“Can you just whip that up for me? It will only take a few minutes.”
“I thought that was included in the price. You’ll add it in for me, won’t you?”
“If we like what we see, it will lead to a huge amount of paid work from us.”
As agency professionals, we’ve all heard these types of comments from clients. The kind who expect us to do work for nothing, or who believe we should be grateful for any unpaid work that comes our way.
The most common advice to creatives and companies is to avoid free work, but is that always the case?
It’s true that most requests for free work are made by unscrupulous people who want something for nothing, or by ignorant individuals who don’t understand the value of creative collateral. But some free arrangements can actually be mutually beneficial, and should definitely be considered if you want your agency to grow and prosper.
In this article, we look at 20 of the most common requests or situations to work for “free”, and whether each one is worthwhile.
Freebie 1: It’s “Exposure”
Every creative professional will hear the words “I thought you’d just do it for the exposure” in their lifetime. The client explains that they know lots of other business owners or thought leaders in your niche who would be interested in your services, and in exchange for free work will happily shout your name from the rooftops.
Right, sure, because work from a freeloading client’s freeloading friends is just what you want.
Should you work for free? No. Remember, people die of exposure.
Freebie 2: Mockups for tender
As part of tendering large jobs, a potential client may ask you to include a sample mockup in your packet. This doesn’t necessarily have to be anything like the final product, but is designed to give the client a look at your agency style and the direction you picture taking the brief.
If the prospect is presenting several different agencies to a board of directors or other governing body, sample work is the best tool for them to choose between different agencies.
Should you work for free? Yes, but only if the tender is a big, impressive job that would be an amazing addition to your shop’s portfolio.
Freebie 3: Adding to your portfolio
Most agencies and creative individuals have projects in their portfolios from “invented” companies – clients who don’t actually exist, but who give the best, most creative briefs.
In reality, these fun client jobs are invented at the agency, and enable the team to “bulk up” a portfolio with new work. This is a particularly good idea if you want your agency to attract more of a certain kind of client or industry. For example, if you’re trying to attract restaurant owners and food service industry professionals to your agency, creating a branding concept for a new bistro or a packaging series for a range of organic juices will help you the right kinds of eyes on your work.
Should you work for free? Yes, as long as you fit in portfolio projects around other, paid work.
Freebie 4: The paid work will come … later
Have you ever heard a client say this? “If you do really well on this (free) assignment, we have a ton of paid jobs for you.”
Wise men call this a suckers maxim. You are a professional agency, and you shouldn’t need to prove yourself to a client. If they want to see your work in action, all they have to do is turn to your portfolio or provided samples.
Should you work for free? No. If a company wants to get a feel for your work, then your samples, portfolio, and client testimonials should be all the evidence you need. If they get you to work for free once, they are only going to ask again, and again, and again.
Freebie 5: The client has appeared on Clients from Hell
Have you ever noticed how many stories on the Clients from Hell website are about clients asking to complete work for free? That is not a coincidence.
Should you work for free? Run. Run like the wind.
Freebie 6: Client wants something added to the project, at no cost
You’ve handed over that client’s website design you’ve been slaving over, with all the instructions neatly printed out so they can add their own content. Instead of jumping up-and-down with excitement and calling your firm the greatest creative team that ever lived, the client is frowning. Why is the client frowning?
“I thought I’d paid for a completed website,” she says. “Where’s all the content? Get that to me by COB tomorrow.”
Should you work for free? No. You set a bad precedent by acquiescing to these types of requests. Explain again to your client how your billing works and what they would expect to pay for this service. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to lose the client – or you’ll be having this discussion with them again and again.
If the client believes your package includes something it doesn’t, then it might be time to review your packages, contracts and onboarding process. You may find improving wording and clauses on these will eliminate this issue cropping up.
Freebie 7: Teaching your methods
You’ve been asked to present a short course about inbound marketing or responsive design at a local business summit. The conference organiser is not able to pay you for your time, but will offer you a free lunch and the opportunity to place marketing material in the conference bags.
On the one hand, your time is valuable, and you’ll need to prepare your workshop, taking time away from other, revenue-generating activities. On the other hand, attendees might be suitably impressed with the informative, witty and intelligent presentation you’ve given, and will contact you to request your services.
