Saying No To Working For Free

Politely telling 'Exposure' requests to 'piss-off takes a certain amount of skill. Let me share my top 3 strategies on how to deal with said requests.

3 Ways To Respond To Working For Free Requests

Freelancer | Creative let's make those conversations easier.

Have you seen the price of a pint lately? In Dublin, a pint costs twelve million retweets.

Oh hang on a minute, there is something wrong with that sentence. 

You can't buy shit with retweets. 

A pint costs €5.70 in currency, MONEY.

We all know this right?

Why do people that need services from Creative talent still ask for products/services in exchange for exposure?

Have you experienced it?

People never really say ‘free’ as that would add distaste to the conversation. 

They say ‘exposure’ or ‘opportunity.’ 

Sometimes they don’t say anything at all – their email just says ‘do you fancy getting involved?’

It is only after you have invested time in replying, they say ‘oh sorry, did I not mention? We don’t have any budget.’ 

Hang on!

Now don't get me wrong, I am not for a moment suggesting the people who ask you to work for free are assholes, they are often lovely people with limited or no actual budget, who just don’t understand how long things take or more importantly to highlight here, how much your time is worth. 

I know what you are thinking, 'Agh c'mon that unpaid gig could potentially turn into something more interesting down the line ' and YES I do advocate for collaboration and 'helping others' if it aligns with something that will benefit your core business and you are really happy to do it.

Here is the thing, if like me you LOVE making a difference and feel this innate need to help people, then saying NO to 'helping' or 'getting involved' becomes very very challenging.

The harsh reality is: 

The Creative Community fuels this 

'Work For Free" epidemic, 

all by ourselves. 

That might feel hard to digest for many. It is hardly our fault!

People are dickheads for even asking.

But I want to highlight something important - Supply & Demand.

If they get a NO by the majority, the demand stops. 

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We need to take control of this and start saying NO to exposure offers.

*Repeating here that not ALL requests should be doomed. You have to make a smart decision based on business goals, what stage you are at with your business & how this FREE work can benefit your bottom line*


Here are 3 options for you to look at and decide which one best fits your business and your personality and have this in your back pocket for when they come.

Let's frame this up...

When we get these emails, calls our reaction is this...

⚡️ Hit that delete button or/and

🍷 Publish a rant on social media.

 I’m not saying you shouldn’t do either but I find reactive actions benefit nobody least the person reacting. 

So let's stay smart with how we manage our businesses and keep these options top of mind.

Here are a few scenarios along with some suggested responses if you want to turn that unpaid offer into something positive for you.

1. The 'Are You Cracked' offer

This one you would never take even if they paid you. A Company or individual whose marketing efforts makes your skin crawl and core values make you wonder who the fuck they are actually targeting? 

What you could say:

“ Are you off your head? What planet are you living on? ”

What you can actually say:

“Thanks for the offer, but I am not sure your product is something I want to endorse, given your marketing activity. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about ' A New Way Of Building Your Business' and as you’re in the early stages, I’d encourage you to take another look at how you are positioning your Brand.”

Don't expect any thanks for this, by the way, it is not about that.  

For me, I feel like at least I gave something back and hopefully made someone somewhere think about something! There are times when a quick one-liner of feedback can give a company pause for thought. You might not get any paid work, but you may be able to help them improve plus you are getting more eyeballs on some of your content ( if relevant ).

One way or the other hitting back with something helpful feels so much better than reacting with a pissed-off insult. 

2. The ‘We Are Very New’.

This one fuels large amounts of rubbing your chin ( oh to have a beard! ) thinking; ‘hmm, I am not particularly interested in this project, but I could do with eating something other than beans and toast this week. If they paid me I would do it for sure.’ But payment doesn't come into the equation.

You know the story – ‘we’re in a start-up right at the beginning’ or ‘we’re running on a very tight budget’, usually accompanied by ‘but we can link to you!’ 

What does that 'LINK' actually mean?  

‘We’ll link to you!’ actually means jack shit as very early start-up businesses have little or no following in the first place. So what is that 'LINK' worth? 

