Agency rules: Be strategically free, never secretly free.

Written by: Karl Sakas

If you do things outside of scope, you’re doing them for free. Many of my agency clients do free work for their clients they want to keep, or because they aren’t comfortable raising their project asking price. If you don’t even tell your clients about it, you are doing secretly free work, not strategically free.

I don’t recommend doing free work on a regular basis, but if you do it occasionally, make sure it’s strategically free, not secretly free.

When something is secretly free, your agency is taken advantage of. The client doesn’t know that their marketing agency delivered pro bono work, and it sets an unhealthy precedent: if your agency did something at this price before (and didn’t call it out as a special deal), why can’t you do it again? Good luck recovering from that.

When you do something “strategically free,” you’re doing it for free anyway, but not in secret. You have more control over client expectations. If a client asks you to take care of something, and it’s out of scope, you could do it for free but you need to call it out. You can still do the work for free, but let the client know it’s a special consideration just for them. This helps with warmth, and makes it clear that you won’t deliver free work all the time.

Explain that what you’re doing is out of scope, but you won’t charge them for it because of [insert agency benefit here]. Then explain how much that type of service would cost normally to set expectations for the future. (You can also use Reason-Options-Choose, or my 7 magic words to stop scope creep.)

One way to word something as “strategically free” could be:

Hey [client], I just wanted to let you know that the work we did on [project] was out-of-scope. I’ve decided to comp you these services as a special consideration for you and your business. If you would like something similar in the future, those services would start at [price].

Let the client know exactly how much money they saved, and make sure that they know to expect to pay it the next time they request something similar.

The key is to specify your timeframe, because you don’t want them to come to you in a year and say “hey, we’re ready for that 20% discount now.”

By making it strategically free or discounted, you’ve called it out and explained that it’s a special deal. Some reasons for doing strategically free work include building your portfolio, testing your new service, or because they’re one of your favorite clients.

Scenarios for “strategically free” work

When you do “strategically free” work, you’re ultimately framing things as a “quid pro quo” (aka “this for that”). It’s not always financial; sometimes it’s about relaxing a policy.

  • Offer a discount to a “hot brand” new client as a one-time special deal in exchange for X.
  • Free web-based follow-up training for a client that commits to three in-person sessions.
  • Add a no-charge A/B test of a new technology the agency is trying, where client would pay to continue after the first three months.
  • Because of a mistake by your agency earlier in the process, you’ll add two free revisions in the next milestone.
  • You’ll schedule kickoff before receiving the deposit next week, because they’re a long-time retainer client.

Another option for offering strategically free work is if you want to build your pipeline and treat it as a lead generation strategy. If you’re doing something that’s completely free to garner interest in a new service, it should be fun for you and your team, and get results.

What to do if you’ve already done the work

If you’ve already done something that’s “secretly free,” be sure to call it out instead of covering it up. Let your clients know that you’ve already over-delivered, and set expectations for next time.

Question: Have you or your agency done work for free before? How did you make sure to get paid the next time?

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