A few years ago we shared a video by graphic design giant Mike Monteiro, and it quickly became one of our most popular posts for many good reasons. Creatives in particular, are disrespected and often stiffed by clients, largely because as a whole, we do not understand the value we ourselves create for them.
One major takeaway from Mike Monteiro’s video – which interestingly enough, was his first ever public speaking engagement- was that contracts are absolutely important. No exceptions.
Or are there? It’s an extremely competitive, extremely asymmetrical market out there. Expectations, needed skill sets, and our understanding of both can wildly vary from situation to situation.
Novice creatives in particular, can’t bank on previous experiences with clients as a major selling point. In many cases, even a well-developed portfolio won’t mean much if you don’t have any real world experience.
The truth is, the real world is much more complicated than that. I’ve recently lost clients (good riddance) because I’d refused to start working without being told how much I would be compensated. It’s not the first time it’s happened. To my mind, it’s just ridiculous to start working on anything if you don’t at least have an e-mail from your client telling you how much they’re willing to pay you.
While not the best case scenario, taking jobs without contracts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not everyone has the luxury to freely reject offers that come their way. We all have to eat and bills have to be paid. The UCreative team can give you all the best advice in the world, but you will be the one to deal with the consequences of following it. Mike Monteiro made a compelling case, but he won’t be the one working to put food on your table.
While contracts are ideal, and you should always be prepared to send your clients one, there definitely are situations where you can consider going without. Here are a few.
It’s for your mom
About a decade ago, I did technical support for Time Warner Cable’s National Help Desk. It was boring, repetitive job, sure. But I was pretty OK at it. Over the course of it, I had helped literally thousands of people resolve their internet connection issues over the phone. I couldn’t even see what the heck they were doing on the other end.
But fixing problems with my mom’s phone or computer –even in person– was a different thing altogether. My mom was far worse than any customer I’ve helped, or client I’ve had. And I’ve told her this. One time, I literally broke down in tears from the frustration of explaining things to her. It was like explaining metaphysics to a dead chinchilla.
Would a contract have helped? In my specific case, I doubt it. It would have made things a billion times worse. Were it a copywriting or graphic design job, either one of or both of us would be dead from unnatural causes.
There are relatively few who would argue that it’s fine to insist that your mom or other really close relative agree on a contract for creative work. Just build your arsenal of lies and excuses and avoid having to be in this situation altogether.
You’ve been paid upfront
Money upfront is a pretty good reason for taking a job without a contract. Actual liquidity is more important than theoretical income, after all.
But whether you’re paid in full, or with a reasonable deposit, you can still lose pretty badly if there’s an implication that you have to do unlimited revisions to your work. Make sure you’re able to account for this before you agree to anything.
Another thing to look out for is if there’s a message or email trail you could follow to hold the client accountable if they welch on their agreement. Always offer to chat or message so there is something you could refer to. If you have to meet in person, don’t agree to anything. Say you’ll have to clear your schedule first, then later get things in writing when you ask them to confirm by text or email. Of course at this point, you might as well sent them a contract anyway.
As always, context matters. Use your judgement for this. Even if you’re being paid in advance, how well do you know that person? There are some people who aren’t worth working for no matter how much they pay you.
It’s a small project for a ‘friend’ you’re willing to lose
The people who are suddenly your friends when they need something done? Those are definitely not your friends. The people who are pleasant and cordial because you patronize their business or work with them? Unless they prove otherwise, they aren’t your friends. The relative who barely knows you who pulls out the aunt card fora discount because she needs a logo for her cupcake shop? They’re not really “family”.
Let’s be clear here — your real friends will not ask you for freebies. They will not disrespect your time. They will not try to make you feel bad for giving them fair market rates. They will not get all existential and riled up if you send them a contract. If there’s a discount or an offer to waive a contract, that has to come from you and only you.
Most of the people you will meet who cheat you will be people you know. Whoever you do business with, you must evaluate relationships on an individual basis. Blood ties or how “friendly” someone is to you is not enough of a basis for forgoing a contract.
If you freelance enough, chances are you will get put into awkward situations with “friends” and “family” and it can be a hassle to rock the boat by insisting on a formal contract.
If it’s a small project, and if the scope and expectations are well understood — then you should consider it. But if it’s a big one and you can get other projects, forget it. Chances are there isn’t enough money in the world for all the rage and heartache you will commit yourself to.
A graceful way to get out of this is to say upfront that you are uncomfortable with the project for reasons real or invented, and refer them to someone who might accommodate them.
When else is it OK to work without a contract? Comment below!