, so that if you ever leave (you will eventually) you’ll have a huge edge in transitioning to freelance. You may even get lucky and get a wonderful mentor.

c) If you become an actual real employee vs. a 1099 one, you’ll potentially save a ton on insurance and taxes and enjoy paid time off and 401k matching (a.k.a. “free money”!)

Caveats: Finding the right “well-run, respected” company is tougher than it seems…do your legwork. Talk to people who work there, especially those who USED to work there.

If you’re a contract/1099 employee, make sure they’re paying you enough. Generally you should be making about 50% more compared to what they’d pay someone who was a salaried employee. Figure out what you need to pay for the employer portion of Medicare and Social Security taxes, health insurance, days you take off sick or for vacation without pay, and all the other “perks” you’re not getting.

And for the love of God, avoid signing any piece of paper without knowing exactly what you’re signing (i.e., get a lawyer to review it). This is especially true of non-compete contracts, which are becoming more popular for lower- and mid-level employees and generally benefit the employer only, while potentially limiting your ability to earn an income should you leave or be terminated.

You also want to avoid a common trap that seems to be on the rise (whether you do freelance or in-house work): agreements that keep you from showing samples of your work to others. I think this just stinks. You don’t want to invest months or years of your life and than have nothing to show for it in terms of getting future clients.

2) If you already have established yourself as a copywriter and have a steady flow of clients you like working with, I’d generally advise against in-house or “all you can eat” buffet-type retainer arrangements with one client.

However, if you get the right, senior-enough opportunity with a fast-growing or well-respected company that’s willing to reward you, obviously go for it if you want the “peace of mind” and promotion opportunities.

But all too often, what I find is companies want to have copywriters on staff that they keep “captive”…without offering the benefits and promotion opportunities.

You may find yourself dealing with the constantly shifting copy priorities…changes of direction (or lack of planning) that result in endless rewrites…and other undisciplined practices that would often not occur when using a freelancer…and they could make your life miserable!

Because a freelancer may be in a better position to “push back”…or simply walk away (you know, because they’re free?!)

(I personally know mid-range and top-level copywriters who’ve had to walk away from nightmare situations like these…even with “well-respected”, fast-growing companies. It’s why I think they’re best avoided unless you really need the work…or at the very least, do your homework beforehand!)

Should you decide to take on a retainer or contractor position, make sure the scope of work is clearly defined. Otherwise you could find yourself on an endless treadmill of work demands and frustrations that drain you as much or more than if you were stuck in-house in a dysfunctional company in the worst job ever.

One other thing…think long and hard before taking yourself “off the market” and “living together” or even getting “married” to one client.

I remember knowing other top copywriters when I was climbing the ranks who would take on one full-time retainer for several months or a year. Then when it ended, they’d have to basically start all over from scratch building their client base. I know, because they would often call me looking for overflow work.

There’s good reason why Dan Kennedy says, “The most dangerous number is one.”

So go into any kind of full-time gig arrangement with your eyes wide open…and decide if it’s the right opportunity for where you are now–and where you want to go.

Yours for smarter marketing,


P.S. I remember years ago talking with Michelle Wolk, who was the Creative Director at Boardroom when it was one of the biggest direct response companies out there. We were talking about whether I should teach others about copywriting. She was like, “You don’t want to give away all your secrets!”

Well, in recent years I’ve been ignoring her advice with my copy mentoring and courses. In fact, in my latest course offering–my Million-Dollar Control Breakdown Master Class–I’m giving away ALL my secrets behind six of my most-successful, longest-running control promos.

Included in that is my smokin’ hot CircO2 sales page and direct mail promo…for which I just got my largest-ever quarterly online royalty check (I won’t say how much, but it’s enough to buy a car–a very nice car!) And the promo is using the same copy I wrote nearly 4 years ago–all of which I break down for you in this program.

Plus on top of these six in-depth promo breakdowns, you get TWO additional control breakdowns…including one I’ve just added for the financial promo I wrote years ago that beat the great Jim Rutz not just once, but twice!

If you want to get really good at writing long-form copy and gain the “A-list” edge, you definitely want to get your hands on this program…before I decide to listen to Michelle’s advice and change my mind about offering it.

The $200 savings many of you have already taken me up on are about to expire this Sunday, January 31st, at midnight. Go here to find out more, and use KKS200 as your coupon code to claim your savings…while you still can!