“How long will this project take?”
It sounds like a simple enough question. At least on the surface.
It’s actually anything but.
My thoughts below…
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Here’s today’s question…
I was curious to know how long it takes for you to complete a project — from consultation, to research, to drafting and editing, and finally to production. What timeline do you normally give to your clients?
Here’s my simple answer…
For most projects, it takes 10-12 weeks from the official “start time” of the project until all the copy will be done.
This includes a long-form direct response sales message written for use in text and video format. Plus an order form. Plus emails to drive traffic. Plus supporting ads. Plus short-copy upsells and downsells. And perhaps some other supporting copy. All of which is delivered in Word document format, for the client’s production team.
The list of project components varies from client to client. And the brunt of the work goes into the main sales message, so I don’t worry to much about all the short copy and its impact on the timeline.
But here’s the truth.
This timeline may be what we shoot for. And in the case of a very specific deadline, we’ll fight hard to hit it. But ultimately any creative project will take as long as it takes.
And most of my projects are at least a little flexible in pursuit of writing the best possible copy.
Ultimately, the goal is creating a winner.
If that takes 12 or 14 weeks instead of 10, usually that’s okay. As long as the client didn’t miss a mailing date (in the case of direct mail or other paid media).
In the long run, that’s the biggest goal. That said, actually getting done with things in a timely manner has all kinds of benefits. It means having a more predictable business. It means testing more, which typically leads to more profits. It means you have capacity to handle other profit-generating tasks. And so on.
But projects don’t always go as planned…
Here’s the horror story…
Let’s anonymize this, to protect the innocent, and to avoid lawsuits from the guilty.
Jane was excited. Jane just got a sweet gig. She’d landed what she thought was her dream client. And she had a big marketing campaign she was going to create for them.
She got her kick-off fee, and got to work.
She told the client she’d have it all done in 10 weeks.
She spent the first two weeks doing research and coming up with ideas, as planned.
Then, she started writing. By the end of her third week, she got the first few pages of her video sales letter script done. She sent this to the client, as agreed, for feedback.
Then, she waited. She tried to do what work she could, but until she had feedback from the client, she was kind of stuck.
Week four went by, and she checked in with the client. No reply.
Then week five, and the client finally got back to her on Friday afternoon. “This just isn’t doing it for us. What else do you have?”
Here she was, halfway through her 10 weeks, and essentially starting from scratch.
Another week, she submitted another draft.
The client took another week to get back to her, with some changes and a tentative approval of the lead. But they wanted to approve her edits before she proceeded.
Here Jane was, at the end of week 7 of 10, and she was still stuck in the lead.
It took another week, even with a quicker turnaround, before she had the okay to move on with the rest of the copy.
Now she only had 2 weeks out of 10 left to finish the long-form script plus the additional copy needed.
And the client had burned up most of the time by not getting edits back to her.
So who is responsible if Jane is not done with this dream project with her dream client by the end of that initial time frame?
Is it Jane? Or the client? Or both?
Truthfully, it’s almost always both.
But either way, this is a horror story that gets played out all-too-often in creative projects.
There’s our best intentions, and then there’s the way it actually plays out. And the way it actually plays out involves too-long turnarounds, missed communications, scope creep, and a million other factors that almost always have a negative impact on timeline.
So, if I say 10 to 12 weeks, know that I’ve come to value the select group of clients who I work with who also work with me to keep the projects on timeline but are also flexible when there is a good and agreeable reason to shift schedules.
Some more context and hopefully helpful thoughts…
There’s a difference between a target date and a required deadline…
If you’re running a calendar-based campaign with very specific launch dates, it’s critical you meet any required deadlines.
Most of my projects are not that, as of today. I’ve been involved with them. And when I need to do that, I will make it happen.
But it requires an equal commitment from everyone involved to making that happen.
Most copy projects I’m involved with today have target completion dates. These are dates we try to get everything done by. But if there’s a strong reason to shift the schedule, we shift the schedule.
