It’s an experience many creatives have suffered, particularly early in their careers – taking on a project that promises exposure rather than financial reward.
Often poorly defined and almost never accompanied by a written agreement, the nature of these projects allows the client to tweak, twist, turn, and change the scope of the project at their whim.
Eager to please, you work late, you work early, and you rush what needs to be done, increasing the chance of delivering poor quality work and heightening your stress levels.
And at the end of it, more often than not, there is little sign of much of the exposure you were promised. So, you learn from this mistake and vow never to work for free again.
But, isn’t that a little short sighted?
Even having suffered a couple of these experiences myself, I still argue that not all ‘free’ work should be rejected and jobs with no monetary reward have the potential to offer huge value.
Why would you work for free?
There are a few reasons why you might be interested in working for someone for free. For example:
- Creating the ‘logo of tomorrow’ for a small tech company;
- Working for a charity that matches your ethics;
- Getting a foot in the door at a large corporation.
It seems a fair exchange. Your creative output paid for by exposure, credentials, or a sense of well-being.
Of course, many people will tell you not to do it and their argument is perfectly valid: by working for free you’re undermining the value of your work and others’ in your profession. If everyone worked for free, no-one would get paid. Logical, but I’m not talking about working for free, I’m talking about working for a gain.
Exposure, credentials, and well-being are all valuable gains.
Make sure it is worth it
Whether paid in cash or paid in kind, every project should be evaluated on:
- The merit of the proposed gain;
- Your ability to deliver the work;
- The ability of your client to provide the gain.
Agree to a fair reward for your work
You are best placed to know what is a fair reward for your efforts, so consider what gain you want from a project before starting.
Exposure is the most common reward offered for ‘free’ work, ranging from recognition in a press release or tweet, to inclusion in a pitch team or a meeting with senior people in the business.
Whatever it is, agree it with your client – this is your payment. Get the agreement in writing and send an invoice upon completion, preferably one that states the financial cost of the work at a 100% discount.
This might not seem important (it is a ‘free’ project, why bother with the hassle?); however, you’re providing a service of value and expecting a return.
An invoice reiterates the value of your work, leaving a stronger, more memorable impression with the client and a sense of indebtedness too – while a written agreement provides a greater guarantee that your reward will be delivered.
What happens if the press release, tweet, or meeting doesn’t happen?
Whatever has only been agreed verbally is always in danger of being overlooked or overturned – by mistake or conspiracy.
Measure the outcome
Fast-forward and the work has been completed, signed for, delivered, and the reward from the client likewise. So what was your return? Did the tweet, appointment, or being involved in the pitch generate any real exposure?
These intangibles are always hard to measure, so set some intelligent targets; for instance measure the number of followers you gain from the client’s tweets, new contacts made in a meeting, or opportunities that arose from being on the pitch team.
If the target isn’t met or isn’t even close, perhaps similar work isn’t worth doing again – definitely not for the same client.
Ultimately the success of many creative projects to deliver a reward can hinge on you – the quality of your work and your own self-promotion. It can be tempting to fit projects where money isn’t the reward around those where it is.
Squeezing a project into your schedule can result in lower quality work, risking a good relationship with your client and potentially undermining the exposure or damaging the credentials you hoped to generate.
Maintain the highest quality, always
However paid for, it’s important that your work is of the highest quality. Scope out the project, reserve the appropriate amount of time for completion, and don’t deliver anything less than your usual high standards.
Once the project is delivered and the reward imminent, you need to plan how you will use your reward to it’s full effect.
Maximise your reward
Be well prepared for the meeting with your client’s senior managers. Encourage interest and interact in the client’s tweets by promoting them yourself, replying with a ‘thank you’, and highlighting to friends and other clients.
Credentials need promoting too – post links and images on your website, across social media, and use as an excuse to contact clients and prospects, both old and new.
Having the flexibility to take on projects where the return isn’t financial can be hugely liberating and rewarding, offering the opportunity to work with the brands, people, and companies that you admire.
Do you work for free? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.