Saturday, 26 April 2014

Benefits of Working with Agencies

Imagine you're on your own. This will be easier to accomplish if you have a large share of direct clients. What rates do you charge them, per average?

Now subtract your marketing and advertising budget from those rates.

Subtract the hard costs it took you to get (to) those clients. And the soft costs. Everything. Not only for the marketing that worked: Include the marketing that did not work, which means you didn't see a penny for your efforts.

Include lost profits: How much would you approximately have made if you had simply accepted agency jobs instead of trying to pull off a PR coup with direct clients?

Suppose you didn't exactly turn down agency jobs to free up time to write copy, stalk conferences, spam social media and play rockstar. Still, what if you had simply harvested another batch of agency contacts for the familiar routine of hi, see CV (enclosed), my rates are so and so, got a test? Or, in fact, replied as you best could to the inquiries already in your mailbox?

Now client service. What time and money do you need to invest in a satisfied direct client as opposed to a satisifed PM or agency in general?

Many direct clients are less hassle than bureaucratic agencies, true, and going to great lengths for your own client may feel less a chore, but look through the fog of emotions and see the time and money invested in the client relationship as figures.

Don't forget lunches and blawgin' and all the other stuff you do to engage them. You possibly engage PM's too, but how much compared to direct clients? Or the events where you go not for CPD but only for the hope of client acquisition.

Do you provide any added services within your standard rates for direct clients? Any freebies? Any 'added value' which takes time or money to produce (as opposed to something passive like a qualification)? Great, include them too. Perhaps you haven't looked at them in this light yet? Don't forget proofing and editing yourself 10x when you're the last person who sees the text before the client.

Now include the risks averted by QA interventions: how many times have they prevented a serious crisis or at least an unpleasant consequence such as losing a client, having your translation rejected, incurring a penalty, taking a reputation hit? How many times has a PM pulled you out of trouble, for example by negotiating a raise, extension, reimbursement or pardon, or got you some input from inhouse translators, called in a favour at a university or otherwise helped you big time with a terminological query?

So the question is: How much do you really profit from n cents from a direct client as opposed to n cents from an agency?

We could end right here, but I'd also like you to consider the fact that a serious, established agency has the infrastructure to provide all the added value and complementary services which make it easier to sell your translations — at all or at higher rates.

An agency has more synergies, scope and scale to make it possible to provide them at a reasonable cost. For example think about inhouse salaries versus normal B2B fees. There is also quite a chance that the agency's marketing is more efficient than yours, possibly because it isn't managed by a part-time non-marketer who has no other choice.

Naturally, these things get tricky as you become more and more established. However, it's still possible that optimised agency-specific marketing could bring you better results if you put in the same time, effort and money as you would in landing a direct client. Don't get stuck in thinking you shouldn't have to. Think what could happen if you actually did!

Possible mistakes and biases include:

  • Forgetting that agency rates are really net values. They are net of client marketing and client service and everything else an agency does which otherwise you would need to do.
  • Thinking that the everything else an agency does should come free. Seriously? If it did, we'd be out of business, totally beaten on added value.
  • Forgetting that all the things you do for your clients — or to win them — eat into your income even when they don't cut into your revenue. This means not seeing that there exists an effective rate which you pay yourself out of the rate you collect from a direct client. This is similar to a company owner's salary.
  • Thinking John Translator would be working for the same clients as Old Agency, Inc. Or making them equally happy. Not impossible, but I'm not holding my breath.
  • Not considering what could happen if you gave agencies the same investment you give direct clients.

Possible cures include:

  • Honest self-to-self maths on the cost of and return on your direct-client business.
  • Honest head-to-head with a PM about what it takes to win and keep clients.
  • Thinking how much you may be losing in not capitalising on existing opportunities to position yourself the right way with the right agencies, using your existing knowledge of this sector, just like you would with a direct-client sector. Again, try putting in the same effort as you would for a direct client — which may be easier if you think about agencies, figuratively, as just a type of clients on part with everybody else (which they aren't, but the simplification can be useful).

Possible tasks include:

  • Write a brochure, website or some other copy targeted for agencies, which your direct clients don't necessarily need to see (you can use a different domain). Don't be afraid to use space, it belongs to you. Show that you understand them. Don't thousands of other translators also understand them? Sure, but they rarely put it to use the same way as you're about to. When was the last time you saw an explicitly for-agencies translator?

    Make the copy about them, not about you. Again, this is just the same approach as with a direct client. Discuss the benefits you bring in rather than outlining your features (although a feature cheat sheet can still be useful because agencies may know how to translate them). Use the same advanced techniques as you would with valuable prospective direct clients, including innovative Blue Ocean strategies and Why-based writing.