Knowing the difference — and what it means to your client or company — is absolutely critical.
If you have a target date, make sure that’s clear and communicated.
If you have a required deadline, make sure that’s clear and communicated.
Either way, know the difference, and make sure everyone else involved knows the difference, too.
Communication all the way…
Earlier today, I had my weekly planning call with my primary client/agency contact and their project manager.
My current business involves writing projects for multiple clients, through an agency.
And I’m doing work with multiple junior writers.
That got complex. And I wasn’t doing a great job communicating all the complexity and staying on top of it with the client.
So I proposed a weekly phone call.
Now we get the project manager, my main contact (she functions in a creative director role), and me on the phone every Monday. And we go through everything we have going.
The call earlier today discussed 9 separate campaigns in various stages, from the “Checking up on what’s been in the market for a while” to “That’s the next project in the pipeline.”
By doing this weekly check-in, it’s harder for things to fall through the cracks. And it allows us to more dynamically address any issues with the timeline, and make sure everyone stays informed.
The better, more transparent your communication, the better off you’ll be with regards to project management.
And this applies whether you’re nailing your timeline, or if the project is taking twice as long as expected.
(I also find that these calls keep me motivated to keep everything on track!)
Scope of work must stay the same…
This hasn’t been a big issue with most of my projects. But it certainly can be a major issue for some creative work.
If your scope of work is constantly changing, any project timeline — or planning in general — flies out the window.
In tech circles, this is called “scope creep.” It’s where you start a project thinking you’re going to build a website with 5 main features, and by the time the client is done, it’s got 50.
The best thing you can do to prevent this is to make sure scope of work is clearly defined in a signed project plan and agreement (aka contract).
You establish that your fee covers a certain set of work. If the work changes, the client will be subject to additional charges.
If you don’t have this agreement in place, the client can walk all over you.
If you do, you can simply point back at it and tell the client that you’ll need to come to an agreement to add whatever additional project components.
This will include additional fees as well as a modification of the project schedule.
The client has timeline responsibilities too — especially in the feedback stages…
If I didn’t make this clear enough from the horror story above, you need to be clear about establishing timeline responsibilities with clients as well.
Every round of feedback is a potential time suck, if your client is not responsive. I’ve heard (and lived) too many horror stories.
You need to be as clear as possible with clients — especially those concerned about scheduling — that you rely on their feedback in a timely manner.
And as much as possible, you should have at least some reference of how long it took for them to give feedback. Even saving (rather than deleting) emails will do. If a client becomes perpetually tardy at delivering feedback, you will benefit from having clear evidence of the role that played in your ability to deliver the end product on schedule.
All this said, how do you estimate timelines?
I’ve gotten pretty good at breaking down the components of my projects today.
My rough plan is:
— Planning, research, and idea development takes 2 weeks.
— Lead & outline takes 2 weeks.
— Writing a polished draft with the lead and outline takes 4 weeks.
— Edits and supplemental copy take 2 weeks.
All-in, that’s 10 weeks. And usually pretty manageable. It may vary a little. Some projects can go quicker. If the estimate is 10 to 12 weeks, there’s a little flexibility in there.
But for most long-form projects similar to what I do with clients, that’s a good estimate.
But that’s also based on doing largely the same project since 2010.
The best way to get good at estimating is to be bad at estimating. That is, to try to estimate a bunch of times, and notice what you got wrong and what you got right.
What you’ll probably find is that creative work can take 2 to 4 times as long as your hopeful estimate.
My dad once told me that in his office, they’d average everyone’s best guess of timeline, and multiply it by 3.7. That was a pretty good way to estimate how long a project would actually take.
Can you get it done faster? Probably.
Could it take longer? Definitely.
But even masterful project planners sometimes struggle to determine how long a project will take.
Do your best, and make sure you’re in communication with your client throughout — especially if you start to fall off schedule.
And in the end, if you create a huge winner for them, they will absolutely forget how long it took.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
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