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The Difference Between Asking to Work for Free and Being Asked

4 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, a Creative Director, and this is everything I wish I knew about the ad world. After working in the creative industry for over 17 years, I believe combining creativity and data lets us talk to people in a more relevant and personal way than we ever could before.
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There's a huge debate in the creative world about whether you should work for free or not. Of course, the majority land on the side of "always get paid for what you do." I mean, we're in a service-based industry, so being compensated for our time is how we make a living.

But, on the other hand, with so much competition out there, people are willing to do anything and everything to get an opportunity.

Which side do I land on? Well, I admit, it's not super clear. I've talked about how you need to charge what you're worth, but I've also talked about what working for free can get you. I've even said that you should never give discounts, and either charge full price or work for free.

The truth is, there's one thing nobody considers: who's asking? You or the client?



The Client Asks You

In my career, I've noticed this: when a client asks you to do work for free, it's because they think that your time isn't worth their money.

Since they don't value your time, your skills, or your expertise, they ask more and more of you. They think that it's just time, and you have an unlimited amount of it, right?

So, if the client is asking you (or expecting you) to work for free, then it's a hard pass.

You Ask the Client

But here's the secret weapon: you can ask the client to work for free. Sounds crazy, right? In what world would you straight up volunteer to do something that you should be getting paid for?

You don't always get paid in money.

Experience, connections, passion projects, and even the laughable "exposure" are legit ways to be compensated for what you're doing. But the trick is, you need to make the suggestion about what you're substituting for money.

Exposure

My favorite twitter feed is @forexposure_txt. It's an aggregator of the ridiculous requests clients make, thinking that their clout is so powerful, that simply mentioning the artist's name to their fans will pay out exponentially. They're almost always very wrong.

But, that doesn't mean that exposure isn't a form of payment. If you're the one asking for it.

Exposure is payment, if it's worth it to you.

I suggest this all the time to creatives that want to break into a new field: reach out to your dream clients or people you want to be. Then, do something for them for free. A project to show your capabilities, something that you'd be proud of and they would be, too. Don't ask them. Just do it.

I guarantee, if I had something to offer Noel Gallagher (of Oasis fame), I'd do that for free, in the hopes he'd publicly recognize it.

Experience

If you're an up-and-coming creative, you can't expect to be paid for those big opportunities right away. Get paid for the grunt work, of course, but sometimes you need to mitgate the risk a bigger client would take on you by suggesting that you do it for free.

If you're suggesting it, and they were expecting to pay (or if that was what was holding them back), it means that they value your time, and will now value the project as if they were paying for it.

Connections

As a creative, if there's anything that's as important as your portfolio, it's your network. The connections you make in your career power the opportunities that you get.

The people you know are as important as your portfolio.

Sometimes, you need to force those connections. Stir up the pot a little bit and throw some new spices in there. One way to do that, to break into a new industry or genre, is by doing some work for free. Again, it's to mitigate the risk, to convince someone to give you a chance that they normally wouldn't pay for.

If you value the people you'll meet or the access those people can give you, then offering to work for free is a good move.

Passion Projects

This actually happens a lot. We just call it "pro bono," because saying it in latin sounds way better than "working for free."

But lots of people do pro bono projects for one reason: they're passionate about it. More passionate than the money they would get. Usually, that money wouldn't equal the amount of work they'd want to put into it. So, rather than earning a few extra bucks, it can become a pro bono passion project.

So, if you have a desire to work for free because you simply have a passion for the project outside of money, then offer away.

You Do You

Nobody can tell you what's important to you. And the reality is, exposure doesn't pay the rent.

But, if you're willing to play the long game, and can afford it (in both time and money), there are times that working for free will pay off more than money ever could.

Only you can make that call.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram

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