Should you work for free? Yes, if the opportunity has a decent chance of improving your firm’s public image or generating leads. Look at this experience not as free work, but as a networking opportunity with other industry professionals. You’ll be building your profile with your peers and adding a speaking engagement to you portfolio. And besides, who says no to a free lunch?
Freebie 8: A non-profit needs your help
Many nonprofits have pro bono relationships with agencies, whether those agencies handle design needs, marketing, branding, or PR. From recognised national and international charities, to your local cat shelter, creative teams often expend resources creating quality work for these worthy causes for no pay. But is it ethical and fair?
Should you work for free? It depends. It’s definitely nice to do free work to help a cause you believe in. But remember, just because a firm is a “not-for-profit”, doesn’t mean they are broke. Any legitimate nonprofit will have a budget for marketing services, and shouldn’t be expecting to receive free collateral.
On the other hand, if it’s a cause you strongly believe in, and you want to align your agency publically with the nonprofit’s brand, the a free partnership can be mutually beneficial. Not only can it help bring your team together and allow your agency to give back to the community, but it can have positive business rewards. You have some great work in your portfolio and the nonprofit will share your name with other stakeholders.
This can work extremely well when a new agency works pro-bono for a large, high-profile charity – the exposure in the marketplace and the work in your portfolio can be worth more than the fee you didn’t collect.
Freebie 9: Your mum needs help
Doing work for free when a profit-producing company asks is one thing, but what about when it comes to family? Once relatives get wind of your creative skills, they will be after you to design posts and wedding invitations, brand imaginary businesses, and – in my case – write excruciatingly dull memoirs.
Should you work for free? Nineteen hours in labour, and you can’t make one lousy Stitch’n’bitch poster for your mum?
Free work for family can be done with joy and love, but it can also be a huge headache, especially if the relative in question has expectations out of line with what you’re willing to offer. Assess each request on an individual basis and decide which ones to take on.
It can help to put together a series of “gentle guidelines” - not a contract as such, but just a page outlining what you’re able to do and the process. You can also outline the amount of time you’re willing to give them (four hours, and no more), and that you’ll incorporate 1 round of revision.
Freebie 11: Creating a Lead Generating Resource
More and more agencies are using inbound marketing tactics, and attracting potential clients through the use of publishing digital resources such as ebooks, seminars, and podcasts. These resources can be a powerful tool for lead generation and profile building within your chosen niche.
However, building these resources takes time – valuable time that then can’t be spent on revenue-generating activities for clients. So is it a wise idea to “invest” your firm’s resources into creating a free tool?
Should you work for free? Yes, as long as your team have the time and resources available to devote to the project. A free downloadable resource will enable your agency to generate leads through inbound marketing – it only has to be made once, and can then be used again and again to bring in new clients.
Freebie 12: Working on spec
Doing work “on speculation” is part of the life of many freelancers and agencies. This means creating concepts for a potential client and then approaching that client with your ideas, as a bid to win them away from their current providers.
Dann Petty is a freelance graphic designer who was asked by Nixon watches to look over their website (created by someone else), and offer a fresh take. He was not offered any money for his time. Instead of just shooting them a quick, “looks great to me!” he spent three days working on a new concept, which he presented. He then got the job and created the Nixon site you see today. The company call him their “white knight” and send him free gear, a limited-edition surfboard, and tons of referrals.
Should you work for free? Yes, if it’s for a spec project or an opportunity that could define your career. In Dann’s case, the Nixon site was a dream come true. He was a huge fan of the brand and having that project in his portfolio meant he could attract other, similar brands.
Producing spec work (such as a mockup of a company website) and then sending it out can be a great way to attract the kind of clients you want. It’s a proactive marketing approach, by approaching brands and showing them what you can do for them. But make sure you have time in your schedule before taking on any spec projects – you can end up doing a lot of work for no gain, so you need to ensure you’re still doing enough paid work to feed yourself.
Freebie 13: A fair exchange
Your client approached you about a job. They need a new marketing campaign for an upcoming product launch for their new bar. The only problem is, they are out of funds. So they offer a trade – you do their marketing campaign for free, and in exchange, your team can have their end-of-year Christmas function at their bar, on the house.
Should you work for free? Yes, although you’re not really working for free, if you’re getting something in return. Just make sure the offering you’re receiving is equal in value with your own, and that it’s something your agency would need anyway.
