There's this huge misconception in the more creative industries, like art and writing, that creators that do not yet have an established reputation (and even some who do have one) don't deserve to get paid for their work and should instead be content to work "for exposure", as in "people will see your art and learn who you are, and maybe they will contact you and maybe they will pay you for an art piece". As you can probably tell, I'm not really convinced of the value proposition in such a deal.

Assuming you want to get paid for your work, what's the best way to respond to a request to work "for exposure" with the intent of still getting a paying customer out of it?

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    Exposure? People die from exposure.
    – MechMK1
    Oct 13, 2020 at 12:46
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    I don't imagine it would be the best communication but you could always ask for a top dollar sponsorship of one of your projects, "for exposure." Oct 13, 2020 at 16:00
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    One note: Several people have said that someone who asks you to work for exposure, unprovoked, is a jerk and a bad customer. However, I would like to clarify that sometimes pro bono work is desirable: several people have told me that a Taproot gig is a wonderful opportunity for professional advancement. And you have received comments and answers on "for exposure" terms on this forum. But work pro bono because you sought out pro bono work on terms that make sense to you, and not because a cheap client wants your work product to be un-compensated. Oct 13, 2020 at 18:27
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    i don't have enough reputation to post an answer but just wanted to say advertising does obviously have a value if you can agree something specific and tangible e.g. they will provide a written recommendation, post details of your work on the news feed on their website, share your page on their social media accounts (if they have enough followers to make it worthwhile). Once you have some specifics like that its easier to quantify the value because you would obviously have to pay to put an advert on facebook to reach a specific number of users so have something fro comparison...
    – rdans
    Oct 14, 2020 at 11:05
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    @MechMK1 Or get arrested for it. Oct 15, 2020 at 10:38

7 Answers 7


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This is one of the most prominent red flags
which indicates a bad client, in my opinion.

It's really not that complicated.

Sorry, I do not work pro bono or without payment on request.

There's no need to explain any further.

If they are persistent....

Unfortunately I do not work for free. Like anyone with a mortgage/rent and the desire to eat regularly.... I expect financial compensation for my work. "Exposure" won't pay my bills.

If you are actually open to a barter deal.... Another ploy is to ask then for an equal amount of product/services to your fees.. i.e if they sell dog food and are asking for a $6,000 project to be done only for "exposure", assuming you have a dog... ask them for $6,000 worth of dog food and watch how they waffle and waiver. This only works if they already have a product/service.. never let them agree to give you something "in the future" or "when the product is in production", etc. Because they'll back out or conveniently forget.

You can pretty much forget about "getting a paying client" out of any such request.

If someone offering this proposal had any intention of ever paying for any service, they wouldn't ask you to work for free. If you won't work for "exposure", chances are they will go find some other person who will and take advantage of that person rather than pay you anything. If they tell you they will pay after they see you won't accept "exposure", they'll low-ball the payment or be very slow to pay, or simply promise to pay and never send a check — knowing that chances are you won't legally follow up on any non-payment.

The simple truth is, say "no" and move on. Don't waste your time further. There's no need to negotiate or converse further. Good clients never offer such structures. Seriously, never. Because good clients will value your time and skill and will understand that your abilities are worthy of compensation - even if their budget is low, a client worth speaking with won't ask for anything free. It's one thing for a client to state "that's higher than we can afford" after seeing a quote/estimate. It's an entirely different matter for a client to approach you and ask for something free.

The next red flag would be when they promise you "a lot of work in the future" if you help them out with this project by completing it for "exposure".

  • 3
    Note that when you ask for something tangible in a barter deal, take into account that they purchase their goods at a lower price than they sell them. If you ask for $6000 of that dog food, it would still be a discount for them. I don't know what the margins on dog food are, but some products may have massive margins and getting stuff at market-price would still be a massive discount for them, not you. Then again, it also depends on whether you're free anyway and happy enough with market-price dog food. If you're free and looking for work, maybe you're happy enough with the market-price deal.
    – Flater
    Oct 12, 2020 at 23:13
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    By using a what you would pay for dog food, you are giving the client, presumably, a discount. Because they, in all likelihood, pay wholesale, while you pay retail. Ultimately you earn what you would spend in dog food. 😀 Now storing $6k worth of dog food may be another matter.
    – Scott
    Oct 12, 2020 at 23:18
  • The thing is that in general, concrete stuff is less useful than money. Okay, the odds of something else happening to you whereby you get plenty of dog food (e.g. some lottery winning a lifetime supply) are tiny, but the general principle is that even for an astronomically small chance of this happening, $6000 in cash is still a non-zero amount better than $6000 in dogfood. But here's where you make your own decision. If you really want the commission, accepting dog food instead of money might matter enough for you (considerations like that hinge on how much other work you have availlable).
    – Flater
    Oct 12, 2020 at 23:22
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    I don't disagree, @Flater . My point was.. if you were to ask them for an relatively equal "freebie" on their part, chances are they will immediately feel you are overstepping and asking for too much. A legitimate barter deal would be negotiated.
    – Scott
    Oct 12, 2020 at 23:24
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    It's unlikely any client asking for free work, at least those I've encountered, would entertain any barter deal whatsoever even for a moment. Most will balk instantly as if it were a gag reflex.
    – Scott
    Oct 12, 2020 at 23:27

It is really little that can be added to excellent @Scott's answer. I just wanted to add a simple tactic that helped me several times.

Due warning: I'm not aware about any academic research on this matter. My answer is just from personal experience.

[…] as in "people will see your art and learn who you are, and maybe THEY will contact you and MAYBE they will pay you for an art piece".

My answer would be something like:

"Please estimate my future profit. How many people of those who belong to my target group (and who reasonably can become my clients in the future) would attend the expo? If I participate in an expo (and pay for my works get shown) I always compare my expenses against my expected profits from the display. As a beginner, I'm, indeed, interested in expanding my client base, but how can I be sure there would be relevant people coming to see my work as part of your product?"

If your client sincerely believes in what they say, they have probably made some calculations before the offer and so they would be able to support their offer with reasonable numbers.

  • 5
    Nice. If they are indeed paying in exposure, you need to know the value of what you are getting. So the ball is in their court.
    – jo1storm
    Oct 13, 2020 at 14:25

Just don't respond.

That's the answer.

People who are serious about wanting a service are willing to talk about price. Anyone who asks for a free service and talks about exposure was either never serious about wanting the service to begin with or will just try the same thing on someone else after you turn them down. Once they've set their expectations at free, the chance of them becoming a paying customer is basically zero.

Even if you do give them something for free, the fact that they didn't have to pay for it will devalue your work in their eyes so much that they'd be a poor ambassador for your service or products in any case. The more someone has to give up for something, the more valuable it becomes in their eyes.

All you'll accomplish by talking with them is make them think they've found a sucker and make them behave worse when they eventually don't get what they want because they've (in their mind) now wasted their time trying to sweet talk you.

There's really no positive outcome from engaging with people like this. Maybe not responding would be too rude, in which case a short, friendly, professional but firm answer to prevent them thinking you've ignored them is all that's needed.

Seriously, don't waste any of your valuable time engaging with them any more than minimally necessary. There's far more valuable things you can be spending your time on to grow your business than engaging with cheapskates.

There is one caveat - influencers - I know I know wash my mouth out! On the plus side, get the right person and they can have a big impact on your business. However, everyone and their dog is calling themselves an influencer these days trying to blag free stuff. The real ones have companies asking them to promote their stuff rather than having to ask companies for free stuff. It's an option but it seems like it's more suited for already established companies looking to advertise.

Regardless, good luck with your endeavours!


Working for exposure obviously pays no bills - so one should be up-front immediately that there will be payment. I have tried the approach where one tries to demonstrate how much value one could potentially bring - but a freeloader tends to remain a freeloader.

