Skip to main content
Selling Design

Negotiating Lessons from Mad Men

By 09/20/2010January 26th, 201748 Comments

We were watching season 3 of Mad Men last weekend (I’m hooked on that show) and I was fascinated with the conversation ‘Don Draper’ had with ‘Conrad Hilton’ in one of the episodes. I love this show because there’s so much intelligent dialogue. Anyway, here’s how the conversation went:

The Presidential Suite today at the Waldorf Astoria
Don has been summoned by Mr. Hilton to the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. He arrives, greets Hilton where upon he gestures to some boards on the coffee table with some mock ups (I think that’s what they are called) of advertising for the hotel and says “What do you think?”
Photos by me from my TV

And Don replies “I think you wouldn’t be in the Presidential suite right now if you worked for free”

Hilton says “Don, this is friendly”.
“Connie, this is my profession, what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to give me one for free”

Don takes one look and says “I don’t think anyone wants to think about a mouse in a hotel”.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I analyze everything all the time and one thing I think about a lot is how much we take the knowledge that creative people have for granted. Where does this apply in your life? Does this happen to you too? Moms (of course) are a prime example.

I get emails everyday with questions and photos, readers hoping for a ‘freebie’. They think “She’ll take one look at my house and be able to tell me what to do in an instant”. Many times this is absolutely correct but it has taken me 10 years and thousands of consultations to be able to do that. I can instantly visualize your house in a 100 different colours, take everything; the bad, the good, the ugly and the pretty, into consideration all at the same time, and tell you what is bothering you about it. And, this is my profession, I have to charge for my creative opinion because if I didn’t, I couldn’t even afford to spend the time that it takes to write this blog. Frankly, I’d be doing something else.

And in all fairness to those that ask, I have a confession. In the Spring when I thought I was about to become a homeowner, and I started thinking about the kitchen I was about to inherit and all the things that needed to be done, I actually caught myself thinking of a way to get a kitchen designer friend to come over and give me free advice on the best layout the new kitchen would have.

Photo via flickr by Vanessa Dualib

So you see, I am guilty of the same thing, I don’t think there is one person that can’t say they at some point have asked for something for free. Just know that unless the answer is so easy I can’t resist responding (because it takes me 2 seconds) you will receive a friendly note back saying “Here are my rates, I hope you understand this is what I do”.

You have to admit, Don’s answer was brilliant, because it’s true. As the Creative Director of an advertising firm, he sells the ideas in his head (just like designers), different from Hilton who sells rooms and meeting space.

Okay, so now that we’re on this topic, I had to show you this cartoon which is so funny and true by Hugh at Gaping Void:

“In today’s ‘free’ economy, we have become so used to getting things at no apparent cost to us, that many people actually start to believe that companies doing work for nothing is sustainable. At the end of the day, the sad fact is that money does need to change hands at some point because the landlord, electric company, grocer, needs to get paid, and, even businesses with apparently low cost business models have to live as well.” Hugh

ps. I’ll post on my True Colour Expert Training this past weekend shortly and I will set another date, I am getting heavy pressure to take this workshop on the road so I’m working that out too!

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me for on-line or in-person decorating and colour.

Related posts:
Is Hiring a Designer a Luxury or Necessity?
The Vendor Client Relationship – A True Story
Do you Dream about Decorating your House?
New to this Blog? Click here ; Subscribe to my free Monthly Newsletter; Become a True Colour Expert

While you’re here, subscribe to this feed so you don’t miss out!
0 pins


  • Gifts of Serendipity says:

    Good for you Maria.
    You've dealt with a sensitive topic with intelligence and humour.
    Felicity x

  • Abby & Her Boys says:

    Excellent post! I'm saving this for a later date. VERY well done.

  • Sarah Bohl says:

    This is an amazing post. I'm an interior designer and have only been in business for 3 years…and this issue is my biggest struggle, mostly because I'm too nice and do too much "free" work for my friends. My husband always says, "you don't want to be the Salvation Army of decorating.". LOL.

    Plus, I love Mad Men!!


    I love it, Maria, that you share so openly such practical information for your readers. You are very generous.

    For a personal consultation on my home, I would be happy and expect to pay your fee.

    Loved the line about the mouse!


  • Tamara Nicole says:

    Amen girly, way to stand up for yourself!!! You are super talented and deserve to get paid for your knowledge:-)

  • camdesign says:

    So right on… I am free with a whole room purchase but every once in a while clients work around that and steal my ideas and floor plans. I have had to give up being upset, for my own piece of mind…
    We (Linda and I) would love it if you could come out on the road with your colour class, we talk about how much we want to take your class all the time, and how we are going to get our company to pay the bill, just do not think they would pay the flight cost too, lol
    Let us know if you are going to come to Calgary again, enjoyed meeting you so much the last time…

  • Jane says:

    Excellent points…
    You are so generous with the lessons you share on your post. I have learned so many things that have helped me. But you definitely need to get paid for your personal consultations. That's BUSINESS…

    Jane (artfully graced)

  • Janice Funston says:

    So very true! It boogles my mind that people will drop a few thousand dollars having their homes painted but are so reluctant to spend a bit more to ensure the colour going onto the walls will look good. Great job at educating the public!

  • pve design says:

    How about these lines……
    "My budget is really tight" or "I don't think I will be able to afford you so can you do it for me for less or even for free?"
    "Wow, your prices are so reasonable, I thought you would charge way more!"

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm a self-employed sewing consultant who also happens to write a sewing blog. As it stands right now, it is tough to impossible to get jobs because local manufacturers are dropping like flies. Still, I cannot tell you the lengthy emails I get from designers who need help buying sewing equipment. They send me photos of machines and ask for advice, want me to call them to discuss their needs, etc. All for free, of course. I have learned to share my fee schedule with them straight away and then, naturally, I never hear from them again. Sigh.

    Unfortunately, we all need to make a living and, if I'm going to work for nothing then I'd prefer to do nothing. 🙂

  • Dead on. Fantastic. Upfront and honest. The business of design is very expressive, and we designers do tend to get excited, and most of us are friendly and sincerely want what's best for the client. Unfortunately, that is sometimes taken by the client, I think, as an invitation to ask for more, or for free advice, because we get caught up in friendly moments. I've had potential clients who know exactly what they're doing and try to "use" me. But for the most part, I really don't think clients or potential clients "get it" that this a business for us because, like is said in your post, it is in our "heads." It is our job, as you so perfectly addressed, to make it clear that ours in a business, and what we have in our heads, what we can see that other's can't, has tangible value. Thank you for addressing this so well.

  • Oh, and YES! Take your workshops on the road! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • heather jenkinson says:

    That was very well put and admitting to doing it yourself, at times, makes the point a lot more memorable (and palatable). We all do it from time to time because it's easy to forget that advice is not free.

    This is precisely the reason I charge for the first meeting because it weeds out those who have no intention of paying for my services. The good clients or the people who are take care to 'balance the score' – you know, will offer an exchange and acknowledge 'the big ask' will always get the best from me because I love what I do and I want to help and be useful. I would also very much like to buy a house and go on holiday and so, I have to charge – to not do so under minds my skill and all the years of study and development.

    Oh, and I LOVE Mad Men, too! Oh my, that Don Draper…

  • theoldboathouse says:

    Right on!! I sell antiques and can,t tell you the miles I have covered only to realize I am giving someone a free valuation. It has taken me many years to build up my knowledge and it can be very frustrating. I think I could write a blog on life lessons as taught by mad men… the show too, cheers Katherine ps have you seen the hilarious montage of betty's mothering or lack of mothering skills on you tube, funny!

  • From This Perch says:

    Too many people give it away for free: I did myself for too many years. I love this post! Thank you.

  • sherry says:

    Great Post! I have a designer for 15 years, and when people start hounding me for breaks on my services, I always look at them as serious as I can and say "well, I could do it for free". That usually gets my point across. Or I tell them "this is not a state funded operation"….They know they can not get clothing for free at the Gap, but they always think your ideas are free.

  • Suzanne says:

    Great post and so well put. My biggest problem is close friends. I can't bring myself to bill them but my business is taking off and I'm finding it clouds my time and my head. How do others handle this?

  • Helen says:

    Well said. I am guilty of expecting the Internet to provide all the information I could want at no charge. But honestly I would value your advice more if I paid for it and I'm sure the type of clients you want would feel the same way. Who wants absolutely free legal advice? Not I.

    It does remind me of my SO; he owns a truck. It's amazing how many slight acquaintances expect him to help their cousins move across town. One good friend did offer to pay him for his time which he refused but appreciated.

  • Kelly says:

    Perfect timing Maria! I have been receiving tons of questions on my email and facebook, asking for free decorating advice. I can't believe how people think I should sit down and answer their questions about bathroom colors, window treatments,etc. I do admit at first I thought it was nice that people were asking my advice. Duh. Now, I just tell them thank you for writing but I do not have time to answer everyone's questions as well as I would like too unless they are a client. If you would like to find out more about my consulting rates, please visit here. That way I feel I am being nice about it, but want them to know I want to get paid for my expertise. I usually never hear from them again so I know they would not be someone I would want to work with.
    On another note, Boston is calling out to you to come visit and have color workshops here!!
    Will you teach us next how to get rid of all the spam comments!!!!!

  • diane@onlinefabricstore says:

    People dont respect and appreciate what they dont pay for. Case in point…I spent years working for my friends for free. finally I decided to charge because the project was so large. I now have many of the same "friends" comoing to me for work and paying me. Somehow getting paid legitimized my talent.

  • Dale at Hospitality Re-Defined says:

    An interesting point, that far too many people either do not realize, or, prefer not to recognize.
    As a Hotelier, I cannot tell you how many calls that I get from people that I know asking for a "deal" on their accommodations.
    It's constant, and what's more frustrating is at times they are looking for a "deal" at another Hotel and hoping I will contact that Hotels' General Manager and negotiate a deal on their behalf.

  • Karisha Solomon says:

    Great Post. I am just starting out and becoming comfortable with the knowledge I know I have and others do not. It is hard when you are green in that any interest is exciting but in reality the free advice is not as pleasing as knowing you are actually worth your time.
    thanks again

  • Debra Phillips says:

    so true! loved your segue onto this topic….brilliant!
    in my biz; landscape designer and exterior stylist, i too am asked for free advice. in the landscape industry people proudly put on their cards 'FREE ESTIMATES' = substandard "design" i charge and it is not inexpensive but it weeds out those that are not the type of clients i would want.
    the worse was when someone called and wanted to play HGTV……"i am calling three designers, you can all do the design and come to present. one will be chosen"
    no thanks madame, thanks HGTV

  • BestofDesign says:

    Great post! As a degreed Interior Designer( for the last 6 years and a CPA/Financial Controller for the previous 20, I can totally vouch for the fact that people generally take creative people/advice,etc for granted — it is so less tangible for someone to appreciate getting design advice vs. getting their financial statement reviewed! I have found that everything from how to charge clients to drawing the line on giving "ideas" is so fuzzy in the design field vs. the financial field. The Arts are so less "valued" than business/technical fields…But it takes alot more noodling over a design concept than it does to do black and white number crunching. Love your blog! Always an honest read.

  • Ideezine says:


    Great post and this issue needs to be discussed so often that it becomes common knowledge. In this age of technology you'd think people would " google" the definition of a consultant and consultation fees. As a design process starts.

    Some people feel if the creative process comes easy to you then because they know you or want to know you they should benefit from you for free. Some individual's entitlement importantance is shamefully misguided. This is part of our societies lack of ediquette and response to another's time.

    All professions have that "free" mentality coming from interested parties. Weather I do professional make-up, clothing restyling, interior design, staging, teaching classes, speaking about working with a designer or called to consult my opinion these are all paid professions that I've earned/hold licenses, degrees and years of experience with, so the customers/clients/students are all protected by these standards. Nothing is for free. Not even the time it takes to address it on our blogs, in person at your favorite coffee shop, or as a paid speaker.

    The more we use these topics in discussions on blogs, twitter etc. the more it becomes common knowledge. It's not a mystery just an under utilized topic of conversation that "We" can creatively change.


  • The mad woman behind the blog says:

    This is fantastic. You presented this idea SO WELL…and it applies all over the place. Thank you!

    And it'll make me think twice about what I have gotten for free!

  • Anonymous says:

    Some years back when I was working at an interior design firm, a prestigious doctor came in for his living room design presentation and the estimate cost of the work. When he looked at the bottom line he was taken aback by the cost. He asked my boss if they could negotiate the price. My boss, a very savvy woman, said "when I come in for a surgery are you going to negotiate on my charges?". He proceeded to write her a check for the full amount. 🙂 A lesson I will always remember. We are professionals.

  • Catherine says:

    A couple thoughts from someone not in your field:

    I completely agree that artists/designers/etc shouldn't feel pressured to give away their hard earned expertise for free. However, you have to understand the consumer's side too.

    Especially in a hard economy, people are afraid of getting scammed or ripped off. Designers (and this would go for everyone from crafters to graphic designers to landscape architects to wedding planners, etc.), I think it behooves you to help your potential clients understand what your work involves.

    Even in this post you indicated that because of your training and background, you can sometimes solve a problem in a couple seconds. I don't think middle class (or even upper middle class) people want to shell out lots of money for your training or your background. They feel cheated or worry about being cheated by people who charge a lot for something that can be done very quickly–even if that quickness is the result of much practice. It might be a flaw of the culture, but I think it's a reality regardless. (Very wealthy people, though, sure. If that's all you're after, you can ignore this. And I don't think there's anything wrong with it if that's all you're after.)

    Middle class people are willing to pay for work, though. So if you want to attract this kind of client, help them understand the kind of work you do. Maybe emphasize the hours that go into creating a floor plan or searching for coordinating fabrics or tweaking colors on photoshop or researching plants for dry climate. If you help them equate your service with hard work–which it is, I think–they'll feel a lot better about paying you.

    I hope that didn't come across as critical. I think you do a really good job at sharing with your readers the ins and outs of your business. Thank you for all the great insights to do share for free!

  • Ijeoma says:

    You are absolutely bang on the money with this one mate. People have no problems wanting freebies from designers, but they all understand that a lawyer is expensive and has to be paid. I think it tells on the society we live in, and how it undervalues good design, which is a pity!

    In regards to freebies from friends, I always exchange skills with my creative pals, this is ok, as we are already friends, not strangers.

    Cheers me dears for a good one!

  • Maria Killam says:

    HI Catherine,
    I loved your comment, what you are saying is completely valid.

    And I'll just speak for myself, but I would rather pay a seasoned expert their fee to get something right the first time (no matter how much 'time' it takes), than someone that would take 3 times as long and doesn't end up solving my problem.

  • Christina Rodriguez | The Diva's Home says:

    GREAT POST!!! 🙂

  • Eileen says:

    I echo what Catherine said. As a freelance copywriter (who LOVES "Mad Men") I don't just tell clients I will write their copy. I break it down – 1) identify the product's key features and benefits 2) tailor the message to the audience 3) review all background material … yada yada yada. There are about 8-10 steps in the process, and listing them clarifies the value the client is getting. There are many prospects in the field who ask for spec work (where you do the work and they only pay you for it if they decide to use it), and it is sad how often they get people to do it for them. If people can't tell from your portfolio if they trust your work – whether it's interior design or copywriting or anything else creative – then you don't want to work with them anyway. Also, you have probably found this, Maria, that some people have a problem with paying your fee if you make it look too easy. What they don't understand is that in fact it is your years of experience and training that enables you to get to the right solution quickly.

  • Donna says:

    Maria, This was an excellent post to bring up. I plan to do a post soon on people we OUGHT to hire…and why.

    I was specifically going to mention you. I am paying for an accountant for the first time. He figured out in exactly 15 minutes what I've been doing wrong for FOUR years with my taxes and his price was affordable. Dave Ramsey is right. Sometimes we can't AFFORD to do it ourselves. We should pay someone else.

    I am CONTINUALLY being asked to fix, alter, sew banners, pillows, blankets etc…for free. Even good friends have no concept of the cost in TIME alone! I'm VERY good at what I do and can alter professional clothes in an hour. I can do a beautiful banner in a day, designed to order. But I rarely get paid. I often feel too embarrassed to ask. Then I have good friends who DO understand. And they insist on paying me for fabric artwork, convention booth material etc. I now charge a minimum of $8.00 for the most tiniest of basic repairs on clothes. It always takes a lot of mental energy and time to get the project, brainstorm, and procure the proper supplies even if it only takes 30 minutes to do the job. A baby quilt or banner can take several weeks to do. I had to start charging so I wouldn't get frustrated with my friends or get over committed. I'm really struggling with this issue. Thanks for sharing this.


  • LiveLikeYou says:

    A very interesting post. I'm always doing favors, picking paint colors or moving around furniture at some friends house. You'd think I would have enough from work–but I just can't help myself.

  • Donna says:

    Dearest friend Maria, Thanks so much for commenting on my award for you–you're the best! I know you must be so busy–How you keep up with all your followers and run a business I will never understand.

