How To Get Ad Agencies to Work for Free

And Other Tricks of the Trade

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
To provide some light summer reading, I've made a list of a few of the strategies that clients occasionally use to get an agency to throw in some free work, cut its pricing and in general sacrifice profit for a gamble on the future.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I don't buy that clients are wolves preying on innocent agency lambs. When it comes to hiring freelancers and other services, agencies don't hesitate to use their leverage to drive down costs and ask for handouts. Hell, I do it myself. We all negotiate. It's the art of business. The smart agency understands that it's not always about the money and that sometimes it still makes sense to play the game, even when the terms are less than ideal.

Here are some of the favorite lines and strategies that I've heard over the years regarding the fine art of getting something for nothing.

  • "If you can do this project for free, or at a big discount, you're going to get more work than you can handle in the future." Often this request is framed in the spirit of "partnership" or of "sharing the risk."

  • For sheer enthusiasm, you can't beat, "We're going to do amazing work together, once you help me with this one small project."

  • "I'm not sure what the budget is just yet, but it will be significant if you can develop some ideas that we can sell to the executive team."

  • I prefer the more honest and flattering approach: "I don't have any money, but I really want to work with you."
Other client strategies for getting a good deal use sleight-of-hand arguments that subtly shift the boundaries into the grey zone.
  • "Shouldn't this up-front strategy work be considered part of your new-business process?"

  • "I'd like to introduce you to my boss, but first I want you to develop some 'ideas' that will serve as an introduction to the agency."

  • "We'll provide all the content -- you'll just need to do light editing." That's always a nice way to slip in some extra work.
While most of these strategies give the agency the opportunity to make a reasonable decision, there are two strategies that I consider bad form.
  • One, asking for a break on the price at the end of a project. You negotiate contracts not invoices. (To be fair, agencies are notorious for asking for more money once the work is done.)

  • Two, conducting a review from a group of agencies to solicit ideas and then never hiring any of them.
If you think that's bad, this Ad Age story mentions a company that wants to charge agencies almost $10,000 for the right to pitch an account. As they say in boxing, "Protect yourself at all times." Given all the challenges of running a profitable business, what's truly amazing is how agencies con themselves into giving work away for free without even being asked.
  • "We're going to do it for category experience," and "This is a great opportunity to build our portfolio" are sure-fire roads to nowhere.
I can think of two situations where it's acceptable to volunteer free work. It's a pro bono account that you're passionate about. You just graduated from college and don't have anything better to do.

On the other hand, two requests for a price break always get my attention and make perfectly good sense.

  • "We'll guarantee a certain amount of work if you can give us a discount."

  • "We'd like to sign a one year contract." Commitment, a beautiful word that is music to my ears.
Both of those offers can help you run your agency with some predictability and efficiency. You should be happy to share the resulting savings with your clients.

Here's the catch with all of the above. If you want to be smart about money, you need to be smart about people. A bad proposition from one person can be a legitimate opportunity from another. Sometimes, it makes sense to agree to a lopsided deal. Knowing when is the trick. No matter what the request, trust the quality of the relationship and let it guide your decisions. It's the only way to navigate through the murky waters of fees and compensation.

To provide a balanced perspective, my next time at bat, I'm going to write about some of the agency business practices that give clients good reason to be wary.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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