Things I’ve learnt about pricing creative work.
I once wrote a blog post entitled “why I’ll always be honest” where I vowed to share with you the highs and lows of pursuing a creative career. And despite the fact that I often want to throw that post into cyberspace and replace it with posts about how amazingly successful and wonderful I am, that would make a far less helpful and honest post. One of the posts I wish someone had written for me is about pricing commercial creative work, because, quite frankly, it’s an absolute bloody ball-ache. Lots of other creatives have asked me how I price my work, which indicates that there is not enough advice for those entering into a freelance creative career. So, without further ado, here are 16 things I’ve learnt about pricing my work since working as a commercial artist.
1. There’s no perfect price list.
I went into this gig thinking that there was a set way of pricing that everyone was hiding from me, when the reality is that every creative freelancer will tackle things very differently. Every creative freelancer I have met has had difficulties with pricing jobs - and lots of creative agencies too for that matter. Working across a number of different creative professions within the creative industry has been a challenge because each has different standards of pricing. Having doubts about how to price a project does not make you unprofessional or any less able to produce good work, it just means that pricing work takes time and thought. It would be a hell of a lot easier if every creative profession just had the exact same price list to work from, but this would be pretty unrealistic. Of course, each creative will hopefully get to a point where they are confident pricers and negotiators, but the road there is often rocky.
2. No one wants to talk about money.
There are some things that people just don’t talk about, and one of those things is money. Of course, you don’t go around asking people what salary they’re on, do you? But, then, most people don’t have to work out what their own salary is going to be like us freelance creatives do. Try asking whether a prospective client has a budget and it will often be met with “we don't have a budget, just give me a ball park figure,” often without any detailed information about the job in hand. Can you imagine if this happened in an interview? It’s on a par with asking “What’s the salary?” to which the employer says “guess.”
3. Everyone has a budget.
Ah yes, you know that thing they said they didn’t have? Well, they do. Of course they do, otherwise you’d be able to get away with charging one million quid for designing an A5 leaflet. No one wants to discuss this, though, perhaps in case you come in much lower. There are, however, those that are open about budgets to start with and that can often be helpful (and those lovely clients who are open to giving honest feedback). If you're working in collaboration with people, open dialogue is good, but boundaries are still important.
5. A lot of people like bargains.
At least they think they do. But lowering your prices can sometimes mean that the work will lack quality or it won't have as much to it as originally planned. Apart from the lovely clients who give you big budgets or are open to discussion, I’ve noticed that there is sometimes little correlation between the size of the client and their eagerness to spend money. In fact, sometimes the larger the company, the more they will try to negotiate with you in the promise of recognition and acclaim (but unfortunately recognition and acclaim don’t pay the bills). I am learning that it doesn't matter if I quote £2000 or £200, a large proportion of companies will still barter with you to get the job for cheaper (after all, it’s just the way of business to try to get more for your money). All this bartering can knock your confidence when you’re a sole trader, with no sounding board to check if you’re on the right lines (because, remember, no one talks about this stuff*), leading you to under price your work.
*apart from muggins here.
6. Working out quotations is a job in itself.
Quotations take thought and time, which is why you need to consider all the extra work you put into your work that isn’t just about physically creating something - materials, time, studio rent, scope of advertising, emails, phone calls, travel (cost and time)… there’s always more to a job than you think.
7. People often only want to pay you for the time your pencil hits the paper (hand hits the mouse....*insert relevant creative skill here*).
“We want to use an illustration from your website for a national advertising campaign,” he enquired, but when money was mentioned he said “why should we pay you, you’ve already done the work.”
This was one of the first requests I had as a freelancer and although I’d love to say it was the last, but the value of something is not always understood. People only want to pay you for physically creating and they sometimes don't understand that saving a pdf file or writing out emails takes up a lot of time (thought it's your job to explain that). Sometimes an hourly rate is useful and makes sense to the job in hand. other times this is what sometimes happens:
- I can feel like I'm on a trip to Skegness with my five year old: “Are we nearly there yet?” “Are we nearly there yet?” and then after you’ve rushed the work in order to save on budget you're informed the work lacks quality. I'd be the same if someone quoted me a day rate to decorate my house and then gave me a 'rough estimate' of time to complete the work.
- You’re faced with the fact that some creative ideas take you way longer than others and you’re charging some clients hundreds of pounds more for essentially the same outcome. It’s a bit unfair.
- You get quicker as you get more experience which means you get paid less.
8. I've learnt to say no sooner
Of course everyone wants to make as much money as they can for their business, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want to work to someone else terms or if a collaboration would be really beneficial for you. On the occasions people have asked me to lower my fees, there are two groups:
The ones that say:
“Thanks for the quote but it’s a little out of our budget, is there anything you can do?”
The ones that say things like:
“I may as well just do it myself.”
“No offence, but I may as well just take a photo on my iPhone if you’re going to charge that.”
“your quote is extremely disappointing.”
“There was a permenant role for you later down the line, but…”
Guess which group I am more open to collaborating with? Trying to come up against comments like that on a regular basis is easy to make you lose confidence, unless you talk to others in your industry...
9. Talking to other creatives is helpful
Other creatives are a great source of moral support. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one facing these issues, and other creatives can be a real support and give you confidence to have faith in your work and also how to price it. The Association of Illustrators has been a great source of help to me. In a recent Arrest all Mimics podcast Lou Baines, the AOI membership manager, said "I hate how little confidence illustrators have." Clearly we're not talking to one another enough. Talking to other professionals gives you confidence to stand your ground when you need to.
