When clients ask you to graft for nothing in return for "exposure", be very wary. We explain the downside of working for free.
It's a great time to be a creative freelancer. The rise of the digital age, the 'Great Resignation' following the pandemic, and the increased focus on branding for all types of big businesses means demand for designers, illustrators, writers, and other creatives has surged, providing numerous opportunities.
However, when you start out as an independent, those opportunities can seem distant and elusive. If you don't have a proven track record, then instead of being offered the big bucks, the best you may get is offers to work for free in return for "exposure".
These offers might seem tempting, especially if you're hanging around waiting for something better. They'll keep you busy, help boost your skills and aid your career in the long term, right?
Wrong! Take it from us: working for free usually does more harm than good. Here are five reasons why.
1. 'Exposure' doesn't pay the bills
We'll start with the most common carrot clients will dangle in front of you: "There's no pay, but you'll get a lot of exposure for your work, which will help your career."
That might sound good, especially if you're just starting out and struggling to get attention. But in truth, promises of exposure or future paid work rarely materialise in ways that benefit the freelancer. For a start, in most cases, the work isn't even credited when it appears. And even if it is, it doesn't guarantee people will give you work. That's simply not how clients find freelancers in the real world.
Yes, it's possible to think of exceptions in theory. For example, if you designed a costume for Elton John, he wore it on stage in a televised concert and thanked you by name, that would probably help your cause. But in reality, people like Elton John tend to pay anyway. The clients who want to avoid paying you are generally losers, chancers and ne'er-do-wells you simply can't trust.
Freelancers need to buy food, settle rent and bills, and pay for software and other overhead costs, just like anyone else in the workforce. Exposure won't cover these expenses, so just say no to free.
2. It undermines your professional value (and that of the profession)
When you work without pay, you unconsciously send people the message that your skills and time have no financial value. And this isn't just bad for you, it's bad for the profession as a whole.
Think about it. Once a client has got something for (literally) nothing, they will see the idea of paying for it as a "loss". And because we as humans are psychologically primed to feel a "loss" far more intensely than a gain, they'll loathe to pay freelancers in future… any freelancers.
This leads to the strange phenomenon I've witnessed several times: a boss insisting that a junior spend hours and hours trying to find a freelancer who'll do something for free. The irony that they're paying that employee to do so is often lost on them!
3. It creates an unbalanced power dynamic
If you're working for someone for free, you'd think they'd treat you extra nicely, right? Unfortunately, in my experience and those of others, it's actually the opposite. When you agree to work for free, you're psychologically signalling their dominance over you, encouraging them to feel superior, look down on you, and perhaps even treat you like dirt.
In short, you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position. When you're being paid by someone, you're entering a contract of equals in which services are exchanged for money. But when you're not being paid, no such contract exists, and so the power dynamic is totally different. You're not their equal: basically, they hold all the power, and you have none.
4. Clients can take advantage
What does that unbalanced power dynamic mean in practice? In the best-case scenario, it may be fine. If the client has been in your shoes early in their own career, they're likely to treat you sympathetically. But in the worst-case scenario, they'll give you little or no respect, and there'll be no end to what they ask of you.
Because there isn't a financial contract binding the project's scope, they often feel they can demand more work, revisions or additional tasks – for as long as they want.
And while you might be enthusiastic at first, this can tend to drive you down over time, sapping your energy and commitment and making you feel you wish you'd never started the project.
Since the client isn't financially invested in you completing your work, there can be endless revisions, delays and changes in direction. This then makes it hard for you to manage other projects, including paid ones you might have picked up in the meantime.
5. Feeling cheated
Perhaps the worst thing that can happen if you work for free is the psychological damage it can cause. Clients typically dangle the possibility of paid projects in the future as a way to get you to do free work now. More often than not, these promises are empty, and when you chase them up, you get vague replies at best and ghosted at worst. This leaves you feeling like you did something wrong or that you're not worthy of the creative profession you want to enter.
How not to work for free
"Okay," you might be saying. "This all sounds good. But right now, I'm not getting any offers of paid work. So what's the alternative to working for free?"
First of all, stand firm. Remember that your skills have value, and politely decline offers that don't compensate you fairly. Over time, this can help shift perceptions of both yourself and everyone else in the profession.
In some cases, simply standing your ground may prompt the client to come back and say "Okay then, can we do a deal?" If you're early on in your career and don't have a proven track record, it's perfectly okay to negotiate a discounted rate or an alternative like payment in kind.
If the client is being obstinate, they may require some education. Some clients genuinely don't understand the work that goes into creative projects. For example, their friend's son, who's still in school, may have built them a simple website, so they think all web design is easy and takes five minutes... even a sophisticated e-commerce operation.
Sometimes, then, it's worth educating the client about the process, time and expertise required to complete their request. But if the client still refuses to pay, then just move on. Some people simply can't be persuaded.
On the plus side, there are plenty more clients out there who are desperate to find good, reliable people and are willing to pay them. You just have to find them. For advice on this, read our article Successful creatives share how they won their first client (so you can too).