Articles - 1st May 2020

Why you shouldn’t work for free – and how to set your day rate

Words by Josh Mcloughlin
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Should you ever work for free?

Every freelancer will have been asked to work for nothing, whether it’s the early-career work done in exchange for ‘exposure’, or the unpaid pitch work, try-before-you-buy ‘trial assignments’, or ‘favours’ asked even of experienced senior freelancers.

The 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, took a very dim view of unpaid employment. ‘Unpaid internships are an abuse of power by employers and extremely damaging to social mobility’, the report said.

‘The Government should ensure that exploitative unpaid internships’ are ‘stamped out’, it concluded.

Freelancers arguably have it tougher than those in full-time employment. Our finances are far more precarious and unstable. Yet, free work costs the average freelancer £5,394 a year. Whereas no-one would expect to be employed for free, except in an initial graduate internship—and perhaps not even then, given the fallout from the Taylor review—freelancers at all stages of their careers are asked to do something for nothing.

In fact, working for free is often the first brutal reality encountered by young freelancers. With a threadbare portfolio and a paucity of ‘work experience’, early-career creatives are often told that unpaid work will be ‘good exposure’ or help them get their ‘foot in the door’. This attitude carries with it the underhand implication that those starting out should just be grateful that someone has even allowed them to work for nothing.

‘Just after I graduated, I responded to an ad looking for a freelance culture blogger—exhibition reviews, things to do, city guides, stuff like that’, one freelance journalist told me.

‘They wanted me to write five articles for free before they’d “consider taking me on” as a writer.’

‘That’s about a week’s work they expected me to do—for nothing’.

An experienced graphic designer, who has worked both freelance and in-house, also gave his take: ‘I’ve done unpaid work on friend’s projects and labours of love, but that’s different’.

‘It’s a very privileged position to be able to work for free, even for a day. Clients asking for unpaid work should think long and hard about who that excludes, which is basically everyone who isn’t bankrolled by their family or lucky enough to live rent-free in London, where a lot of the work is’.

‘If somebody doesn’t value or can’t pay for design or creative work, they are probably cutting loads of corners and aren’t worth working with in the first place’.

But is that a blanket rule?

‘I wouldn’t apply that logic to groups of friends working together for a common goal or a passion project that won’t make money’, he added.

‘It’s a hard one because if a small band I loved asked me to design a record sleeve for free, I probably would. But if it was a moisturiser brand? Fuck that! Give me money!’

What about freelancers just starting out? I asked.

‘If you’re low on experience, for example if you’re still at uni and you need to start somewhere, doing some unpaid work could be useful.

‘But I still think clients should be making at least a token gesture. It’s tempting to do unpaid work for a high-profile brand in order to boost your portfolio but they are exactly the kind of clients who should be paying—and paying well’.

The last thing a freelancer wants to do is rock the boat and risk being seen as troublesome or greedy to a potential client. To do so could jeopardise the freelancer’s holy grail: repeat business.

Some unscrupulous clients—especially household names—take advantage of the power they wield over freelancers’ livelihoods, making unreasonable demands of unpaid work in exchange for little more than a vague hope of further commissions.

A freelance illustrator told me: ‘A client approached me saying “We adore your work and wondered if you could do a huge favour for us”’.

‘When I asked for a fee, I was told there was “no budget”—the client was a high-end London department store!’

A writer I spoke to concurred: ‘I’ve had people ask me to write opinion piece articles for nothing, and when I ask for a fee they hit me with the old “but we have XXX audience who’ll see this”. I’ve been offered quite a few “pay on results” type scenarios but never taken them up on it’.

In my own experience as a journalist and copywriter, I’ve worked with many clients who want to try before they buy. Earlier in my career, I saw these ‘audition’ jobs as a necessary evil, reluctantly completing them for free in order to ‘make my name’ and banking on further commissions later on down the line.

I asked a freelance copywriter if he’d experienced the same. ‘If you’ve got no portfolio and you’re short on clients, it feels unavoidable. But once you’ve got a showcase of your work, that should be enough to show a client how capable you are’, he said.

‘If they want a “trial piece”, you can justify charging for it. It’s when clients start asking for your copy and ideas about their brand [before commissioning] that it gets a bit naughty’.

