Do You Work for a Fee, or for Free?

We Need to Consistently Put a Price Tag on Our Expertise

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Is it me, or is there a growing trend in people seeking free ideas from those of us in the business? I'm not referring to spec pitches; I'm speaking about a phrase that I hear more and more: "I'd like to pick your brain." Am I right? Have you been getting the same request?

For whatever reason, in my world, there are more brain pickers out there than ever before. My assistant even has a code for it when people call and ask to meet me for coffee to run something past me: "Another 'Brain Picker,' Marc. Want to take the call?" So who are these people, what do they really want? How can we make them pay for what we do for a living?

Brain Pickers come in all shapes and sizes. They are relatives. Friends of relatives. Close friends. Friends of friends. Relatives of clients. Friends of clients. Industry veterans. And industry rookies. Some want an hour of your time. Others just a quick call.

To be fair, I have empathy for several of these types -- especially the young ones just entering the business. And the veterans who've come into hard times and are in transition. I will always help out a close relative or friend. And if you've been referred by a client of mine, you'll certainly get my attention. I guess that doesn't leave too many Brain Pickers unspoken for. I want to help others; my struggle is time (I don't have much to spare) and fairness of the request.

What's fair:

  • Career advice
  • Networking
  • Validation of an idea
  • Providing a reference

What's unfair:

  • Seeking strategic or creative advice to help solve a marketing problem
  • Asking for an opinion of a new name of a product or company -- and then seeking any names I might think of (as if I just pull them out of a hat)
  • Setting up a meeting under the guise of networking, and then asking for any marketing ideas for the new business you are starting
  • Requesting free work when I hardly know you. Just because you work for a non-profit doesn't mean you are entitled.

What we do in our industry is really hard -- especially when done well. I wish more lay people would realize just how valuable and rare it is to have the ability to come up with brilliant, conceptual ideas that move the sales/reputation needle in the right direction. I don't ask my lawyer for free thinking. I don't ask my accountant to do my audit and tax work for nothing. I would never ask my doctor to treat me for no fee. So why the recent surge in requests for free branding advice? Maybe it's the economy. Or just more people with nerve.

The expertise I have accumulated over many years is valuable. So, I am going to set up a new fee schedule. Next time someone wants to meet me at Starbucks to pick my brain, I will tell them my hourly rate; I'm happy to buy my own coffee.

Marc Brownstein is President & CEO of Brownstein Group, headquartered in Philadelphia. Follow Marc on Twitter: @MarcBrownstein.
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