Make no mistake –the bottom line here is that you are giving money to a company that doesn't really excite you or has any impact on your business. You do not know these guys, you have no loyalty or affiliate with what they do. Basically, you are giving strangers something for nothing. Hmmmmmm * more rubbing chin activity * It doesn't really make sense now does it?

What you could say:

“Go fuck yourself & stop exploiting the Creative sector .”

What you might say instead:

“Your company/innovative new thing sounds interesting. Unfortunately I am very busy at the moment, but my rates are [INSERT MONEY SUM HERE] and I should have some availability in a couple of weeks time.”

Notice I haven’t mentioned the ‘working for free’ thing here, because while some companies are willing/eager to massively offend you by implying your time is worth nothing, they can sometimes get a bit sad if, in return, you imply that this is exploitative. If you want to teach them a lesson, go for option one. If you want to turn them into a respectful company that pays for services, option two is more persuasive in the long term.

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3. The ‘OMG I Really Want To Do This '

So this is where it gets harder right!

This is the ‘free work’ that’s offered on a project you really love. 

Something which you cannot bear to say no to because it sounds really fun and at the end of the day who can say no to FUN! From a professional standpoint, this offer is something that will give you genuinely decent and useful exposure.

I have had a few offers of work like this, and rather than wrenching my heart and soul into a cold and twisted mass of misery, I have come up with a simple rule of thumb:


So if the project is for a charity or social enterprise that I am happy to support, I’ll donate my time to help out for sure. If it’s an early-stage startup run by someone I respect and have a passion for what they stand for, I would gladly get involved and do something for them. I have to add in here though that I would discuss how they plan to pay for this service when they do start making money. 

I think it is always healthy to have conversations about payment in these scenarios. Do not ignore the subject which will then create an elephant in the room.

If, on the other hand, they are already making money, then they need to give something valuable. In limited situations, I’ll work in exchange for something – a ticket that I’d have bought anyway or training that will help my business or direct contact with aligned leads for my offering which I’d otherwise pay for but 99% of the time they need to offer actual money.

No links or exposure 

(this happens more than you’d think) 

they need to offer MONEY! 

Dirty, sexy, cold hard cash. 

No matter how exciting the project is, ask yourself: how much would I pay them to let me do this? If the answer is ‘fuck-all, obviously’ then you know what to do.

What you could say:

“Are you actually taking the piss? I can see from your site that you make sales. Do your fucking accountants work for free you shower of assholes?”

A much better alternative:

“I’d love to be able to work with you on this project. I understand that budgets are tight at the moment, but I couldn’t justify taking this work on and dropping other paid work. My rates are [INSERT MONEY HERE] and I’m really looking forward to working with you – please do let me know if you manage to secure some budget.”

Now that’s a good one, and I’ve used it a few times.

Sometimes it works, and people get back to you to say ‘OK, I spoke to the boss and we can offer you some cash,’ other times it doesn’t. Just be careful not to let the exciting project get all shiny and lush to daydream about.

Just remember the bottom line: THEY ARE NOT PAYING YOU!

I understand that Creative people are not driven by money but we as a collective need to realize that unless we stop saying YES to these 'offers' we are fueling the thing we all hate the most.

Change has to happen within our community first. 

So the next time you are thinking about one of those 'offers' I want you to stop and think about it. Yes get angry and pissed off but think about how you can steer the conversation your way.

Most of the time these companies big or small are trying to do their thing. 

They will always 'ask' and 9 times out of 10 the person who you have contact with is running around for someone else. They have their agenda and you have yours. I am a big believer in being kind and respectful to whoever you meet ( even if what they ask makes your blood boil! ) so I choose to answer with something like this: 

“I’d love to work with you on this. The thing is, I feel very strongly about the Creative sector and advise my audience to say NO to working for no payment. In order to work with you and this project I would need to secure payment for my involvement. Please let me know what you can offer in terms of payment, so I can say yes with a clear conscience.”

So if you, like everyone else on this planet, have so far been unable to buy a pint with retweets, then please start getting vocal about the fact that you won’t work for exposure.

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Categories: Mindset, Working for free