10. Underpricing work doesn’t do anyone any favours
Remember those lovely creatives you just got moral support from? You don’t want to be undercutting them. Nor do you want them to do that to you, right? Undercutting may mean more work for you in the short term, but in the long term it means creatives’ rates will be lowered on the whole. Giving a low quote can often lead others to think ‘well, she did it for that little, must be like a hobby to her then,’ and you're continually chipped down. What this means for the client is that work may be rushed and lose quality and that's not good for anyone. And if prices are lowered for creative work this has a knock on effect on the culture around us - less people investing in design agencies, less budgets for community arts projects, less beautifully designed stuff.
11. Everyone views money (and creativity) differently
Lots of people believe that creativity is not important, despite it having a day to day impact on each and every one of us. It's often a challenge to be assertive in a world that often asks you to work for free or for very little money. If I was solely about the money I would likely be in another profession, but that doesn't mean I can't charge fairly for what I do just because I find my work fulfilling. Of course you start to become wise to the enquiries that challenge you unfairly but it takes time to gain confidence with pricing work, especially if you were brought up without much money. There are clients that are all about the bargains, but there are also clients who see the immense value creativity has and want to invest into it. These are the ones you want to be working with, right?
12. Being upfront is good.
I’ve learnt this the hard way. You cannot expect people to really understand the ins and outs of your business (even if they say they do). Include everything the client will be getting in the quotation and make sure they’re aware if you may be charging extra for additional amendments or further usage. Some clients do think we all have that set price list in point no.1 so it may need explanation why we're charging differently to someone else. I’ve found it helpful to be as clear as possible what the client is getting.
13. Experimentation has helped me.
I once charged something I considered high because I was too busy to take on more work, but I got the job anyway. I charged higher the next few jobs and got the work. It perhaps gave me an indication that I was undercharging (or perhaps just happened to work with people who had a bigger budget). It’s hard not to beat yourself up when you lose out on jobs, but it’s worse taking on jobs that you know you’ve undercharged for. This doesn't mean I can go around charging what I want for things or chop and change my prices, but pricing work is a learnt skill just like any other business skill. I don't feel there is enough to equip young creatives in this - it often feels daunting. I want to encourage others that thick skins are grown over time (I'm still learning this, but getting there).
14. Comparing isn't always helpful.
There will be freelancers who are way more expensive than me, and there will be those who are way cheaper. There are cases where I have received emails of other illustrators’ work and been told what they charged so I could undercut them – if I knew someone was doing that with my work I’d be mortified. But although you want to make sure you’re not undercutting, you can’t always know what you should be charging for something when you first start out. You have to give yourself permission to work out the value and be prepared to learn from each experience. Be open to feedback but recognise when you need to stick to your guns.
15. Getting things in writing is important
There have been a few times when terms and conditions have been agreed and a project is underway, only for the client to go back on them at the very last minute. I’ve had prices agreed and then at the last minute the potential client will say ‘we no longer have the budget for this, you’ll need to meet £x in order for the project to go ahead’. I’ve also had companies send me contracts just before I send the final artwork, allowing them to have extra permissions they have not been quoted for, or cutting my fees. It can be incredibly draining sticking to your guns so I’ve found having my own terms and keeping track of emails has been valuable in order to refer back to.
16. You’re not an arse for placing value on what you do
Placing value on yourself feels incredibly egotistical (no matter what business you're in) but you need to stop thinking about it as something personal, and view it as a service that helps to solve people's problems. I've learnt that people can often react quite badly to freelance creatives who ask for a decent fee. It's as though we creatives turn into blood sucking vampires behind our easels, just waiting to pounce on the next corporate professional victim who won't comply with our rigid demands. We're a right cocky bunch, us illustrators, always showing off about how much money we made from that picture book we got published in 2003 that earns us £10 in royalties a year. I know what you're thinking "who do you bloody think you are?”
Many of us have been led to believe from day one that art and creativity isn’t valued as highly as ‘academia,’ whether that’s from anxious family members who worry about whether we can actually make a living from it, or whether that’s being scoffed at by other professionals for ‘not having a proper job’, as though we all sit around colouring in all day. Society still has a long way to go in seeing the value of creativity, despite the fact it may well have just persuaded us to buy one brand of shampoo over another, or influenced us to donate to charity through an ad campaign, or enabled us to enjoy the films we watch whilst sat on our nicely designed couches.
There’s a coffee mug that keeps circulating the internet with some typography on it that says ‘design can’t change the world but it sure makes it look nice’, and I hate it. Why? Because I actually do think design is changing the world all the time - it influences people to make very important decisions and it helps to sell huge amounts of products and services. It boosts the economy. It adds colour and life. It creates connection. It builds community. It changes people’s minds. We are not producing pretty pictures that have no influence, we are game changers. I’m not an arse for placing value on to what I do. It makes a huge difference.
Got any helpful tips you’ve learned about pricing creative work? Would love to hear them.
UPDATE: A chap called Bernard wrote a step by step criticism of this post called "Is Getting Over Ourselves Ever a Sure Thing?" (make sure you're sitting comfortably). In it he described this post as infantile, whiny, pseudo honest, unprofessional and that that I am too enamoured with myself and not grown up enough to be in this industry. I responded to Bernard's post with an open letter to him which you can read here: