As a freelance graphic designer, I regularly collaborate with creative agencies. They contact me to outsource all or part of a project and most of the time know (and accept) the rates of the graphic designers market. But some times, some agencies (a minority fortunately) make attempts with indecent (or even illegal) proposals. Here is my experience feedback.

Last week, I was contacted by phone by the manager of an agency in the Saint-Étienne area. The good man presents himself, I recognize him instantly and laugh inwardly. I already know that call won’t exceed 30 seconds…

A little backward, a year earlier…

I receive the mail from a freelance graphic designer who informs me that he has passed my contact information to one of his friends, freelance too. For reasons of planning too busy, she stops her services for a communication agency and she seeks a freelance that could take over.

The following day, an email from the agency:

Our agency is looking for a freelance graphic designer in November / December for a period of 6 weeks.

Call for appointments. The manager seems friendly so I find myself rather enthusiastic. We fix a meeting 3 days later at the agency.

To prepare the appointment, I visit their website to get an idea of ??their work and the clients with whom they work. It is a small agency managed by 2 people with for main clients of small companies, artisans of the corner and other clients with average budgets “less”. They mainly work on print projects (they sell manufacturing) and the few websites in their portfolio are developed with WordPress and are relatively basic, little sought after. In short, overall artistic direction is rather limited.

Considerations taken into account in setting my rate:

  • AD not really demanding or even non-existent
  • Required skills more “executive” than “creative”
  • An important and “easy” order in the amount of 30 times my daily rate (30 full days in a row is always comfortable)
  • Not at Saint-Etienne but within 30 minutes by car

I make quick calculations and set my daily rate to 300 euros or a total of 9,000 euros for the 6 weeks which is rather correct. At that time I was already charging my days to more than 300 euros but considering the skills required and wanting to ensure the order, I revised my rates down, reasonably, so that my business still remains profitable.

D-Day

The agency is right in the towncenter on the ground floor, directly on the street and makes more think of a boutique than an agency. When I entered the single room, I met the co-manager I had on the phone (we’ll call him Bernard), he introduced me to his partner (whom we’ll call Roger) and their trainee (there is always one). Their salesman is absent.

I sit next to Bernard to present my work, Roger is checking his emails, not far but not really there either. Bernard likes very much what I present him, Roger is less enthusiastic and has easy criticism, during this time I think of the “beautiful” designs shown on their website and relativise serenely. They had to agree to make a free adaptation of the scene of the good cop and the bad cop.

We are now switching to my online portfolio to continue the presentation. Roger gets closer, interested (he must be the Mr. Webdesign of the agency), wondering how I made my site. I “revealed” that it is a WordPress site that I created the child theme (from TwentyTen at the time). Bernard asks a question about my site and I understand instantly that he is not the other Mr. Webdesign of the agency.

Everything goes well, my portfolio pleases them. In their turn to introduce me what they do and what to do.

The bulk of the projects for the print will be of the executive to know a catalog of 300 pages to be updated. They show me what the previous freelance had done, they praise its layout in particular the “extraordinary” pagination zones he had created. The job is clean and pro but not enough to marvel. They look like easy customers and this announces little brain overheating for the creation.

We go to their webdesign activity…
Bernard talks to me about SEO, he knows well and proves it to me: by typing in Google the domain name of one of the sites they designed, the site in question appears in 1st result! I remain polite.
To create their sites, Roger reveals to me that they have a subscription to a site of premium WordPress themes, shows me the theme used for their latest site, shows me their latest site which is simply a perfect clone, no personalization. In summary, their web skills are limited to 2 tools: “Copy text” + “Paste text”.

Let’s talk about rates

I have been in “the agency” for almost 1 hour and it is high time to conclude and approach the nerve of war in any negotiations: the rates.

A little break outside with Bernard and Roger to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette, it’s relaxed and before we talk about football or the weather I run: “By the way, my rate is 300 euros.”
And Bernard and Roger answer in unison: “The week?”.
I admit that on the instant I lacked retort and it is so much better because it allowed me to remain polite (I am a polite guy).

I broke the mood, the break is over, back inside.

Roger resumes his bad cop role and makes me understand that it is “pure madness” (word for word). Bernard, the good cop, tries to reason with me telling me that the previous freelancer billed 90 euros. I missed asking: “An hour?!”.

Bernard, still hopeful, takes out his calculator (to save his brain): “300 euros, that’s almost what I cost to the agency.”
And I: “Don’t you think it makes sense that the person who replaces you is paid at least as much?”

Bernard did not take off: “The price of 90 euros suited the previous person perfectly and in addition she managed her schedule as she wished, sometimes she left at 4 pm. We are in the cool here.”
Yes, they are “cool”. Bernard spends 2 months cruising on a sailboat and in his great goodness deign to pay 90 euros for a full day of freelance work. What do they think about the URSSAF (French professional contribution recoverer)?

Bernard hits again his key brain: “We can go up to 150 euros a day.” I did not ask anything and here he proposes to me after 2 minutes of non-negotiation a 70% increase. Maybe if I had stayed 5 more minutes without saying anything, he would finally have offered me 300 euros. I did not have the patience to wait…

“We keep your phone number, we’ll call you to keep you informed.”

Black-list

I never waited for them to call me back. They surely got an easy freelancer to work at 90 euros a day (or 150 if he is as good as me in negotiations).

They never phoned me back… until last month. It was Bernard again:

“Hello, we are looking for a graphic designer bla bla bla …”
I recognize him at once, wonders if he laughs at me or has no memory, and say:
“Yes, Pierre, is that right?” We had met last year, but today my rate is 800 euros a day… ”
My price is not 800 euros, it was just in the hope that he finally put me in his black-list.

I am tempted to talk to him about their very limited or even illegal practices, but I finally give up. It would be naive to think that a company manager does not know what are the URSSAF, the work laws and the disguised wage-earners. I imagine he knows more than I do on the subject, so I have nothing to teach him and especially no more time to lose with him.

To make myself useful, I wrote this very long ticket to “denounce” this current practice that can trap more than one freelancer (in the field of graphics or other) beginner, ignorant or isolated.

A golden rule to avoid these “customers”: announce your rates ASAP

The majority of serious agencies request freelancer rates from the first contact. If I had announced my rate to Bernard during our first telephone contact or if he had asked me, he would surely have told me that I did not fit and I would not have lost my morning in their “agency”.