Now I always ask for payment, even if it’s just a cursory fifty quid to cover some of the cost of my time. Unfortunately, the uncomfortable truth is that unpaid work is still rife in almost all sectors. Freelancers have a part to play in refusing to kowtow to unreasonable demands. Ultimately, however, in order to reduce the risk of alienating potential clients and losing repeat business, you should strike a balance.

You should never work for free, of course, but you might consider lowering your rate or fee for pitch work, trial assignments, good causes, or passion projects.


How to set your day rate 

When all is right in the universe, a client will ask about your day rate rather than dangling a pitifully low fee and expecting obsequious gratitude. But setting your rate is a dark art. Should you have one rate for all clients or adjust your expectations based on what you think they can pay—or what you think you’ll be able to get out of them? Should you go low to come across as good value for money or set a price premium in order to convince a client you’re the real deal?

The main difficulty is that clients—and mates in full-time employment, for that matter—often baulk at what they perceive to be excessive freelance day rates. A freelance designer might be on £250/day for doing pretty much the same work as someone in-house who’s earning £25k. Full-timers immediately calculate that £250 a day is £56,576/year and fume at the apparent injustice.

But what they forget is that freelancers don’t work every day. The feast-or-famine nature of freelancing means we could be out of work for weeks or even months. Unlike the employed, we don’t enjoy sick pay, holiday pay, parental leave, or job security. Freelance day rates need to take all that into account, as well as adding extra to protect against unforeseen circumstances that could mean work vanishes overnight—like, say, a global pandemic And before anyone at the back makes a smarmy joke about dodging taxes, freelancers often pay more tax the employed.

You should check if an industry body has set out guidelines for freelance day rates in your line of work. The National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) Freelance Fees Guide contains recommended rates for print, broadcast and online journalism, as well as design, photography, illustration, picture editing, PR, and translation. It is helpful to have industry-standard fees to refer to when negotiating with a client.

One copywriter I spoke to said he ‘benchmarked [his day rate] against the Pro Copywriters UK average day rate when I first began freelancing, and then increased it each year.’

‘I only really charge the day rate when I’m working in-house or at an agency for the day. Most of the time, it’s a project rate, which I’ll calculate based on the scope of work. You’re always best charging for value, rather than time.’

Make sure your rate reflects your ability and experience. In your first couple of years, you’ll be considered ‘junior’. ‘Midweight’ creatives are those with 2–5 years’ experience, whilst senior freelancers tend to have at least five years under the belt.

This is not an exact science, however. The junior/mid/senior taxonomy is fairly common in advertising and branding and will be familiar to pretty much all graphic designers and copywriters, but you probably won’t see an advert looking for a ‘midweight ceramicist’ any time soon. The important thing is to regularly review your rates. When you’re finding your feet, it makes sense to start lower (but by no means low) and think about raising your rates after a couple of years, once you’ve built up a solid portfolio of satisfied clients.

You can charge more for last-minute and weekend work. If a client comes to you at 8pm on a Friday night needing a rapid, Monday morning turnaround for a critical project, you’ll have to drop everything else to get it over the line for them. Your rate needs to reflect that, because producing the same quality in a fraction of the time often means working late, cancelling social plans, missing the football, and more stress—all of which should be rewarded appropriately.

No matter what clients try to tell you, cancellation fees are definitely a thing. Just because a freelancer hasn’t started the work yet, doesn’t mean they didn’t free up their schedule, turn down other work, or do preliminary research. And if you’re halfway through a job when the client pulls the plug, you deserve compensation for your time. After all, freelancers can’t just find replacement work at the drop of a hat.

The NUJ, for example, advises up to a 100% cancellation fee depending on the timing. To enforce cancellation fees, you usually need to have an agreement in place before you accept the gig, especially for bigger jobs. The client is supposed to send over a contractor agreement for you to sign before work commences. (If there’s no agreement, you are in very murky territory). Read it carefully to make sure they aren’t trying to pull a fast one and suggest a reasonable cancellation fee in case they need to terminate the agreement unexpectedly.

Agreeing a fee can be stressful—just one of the emotional taxes of freelancing. The Freelancer Club’s #nofreework campaign urges creatives to pledge not to work for free and calls for new legislation to give freelancers stronger rights. Until policy catches up with the reality of freelance work, however, we need to stick up for ourselves. So, it’s vitally important to know your worth and be able to justify your value.

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