Why paying per hour doesn’t add up

The following 35 words are from an e-commerce website. How much do you think they are worth?

“You do not need to create an account to make purchases on our site. Simply click Continue to proceed to checkout. To make your future purchases even faster, you can create an account during checkout.”

If you price copywriting per word or per hour, I guess you’d say not much.

After all, there are no technical words.

No clever wordplay.

Nothing particularly inspiring.

But in reality, these words are worth $300 million.

Because after the website inserted those words, instead of asking customers to register before paying, that’s the amount sales went up by.

Price v value

What about these words?

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

They’re also 35 words. They’re part of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. What price would you put on them? Can you put a price on them?

Imagine a newly discovered Picasso painting comes up for sale. The auctioneer starts telling a group of potential buyers all about the painting. What inspired Picasso to paint it. Why he used particular imagery or colours. What message he aimed to give.

Can you see someone saying, “Yes, that all sounds marvellous, but what I want to know is how many brushstrokes did he make? I’ll pay a penny per brushstroke.”

Or imagine you discover a Beatles song. It’s the last ever of the Fab Four together. The recording is clear. The melodies give you goosebumps. You play it to your friends and everyone agreed it’s a masterpiece. But hang on, it’s three minutes and 59 seconds long. Does that mean any song that’s four minutes or more is worth more?

Of course not. But you get the idea. In each example, the result is not measured in terms of time. It’s measured in terms of impact.

And that’s the same for any creative process.

You might read all this and be thinking this is just an excuse to charge more for a project.

But it’s not.

Here’s why.

The creative process isn’t as simple as sitting down for five hours and crashing out a masterpiece.

If only it was. We could all sit down whenever we want and say, “Ok now I’m going to sit down and turn on my creativity tap for an hour.”

If you want someone to produce something creative, you need to allow the subconscious to process it.

Like a sponge

In practice, this means it’s likely they’ll need to absorb the information you give them. That means sleeping on it, going for a walk, or doing something else other than thinking about the project.

That way the information sinks in. The brain can process it. Filter it, and break it down into different chunks. And then, sooner or later, creativity comes out.

That might mean waking up at 3am with an idea. Then letting the ideas flow and writing them down. And waking up in the morning and reviewing what came out in the night.

It might be hearing two people have a conversation on a bus. A particular phrase or style of talking might trigger a thought, a link between two previously unconnected elements, that leads to a new concept.

Or it might be visiting a gallery and being exposed to a piece of work that reminds me of your project, and gives me an idea.

Like some guy called Steve Jobs once said: “Creativity is connecting things”. There’s no easy way to measure the time spent on that. And there’s no easy way of knowing when an idea is going to hit.

Imagine this…

Let’s say you’ve asked for a landing page,and you’re paying per word. Your copywriter is working on the headline.

When it comes to writing a good headline, you need to get the easy ones out of the way first. Then the great headlines start coming out. That means writing down at least 10 different headlines. Which is hard.

And if you charge per word, there’s no incentive to get to this stage. Because if you only pay someone based on the words they submit, why would they waste time thinking of better alternatives?

But if you want your landing page to succeed, your copywriter needs to get past the easy headlines. The generic ones that we’ve heard before.


The 80/20 rule comes into play here: 80% of people will read your headline, while only 20% will read the rest. So it’s the most important element.

But because you’re paying per word, your headline is worth the same as everything else within the landing page.

Per hour or per word may seem safe. But you risk your project being equally safe. And your project is missing out on the creative idea that can put it ahead of your competitors.

So that’s why charging per project is the way forward.

It means you know how much the project will cost, from the start. I include rewrites; up to two is usually enough. If it isn’t then there’s something wrong with the brief.

It means that your project is in my mind at all times, ready to make that connection.

And it means more of those 3am “lightbulb moments”, when things start to happen and eventually everything comes together for your project.

How about you?

Are you a creative? A client?

Do you charge or pay per hour or per word? Does it work for you?