3 Negotiation Tactics for Freelancers

A veteran freelancer shares tips for mastering the delicate art of negotiation

September 30, 2019

Whether it’s debating with your kid about who’s going to take out the trash or Congress arguing about tax cuts, life’s full of negotiations. But for a freelancer? Knowing how to negotiate is everything.

For a freelancer like me, what to charge clients is the biggest point of negotiation I make and the one I spend the most time thinking about. But I’m also constantly negotiating my availability, whether I work on- or off-site, and due dates for deliverables, particularly when I’m juggling a few clients at once.

Then there are the ongoing negotiations I have with myself: how much vacation to take, how many gigs to shoulder, how to best balance my own creative pursuits with paid client work.

I’m going to walk through some of the negotiation tactics I’ve used in my own career as a freelancer. Most of these approaches will focus on money, because that’s the big ticket item. But, as we’ll see, the reason I bring up other bargaining points is because they can become part of how you negotiate compensation, especially when there’s something else you want or when the rate you want to charge is more than the client is willing or able to pay.

Of course, I know that, for many freelancers, your rate and even hours are determined by the industry you’re in. For years, I was a production assistant for movies, commercials, and yes, even informercials. I had very little negotiating power in that role. I got a call, a rate was offered, and the production company usually determined if it was a flat rate or overtime was available. When I became a set dresser and joined my local union, I always got overtime, but again, the rate and negotiation was out of my hands.

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But for designers, art directors, copywriters, creative directors, editors, sound designers, post-supervisors, and many other freelancers in the creative industry, the going rate for a given service can vary greatly depending on your experience, the client’s stature, and — you guessed it — how you handle the negotiation. And because we’re not beholden to the hours of an on-set production, the times we work are often fluid and TBD.

I won’t tackle how much to charge in this article. That topic is an article or two in its own right. But I do want to discuss some ways to get you what you what once you know the rate you want to charge.

Goodwill to all

Before I jump in, a word of caution. All too often we think of negotiations as hostile. We may worry we’ll get screwed over so we go for the jugular, ready to battle. When we approach negotiations with this mentality, we’re more likely to be met with the same attitude. And it can set a combative tenor for the duration of the job — but remember: You have to actually complete the gig after you accept it.

Here’s another way to frame negotiations. If you’re a creative professional, chances are your client values what you do and is eager to come to an agreement that’s going to empower you to do your very best work. They want you to be happy, so you’ll do work that makes them happy.

This doesn’t mean they’ll give you everything you want, but it does mean if you’re clear, honest, friendly, and a little humble, chances are you’ll either reach an agreement you’re both happy with, or you won’t — but you’ll stay on good terms, leaving the door open to future collaborations.

Tactic 1: Take it or leave it

The easiest and most basic approach to negotiating a job is to tell a client your day or hourly rate, take it or leave it. If they try to haggle, you hold firm. If they can’t or won’t pay it, you say no. Simple as that.

This works especially well if you’re a seasoned veteran in your field, have a great reputation, and are in high demand. It’s easy to pass on work if you know there’s plenty more. You might miss out on a creative opportunity, but you’ll always get your full rate.

Tactic 2: A little daylight

If you’re not in this position, or if a client is asking for a bid or even a flat rate for the entire project, you’ll need a more nuanced approach. Think of it as an addendum to the “Take it or leave it” approach — “Here’s my rate, but there’s wiggle room.”

There are a few ways to use this tactic. If you’re raising your rate, it’s a good way to audition a higher fee you haven’t charged before. If they buy it, you have a new rate! If not, you can fall back on your typical fee.

This approach is also really useful when you doubt your client can afford your full rate, and you’re willing to come down on it because you want or need the work. You might say, “What I like to make is . . .” or “What I made on my last job was . . .” or even “My full rate is X, but I can be flexible if . . .” This tactic puts the onus back on the client. Maybe they’ll say, “Great! Let’s get started.”

But if they take the bait and counteroffer, you’re still in the running for the job. And if you’ve already accepted that you’ve given something up financially, you can and should leverage that for something else. And that something else is entirely up to you.

For instance, if they want you to work on site, but you prefer working from home, you’ve now got an opening to renegotiate. If they want you full-time five days a week, but your Tuesdays are spoken for, ask for an accommodation. If they want you to fly down on a Sunday and return Friday evening, try suggesting flying home Thursday and working remotely on Friday.

These are harder asks if they’ve already agreed to pay your full rate, but if you show flexibility on compensation, a good client will afford you the same flexibility elsewhere.

Personally, I love being flexible on how much I charge. Not only does it allow me to have more control over how, when, and where I work, it also allows me to take on projects I wouldn’t be able to if I were firm about my rate. I can work with smaller agencies that have local or regional clients (and often more creative leeway), and it usually allows me to be home by late afternoon to boot. I can also work with friends starting a business or nonprofit, which usually have a small budget, if any.

Tactic 3: Bartering

Which brings up one last negotiating tactic: the trade.

We don’t typically think of trading when it comes to what we do professionally, but if you drink wine and you work for a winery, you’d probably be happy to take a few cases of vino home as part of your payment, right?

So, if you take on work with someone or at a company that can provide something you want — ice cream, shoes, help designing you a website that’ll grow your freelance business — negotiate a partial trade. Keep in mind too that agencies and even nonprofits often have access to vacation houses or tickets to concerts or sporting events. Helping a small business or nonprofit with a contained project in exchange for a long weekend at a beach house a board member owns could be an option that makes everyone happy.

Learning to love negotiations

Whatever tactic you use, the most important thing to remember is you get to negotiate. Even if you’re in a situation where rates and hours are set by a production company or union, there will be times when you’ll need to give in order to receive. 

So, the next time you’re negotiating for a job, think about what you really want. If it’s just money, fair enough. Try and get as much as you know you’re worth. If it’s more complicated than that, be clear with yourself about what you’re really after, and then work with your client to make it a reality.

Andrew Dickson is a freelance copywriter who works for clients like Apple, Ikea, and Adidas. He likes freelancing so much he co-created Mt. Freelance, an online course and community designed to help creative freelancers freelance better. Before going out on his own, he spent seven years at Wieden+Kennedy Portland writing ads for brands like Old Spice and running the WK12 ad school. Before that, he was a freelance set dresser, performer, and eBay PowerSeller. Besides freelancing and writing about freelancing, he also performs regularly, hosting storytelling events for The Moth and auctioneering events for schools and nonprofits.
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