If one accepts working for exposure, a more insidious effect may be the erosion of your own sense of value. After all, if you don’t believe you’re worth actual payment, why should anyone else?

When starting out clients are always hard to find - but if you have marketable skills, this is when you should stick to your guns and wait for a paying client. If you cannot seem to find any, cast a wider net and challenge your own conventional wisdom. The lack of actual work is a good opportunity to hone one's marketing skills.

  • 1
    A variation of this is "If you don't think my work is worth paying for now, why would anyone you show it to think otherwise?"
    – IronEagle
    Oct 14, 2020 at 15:51
  • I whole-heartedly agree with that last paragraph (well, all of it really). It can be hard, but it is ultimately the best course of action.
    – Scott
    Oct 15, 2020 at 11:05
  • As an aside, people who work in unpaid internships also think their value is less, and for the same reasons. forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/01/16/… and fastcompany.com/90388911/… Oct 15, 2020 at 16:43
  • @computercarguy - Good point. Hadn't thought of that comparison
    – morsor
    Oct 16, 2020 at 7:12
  • @morsor, most people don't understand just how damaging an unpaid internship is. They go with the historical precedent that's it's good, or they are an employer that likes the negatives. I did an unpaid internship, and I learned quickly just how bad they are. Oct 16, 2020 at 15:34

Tell them they have to pay but you will refund the entire payment when the exposure gains you, for example, 50 new customers.

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    This tactic works well for eg. webstores who get requests to send free stuff to "influencers", since you can give the influencer a promo-code to use on the store. I'm not sure it would work as well for freelancers, though. Oct 14, 2020 at 0:24
  • this appears to be similar to affiliate programs.
    – Nzall
    Oct 16, 2020 at 9:23

It depends on how big they are... If you're offered by a popular radio station to play your music, or national TV to promote your products for free, or a popular photo magazine to publish your photography, you might want to consider that (make a reality check first: have you ever bought an album you heard on radio like that? etc.).

But it is realistically very rarely going to be a good deal like that (unless you have a secret admirer working there!)

For most other cases, if they promise that you'd get a lots of customers that way, you'd be best make a counteroffer - if they are so sure of value of exposure on their site/product, then they could pay you above your running rate, and you'll sign a contract with them that states that for each customer you get that refers them, you'll give them a percentage of profit.

So if their "exposure" turns out to be (near-)useless, you win as you got your payment above-rate and don't have to pay them (much) profits... And if their exposure actually turns out to be golden, you still win - sure, you'll have to part with part of the profits, but you'll have so many more customers (and thus profits) because of the deal that it will be more than worth it!

The best thing is, it is professional (hey, many shopping sites do referral discounts), you're secured regardless if the offer works or not, and they can't easily weasel out without admitting that their offer of "exposure" is not such a good deal - otherwise they'd be crazy to turn down free money like that!

  • 1
    While this would be an ideal arrange, the odds of anyone who comes to you asking for you to work for them for "exposure" actually agreeing to something like this seem infinitesimally small. More likely, they'll just look for someone else to do it for them for free.
    – reirab
    Oct 13, 2020 at 22:39
  • @reirab sure, I agree majority will not go for such deal - and that is because majority of such offers are total waste of your time - they're set to leeching from others, without paying anyone or providing any valuable exposure. So you want to be rid of such entities with minimal fuss - there is no way you'd ever make a dime working with/for them. Oct 14, 2020 at 21:14

Yeah, I've been ask this several times.
One of them told me they can share a Facebook post if I write 2 native apps. One for iOS and one for Android.
When I told them my Facebook page has more followers than theirs, they said ok, we'll pay but half the price.
Of course, there was no deal.

  • Many years ago, I was approached for an "exposure" gig. My reply: "No thanks. Exposure is something you die from." Jan 18, 2023 at 18:25

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