    If you have the budget, tag a copywriter and a graphical designer along, especially if you would do the same for your direct-client materials. Either way, research agencies and PM's even deeper, but meanwhile gather what you already know, down to case studies. Read your testimonials again for inspiration, recall war stories. Also use your understanding of direct clients to your advantage, including your understanding of the methods of finding, winning and keeping them! And the fact that you actually understand and care.

    Part of the background here is that, as you may have noticed, agencies try to pay significantly less than their bottom line — just like translators try to charge more than their bottom line. This means that agencies have a contingency budget they don't wand to spend unless it's a special circumstance. Therefore convince them this is that special circumstance, and better still if you can position this spending as not even a justified cost but a valuable investment.

    Intially, they can be a bit lethargic, stagnant, suffering from inaertia and burnout. No wonder, their market can be pretty awful. Give them the light for their spark and try to make them at least suspect that using your translations they could possibly do better than they are doing now. Perhaps you're just the translator they need to liven up their business. And they can probably bring in more business than you can, even in their battered state.

    If you deliver it well, a smart person in the agency can connect the dots and single you out for image-sensitive materials, and those pay better (this is easier to achieve with a small agency which has a smaller translator base). This can help position you as a marketing-conscious translator. If it reads well and is impeccable, you can unwittingly position yourself as an editor or reviewer. For ethical reasons, though, don't lead them on — you should be able to able to produce translations of the same quality as the copy which won you the job. Don't bait and switch.

    If the agency sees you as an enabler, you will be able to get away with more. You can get better rates and better contracts and better jobs. If you can get agencies to think outside the box, they will start from your price and add their markup on top of it instead of trying to fit you into their existing competitive pricing scheme. Be the driver of change, and guess who'll be their favourite translator.

If you aren't convinced, fair enough, but you can still just look at it as an investment in passive advertising. This means you can make a one-off expense and continue to profit for months thereafter.

The short way would be to send your CV and a clear vision of goals to a copywriter and graphic designer, along with the relevant information about translator-agency relationships and agency business which they may not have.

The longer way:

Optimise your CV if you haven't yet — Marta Stelmaszak can tell you how. Her 33-page free e-book already contains a couple of my precious tips I wanted to share, so I won't be repeating myself here. You can probably run the final result through Marta for a reasonable consulting fee. Send that CV to the copywriter along with background information and clearly set goals, i.e. the type of positioning you want, the rate range you want to achieve as well as your other goals, for example securing certain terms which make your work more comfortable.

Important: Choose a copywriter who is familiar with the Blue Ocean approach (discuss this before!) and will help you carve a one-of-a-kind niche instead of the usual game of numbers and cutthroat competition. Competitive writing will still have its uses if you can nail down a clear-as-day advantage which is easily expressed in numbers, graphs or other such data. But you can still use it to create a new niche rather than fighting for one that already exists.

This may sound like a long process now, but after you spend the time and money (you can spend less time if you are willing to spend more money), the copy will continue to work for you. If it brings you a large contract, raises your rates by 10-20%, enables you to specialise more, get nicer jobs or better terms, it will be well worth it — with very limited involvement on your part.

Note that you will still need to live up to your promises and the vision you will have created in that copy. Copy doesn't pick up calls, or translate for that matter.

I suppose it is possible, ironically, to make yourself a blue-ocean niche by pulling agencies out of the red waters they're in. And have a good laugh when you see it happen.


Please note that a blue-ocean niche with agencies — or basically a functional relationship — would obviously require more than just higher rates. The entire domination mindset would need to go, along with the commodity-based approach and bureaucracy. For starters:

  • No construction-contractor-style contracts.
  • No agency name replacing your name on book covers and credit pages.
  • No total cessions of moral rights (with a specific mention of waiving your right not to be subjected to derogatory treatment).
  • No gagging clauses explicitly stating you shall not make negative comments about the agency (a nice way to make a high BlueBoard average, isn't it?).
  • No making your pay effectively an ex gratia payment in the sole discretion of the agency or its client.
  • No extensive hold-harmless clauses effectively making you the agency's insurance provider.
  • No money-making penalty schemes, obviously.
  • No long tracts of U.S. legislation you guarantee compliance with (at your own cost, including attorney fees, which are 10-20 times your own hourly rate).
  • No domination and total subjection language. In fact, polite language.

Positioning yourself better means you can avoid much of the above, though perhaps not all. Frankly, it would help if agencies took a reality check and reassess their relationship with their 'vendors' or 'suppliers'.


  1. If you're interested in blueoceanising a translation agency into giving you good rates and appreciation look for inspiration here (a copywriting firm making the effort to target agencies with friendly copy):

    In accordance with their boss's house rules they used few words (more about that:

    I had more of an Ogilvy-style ad in mind because it makes it easier to leverage professional status.

    1. * Ogilvy-style ad means a concept pic with approx. 200 words and a header. Typography matters because the font can say unique things about you.

  2. Useful post for the translator in me! Thank you!


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