Negotiating Creative Fees With Clients

Posted by | · · | Business · Nonprofits · Photography · Video & Film · Writing

(Note: I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who is often negotiating a creative fee with clients. But I understand the hiring side, too: in my last full-time job I contracted with lots of freelancers. So, although this information is targeted more toward freelance creatives, I hope it will be useful for people on both sides of the hiring/money equation.)

Talking about money is hard. For many business owners, it’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. I’ve gotten better at negotiating creatives fees over the years, but I still sometimes text Crystaline a 911 photo emergency question when a client makes a money request I’m not sure how to deal with. Here’s what I’ve learned about negotiating.

Calculate your cost of doing business
Long-time readers of this blog know Crystaline and I write quite a bit about knowing how much money it takes for you to run your business (and also that you need to think of yourself as a business). This is the first step in negotiating creative fees. Once you know your cost of doing business, you know the least amount of money you can charge a client and break even on costs. This cost of doing business calculator will help you.

Act like the expert you know you are
You know how to shoot storytelling photos or write touching, thought-provoking stories. This is why the client wants to work with you. So be the expert: ask questions, take notes, listen to the client, and offer solutions. Create professional-looking budgets, cost estimates, and work schedules. Do this all without the client having to badger you. When you act like the expert you know you are, you’re more likely to be treated like an expert and get the compensation you deserve.

Don’t lower your creative fees…. 
You’ve set your fees after much thought and consideration. They’re not random numbers. You’re an expert, and experts don’t lower their fees to meet a client’s demands. So don’t lower your fees. This can be tough, especially when you don’t have any work lined up and your bills are due and you’re scared. I’ve been there. I completely understand the situation. But if you’re going to run a viable, long-term business, you can’t lower your fees.

….But be open to compromise
One way I often negotiate with clients when I’m out of their budget range is to remove a product or service from the scope of work. So, maybe the client wants me to film for 10 days. They can’t afford that, so I offer eight days instead. Or maybe a client wants me to photograph for five days and sell them the copyright to the pictures. They can’t afford that, so I offer to photograph for five days, I keep the copyright, and they license the images from me for three years. There are so many ways you can negotiate without lowering your creative fees.

Take time with the negotiation
The client may need you to start working right away. Or you may feel uncomfortable with negotiating and want it to be over as soon as possible. Don’t! Rushing through a negotiation means you’re more likely to accept a bad deal. I once had a nonprofit client call me one week before a VIP photo shoot in Rwanda, where I lived at the time. They wanted me to quickly sign a contract that handed over all photo rights to them without extra payment. I told them my business policy is to be compensated for a copyright buyout. We went back and forth over email, neither one of us able to convince the other. Finally, the night before the shoot, one of their senior executives called. She asked me to please accept their terms. I explained again why that would be a bad business decision for me. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t. Did I feel bad since the shoot was the next day? A little. But they knew my position from the beginning. I have no regrets.


Photo caption: Andrew Uwazeyu (right), a business consultant, looks over a client’s financial information in Kigali, Rwanda. January 2014 by Laura Elizabeth Pohl.


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