Should creatives ever work for free?

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Have you been to a supermarket recently? If you have, did you ask the till operator whether you could take the contents of your trolley for nothing?
Of course you didn’t. The very suggestion you might be entitled to free groceries would be enough to have you labelled crazy and escorted from the premises.

Now, as a creative professional, have you ever been asked to carry out work free of charge? I thought so. We all have. There’s something in the nature of design, writing, photography and ideas which makes customers considerably more willing to ask for a 100% discount.

Of course, the request is often accompanied by a rationale. Here’s a selection, all of which I’ve heard over the years. Below each is my standard response:

- “It’ll look good in your portfolio”

Doubtless. I’m pretty good and my work is of a high standard. That’s why I charge for it.

- “I’ve spent a lot of money with you in the past”

That’s because you value my work. This new project is no different. When and if a discount is appropriate, I will let you know.

- “I only have a small budget”

What you actually mean is you can’t afford the work to be done properly. Perhaps you should rethink the scope of your project.

- “There’ll be lots of paid work down the line”

Great. I’ll look forward to it. But I’m afraid you’ll need to pay for this work too.

- “It won’t take you long”

Well, I’ll be the judge of that. Nevertheless, if you’re right, you’ll only be charged for the time spent – no more, no less.

But even as I write those reactions, I’m aware I have occasionally carried out work without billing for it. Mostly I’ve done this to help a friend or colleague who has helped me in the past. Sometimes I have offered my skills to a family member, free of charge (invoicing people to whom you are related can be a difficult business) and once in a while I have supported a charity or cause with free work. However, almost without exception, I have made the offer – which is very different from being asked to work for nothing.

So why do clients – and even complete strangers – imagine they’re entitled to ‘hire’ creative folk without compensation? There are at least a couple of reasons. It’s feasible they see how much pleasure we derive from our profession and therefore assume that is sufficient ‘payment’. Sadly, one’s mortgage provider doesn’t accept job satisfaction as currency, nor can one eat it. Now and again, it’s necessary to explain this.

Then there’s the intangible nature of creativity. Selling tyres, noodles, cement or soap involves a very straightforward exchange. The consumer hands over some pounds and, in return, walks away with a wheel, packet of pasta, sack of concrete or a bar of Imperial Leather. Easy. But ordering a logo, an article, a website or campaign concept muddies the water. What is the client actually paying for? Time, certainly – but more than that, they’re renting your brain, your experience, your ability and your thoughts. For some, this is a tricky notion to grasp.

There are situations when working ‘pro-bono’ is an honourable and generous act, but it’s an approach to be held for special cases. Because working for free, or at ridiculously tiny rates, damages the industry from which we derive our living by undervaluing the capabilities of all creatives.

I once worked for an agency which gave away creative work as a sweetener for media buying rights. It was a terrible policy which quickly led clients to believe copy and design were throwaway freebies. The tactic was quickly reversed, but I suspect the damage had already been done.

Ultimately, there will always be chancers who wish to obtain as much as possible for as little as possible – and every creative professional (particularly freelances) must guard against the rogue client. But equally, there is an onus on us to demonstrate to our clients why we charge for our work: because it adds value to their work. Like it or not, that’s part of the job.

By Magnus Shaw - copywriter, blogger and consultant



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