Wednesday, May 9, 2012

10 Steps to Successful Negotiations for Creatives

paying full fee
Read Time: 4 minutes

Creative professionals have the power to improve the world. Unfortunately, you often do not get paid what you deserve for your services. My mission here is to change that by helping you understand steps toward your own capabilities for success.

Work, by definition, points us toward thinking about final, shared project outcomes, so it is easy to lose sight of some of the basic but necessary negotiations along the way. Regardless of the outcome or how excited you are to see your work complete, never forget that nothing is more fundamental but necessary than agreeing on the fee for any job. Being unprepared for this most crucial of negotiations can lead to difficulties on the job itself — or, as bad, perhaps not getting or being able to take the job.

Hard bargaining can be an awkward and difficult experience, and there is no guarantee that every individual you negotiate with will be reasonable. But there are a number of simple goals to keep in mind as you prepare yourself to hold your own in fee negotiations. Importantly, these goals will also help gain the respect of those you are going to work with. That won’t just maximize your fees, but should ensure better working relationships with clients and more successful outcomes for the jobs themselves.

Goal 1: Create a Virtuous Cycle

By definition, a virtuous cycle is a series of events that results in a favorable outcome time and again. Not just one round, but a continuous . . . well, cycle. For creative professionals, it means using your work and the insights gained from it to attract the attention of future clients.

A well-managed virtuous cycle lessens the need to negotiate.The interest of a prospective client means they’ve already accepted you as an expert. When that has occurred, the negotiation of fees becomes less an issue.

Goal 2: Listen and Respond Like an Expert

To perform your role as an expert, ask questions and listen to the answers you get. Listening is a powerful tool. Part of listening should be to take notes, read back what you wrote, and ask for clarification where necessary. This formalizing of conversation might seem stilted at first, but when you perform it in your role of expert, you will learn what the client wants, what they really need, and how this can shape the future of the company. The more you learn, the more precisely you’ll be able to define your response.


  • determine how to meet client needs.
  • ask questions and create plans.
  • develop lists of deliverables required to achieve success.
  • develop a budget to create the agreed scope of work.
  • do not cut fees to appease client demands. Cutting fees undermines the potential for success.

Goal 3: Avoid Talking Too Much

Talking too much is a sign of discomfort and neediness. Avoid it as much as possible. It can be interpreted as a sign of nervousness and insecurity at the bargaining table. If you find yourself saying more than you usually do, or more than you think you should, pause and take a breath. Or finish your sentence, and turn the conversation back to them with a simple, general question, “What do you think about this?”

Goal 4: Do Not Accept the Initial Offer

Always assume there is a larger budget available. Clients who present an initial budget expect you to ask for more. If you do not, they will likely lose some respect for you. To maintain your status as expert, keep insisting on the scope required to meet the client’s need — which, of course, determines the budget too.

Goal 5: Do Not Give Anything Away for Free

Always get something in return for everything you provide to the client. If you don’t value your work, clients won’t either. In the market economy, everything of value is measured by money. If you do not ask for an appropriate fee, the client will not value the work.

Goal 6: Never Cut Deliverables to Meet the Client’s Budget

Cutting deliverables completely undermines your expert status. You have built the exact combination of deliverables to provide the best possible solution. If, under the pressure of bargaining, you cut them, it says you are just like everyone else: desperate for the work. Cutting deliverables is epidemic in creative services. Vaccinate yourself against it.

Goal 7: Separate Your Services from Yourself

When you’re at the bargaining table, train yourself to care, but not too much. When we care too much, we lose perspective, and sometimes our insecurities rise to the surface. That creates a cycle that’s just the opposite of virtuous. If you find yourself caught in that cycle, one simple way to break it is to make an excuse for leaving the bargaining table temporarily and resetting your own perspective.

Separating your services from yourself can be difficult for creative people, whose ideas become the product. But over-investing your identity in any one idea or campaign loses sight of the bigger goals of creating successful projects.

Goal 8: Never Rush to Close

Recognize the negotiating stage as part of the creative process. Take the time you need to understand every step, every detail of the process. Be guided by the phrase, “I have all the time in the world.” Rushing to close is a classic sign of insecurity. (Often, we are so uncomfortable negotiating that we just want to get through bargaining so we can do the work! No surprise, since the work itself is usually the first love of creative professionals.)

Goal 9: Do Not reveal Your Bottom Line

Often, in a misguided attempt to connect personally with the client, you feel the need to reveal more than is required. You never want the client to know how you compiled your costs or what your real bottom line is. Rest assured, the client will use it against you. Or worse, they will feel taken advantage of, if they paid more than your bottom line.

Goal 10: Create a Virtuous Cycle

The last goal is the same as the first — that’s right, it’s a cycle! Try to train your mind to think in this looping way: a series of events that rolls into a favorable outcome every time. For creative professionals, it means using your work, and the insights gained from it, to maintain the respect of the clients you’re working with in the present moment and to attract the attention of future clients.

A well-managed virtuous cycle always improves the circumstances for negotiation.

And to complete one more virtuous cycle, I’ll repeat myself here: creative professionals have the power to improve the world. Accordingly, you should get paid what you deserve for the crucial services you provide. I hope the goals I have shared with you here allow you to do that.

This article originally appeared on Branding Magazine.

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