Freebie 14: Passion Projects
These are projects that aren’t done for clients, they are undertaken for the simple joy of creation.
While we’ve always discussed portfolio-enhancing projects, a passion project has a different focus. Instead of focusing on a gap in your portfolio, these projects aim to engage a creative question and reach a wider audience. Passion projects should be out in the world as a way to showcase your agency’s talent and get fresh eyes on your work.
Projects could be one-off creations or ongoing creative challenges. The latter – such as designing a poster a week based on a famous quote, or writing a daily blog of creative prompts – work great for getting people to check back regularly and follow your agency’s work.
Should you work for free? Yes. Passion Projects can be initiated during agency downtime, so they don’t interrupt client work. Creating a fun passion project will help your team stretch their creative minds, practice their collaboration skills, and give the agency a great talking point on social media or for the portfolio. For many creatives, it’s these types of projects that allow them to push the boundaries of their talents.
Freebie 15: Publishing rights
A popular design magazine is keen to republish a recent logo you designed … without payment. A production company may want to use a piece of composed music from your archives for nothing. An online blog would like to republish a chapter of your book about digital content for their readers.
It’s common for agencies – who deal in creative IP – to receive these types of requests. So what do you do about them?
Should you work for free? Yes, as long as you retain the rights over your creative IP (unless the client holds these), and the organisation or publication requesting the reprint is well-regarded and legitimate. At minimum the magazine or blog should credit you and push links to your social media. This type of activity should be seen as free marketing.
I would not, however, respond to requests from publications for new work to be created free of charge, the only exception being short articles for industry blogs or publications, which can help establish you as a thought leader.
Freebie 16: Your son has a school assignment
Your kid has been given a great class assignment: design a product label for an imaginary soft drink. He’s excited to have you help with the project, and you’re having loads of fun coming up with concepts. The only problem is, you seem to be doing most of the work!
Should you work for free? No. Even though you have the skills to do a great job on the assignment, your kid won’t learn anything by you doing the job for him. Set him up with some simple design tools, such as Gimp and Canva, and let his imagination take over.
Freebie 17: But we’re a startup!
Startups are known for bootstrapping their way to epic success … or monumental failure. People enter the startup world because they like excitement, technology, and living on the edge. They also like money, and probably don’t have a lot of it.
But that is not your problem.
If someone comes to you wanting work for free because they are a startup without funds, then do you take them at their word? Could you be turning down the chance to get in on the ground floor of the next Apple?
Should you work for free? No. A startup is still a business, and a business needs to expect to pay its contributors for work produced. Don’t allow companies to use this excuse to get away without paying you.
Freebie 18: Loyalty in question
You have a solid client who regularly comes to you with great projects. They’ve recently ran into a downturn and need some help on their next marketing campaign. You’re excited to talk to them about the job, until they bring up the fact they don’t have a budget for you this time, and ask that you consider “just doing this one on the house,” since they’ve given you such good funds in the past.
Should you work for free? No. Don’t allow a client to hold your relationship to ransom by demanding free work based on the past. If you can’t afford to lose their business, offer to negotiate a payment plan that will fit with their needs, but don’t allow them to get away without paying.
Freebie 19: You have a good feeling
A project has landed on your desk, and it breaks one of the rules we’ve discussed above. But the client is passionate and genuine, the work is interesting, and you are really excited about the possibilities. You feel as though this project is tailor-made for you, and could lead to other great things.
Should you work for free? Yes, trust your gut. The internet is full of stories of this kind of relationship working out for the best. Although don’t overburden yourself with these types of projects.
Freebie 20: You have a bad feeling
You have a free job that fits the criteria we’ve discussed, but something about the client’s mannerisms or the company policies or the whole situation just doesn’t sit right with you. You can’t explain why, but you just have a feeling this particular project will turn into a nightmare.
Should you work for free? No, trust your gut. You are under no obligation to accept free work. Just tell the client your plate is full right now, and send them on their way.
We hope we’ve been able to clear up some of the questions you have about working for free. While you don’t want to set a bad precedent with clients, and you should not be in the business of granting handouts, some free work can inject life and vivacity into your agency, and should perhaps be considered.
Has your agency ever worked for free? Do you regret the project, or celebrate it?