The cost of free work

Many independent or freelance creative and marketing professionals will work at low cost - or no cost - to get a gig and gain exposure. But when is it worth it, and when does your own worth become compromised?

You know when to grab it - or pass it

It can be a delicate balance on when to work for free and when to move on. Certain projects can provide excellent exposure, professional networking and portfolio building. When you’re starting out, or if things are slow, getting a cool project in the door can do wonders. It gives you tangible work, it sharpens your skills, you can meet new people and it can help provide exposure - you can boast and share on your social media, on your website, in an e-news. And, hopefully, the client will give you a big thumbs up (even a great quote to use as a testimonial). Win-win! Sort of…proceed with caution. Doing work for free or for a significantly reduced rate can send the wrong message out there in the world, while leaving your spirit drained and your wallet light. Your instincts will usually tell you if something is worth your time and talent, and when the red flags are too obvious to ignore. It’s OK to say no to the ones that just don’t feel right - you can always gracefully pass and, if possible, recommend other ideas or resources they can pursue.

Setting the tone

Establishing a rate with clients, or the cost of goods or services for customers, means you’ve attached a value to your work. That means it’s worth it! You have experience folks are paying for: years of education, hours of professional midnight-oil-burning and wisdom in the field. Even if you’re just starting out, you have skills, know-how and insights to offer. Try to avoid devaluing your work by not charging for it properly. Cost means value, and value-added is what your clients or customers should be seeking, or at least the ones you should be working with.

When it does make sense

If it’s a high-profile assignment but, for some reason, their budget is low (for instance, in the arts), it can work to your advantage to do something on-the-house in exchange for the credibility of having worked with a hot property or person. But only do this sparingly. Another option is if you are volunteering your time and talents for an entity you are passionate about, as a way of giving back. I often volunteer to create special-events posters for my local village - it’s fun, it’s creative, it’s helpful, and it’s my way of donating to the cause. Plus, I’ve added to my portfolio and I’ve snagged a few of those great quotes mentioned above! If you're just beginning your career, sure, do some free work or spec work to build your resume and online gallery. Once you have a nice array, you can now boast about the work and charge accordingly. Another example, I always offer a free initial consultation. It's not too taxing, it's a good-faith step and it's helpful for the prospect to see how I work (and vice versa). We both get a sense of what ideas can flow - which often results in a real/paid project.

Barter better

Exchanging work for something other than money in return can also be a way to go (again, in limited quantity). Such as, I created an ad for a restaurant and they bought me dinner, or I crafted PR for a musical group, and they let me in their show for free. It can be a straight even exchange - I'll create a free ad for your travel guide, if you comp my ad placement in your booklet. See if you can finagle something in exchange for what a client might be asking for. If they need an ad or - further up the food chain - a new website, and there is little to no pay involved, then overtly ask them to promote you on their social media, on that final website, at their events - and get it in writing. The promise of future exposure can be a real distinct point in your written agreement with them (always have one, even if the work is for free).

Bottom line: keep your wits about you

Sometimes free requests can come from more demanding clients. I’ve seen it before - I’ve agreed to the lowest rate possible and outlined the “house rules” as a result (fewer hours dedicated, quick replies and approvals, few changes), only to encounter excessive emails, texts and calls, with unreasonable requests. You would hope since you agreed to help out, they would tread lightly. The opposite can happen since there's little to no financial commitment on their end. Don't let the ball get away. In addition to having work agreements for paid and non-paid gigs, I always keep track of my time. In either situation, if it goes beyond the scope, we revisit the parameters and contract, or simply stop…as we agreed upon.

Circling back to the beginning of this topic is the value you place on your work and what you expect others to place on it, too. There are actually some clients or patrons who appreciate your costs - they feel like they’re in a professional arrangement and they expect good work, service or product. Isn’t that what you have to give anyway?

(published 2023)