    BTW, I posted a new post for tomorrow, that I'd like you to see–if you happen to have time. It's all about my area of 'expertise'–fabric art. :o) I think you will like the fabrics and colors. :o)I'm working on an original banner design for a friend for a ministry weekend.

    I'm looking forward to meeting the friend who mentioned you (via blogging). She says she knows you in real life-so of course I will go visit her.

    You are the BEST! What a sweet friend you are. I do hope we make it up to my hubby's siblings next year. They live in Washington state and that won't be so far from where you live. Perhaps we could meet in real life too. :0)

    I wish I had tons of money instead of only little bits. I'd hire you once a month for decorating advice. :O)Just because you are worth every penny!

    Your friend,

  • Lazy Gardens says:

    Mad Men … every time I watch that show, I feel the urge to put on my sharpest suit, sip a fine scotch, then philander for a few days.

    Great point on the freebies: You have to strike a balance between giving away enough to establish your expertise without destroying your market by giving it all away.

    That is where a blog is useful because only a few people are able to pick up the bits of information, polish them and put them to use. The others just say, "Oooooh, shiny things." and hire the blogger.

  • Anonymous says:

    Maria, your posts about fees alway seem to be timed just for me – although the comments always remind me that I have lots of company. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this with you at the spring home show, and have had a few opportunities to work on being more assertive (yet diplomatic) since then, bolstered by our discussion and your blog. Thank you! Thank you!

    And Catherine, you are so right, of course, that people need to be educated about the value of what we can do for them. I often find that people don't understand what it really takes or where the boundaries are. The part I least enjoy about what I do is the constant educating about boundaries and expectations. I think TV shows have simultaneously made people more aware of what we do, and created a lot of unrealistic expectations about how we do it. The first question for people who don't get our value is: "If it's so easy to do this, why are you talking to me?"

  • Anonymous says:

    I think there are many ways to look at this subject. It all depends on the situation I guess. I do have a friend that is a Doctor. If I need anything done from his office he doesn't charge me or my husband for it. My husband also does a lot of free jobs for friends and family. I guess you can look at it as a trade instead of freebies. He did spend an hour on the phone last night helping out an old coworker figure out a problem that happens to be my husbands expertise. If he can help someone over the phone like this, even if its a complete stranger he will. I think we should all show the good in us and we also do have limits of course. I say do what you can and balance it the best way possible.

  • Lila says:

    What a great way to bring attention to a touchy subject. My husband used to be a website software genius at his job (he's in a new profession now) but, friends, family, strangers would ask him to loan them free sites and ask him to do the work! FOR FREE! People amaze me. Thanks for a good post!
    Lila Ferraro

  • Kelee Katillac says:

    Know your value!

    I love it…well done Maria!

    love you!


  • Cindy says:

    I agree that professional advice should be paid for, not given away free. But I also feel that professionals have an obligation to inform/educate potential clients on their expectations.

    For example, last summer my husband and I wanted to hire someone to assist us with the design of our small backyard space and the contracting of the work. My husband contacted a landscape designer who advertised at the local garden store. After speaking with her, we checked out a number of her previous garden projects. So far so good. Next step was a meeting with me in our yard – I asked the all important question "What sort of budget do you need for this project?" The answer was $45,000. This was way beyond our expectations and I was truly shocked. We advised her that her project was outside our price range. We then got referrals from friends and colleagues, and hired a designer and contractor who did the work for $15,000. When we received a bill from the first designer we did not pay it. I don't feel we received value or advice from her, in fact I felt misled. Perhaps we should have discussed our budget and expectations earlier – but this is where I would look to the professional to inform me up front.

    Oh, we did hire the designer who shared some of her ideas in our first meeting (presumably for free) because we liked the ideas and felt she understood what we wanted to achieve. For those more reluctant to share ideas, I had no basis on which to compare or know if we were on the same page. Unless everyone writes a blog, I'm not sure how else to make that decision without hearing some ideas. Any thoughts on how to be a better client would be appreciated!

  • Anonymous says:

    A lot of creatives deal with this. People will mostly offer "exposure" in exchange for your time and talent. It's a horrible situation to be in, but you have to stick to your guns.

    Here's a great little video showing other professionals being put into the same situation:

    If the link isn't clickable, google "The Vendor Client Relationship- in real world situations".

  • Lauren says:

    Really loved reading this and all of the comments.

    After meeting with my accountant recently, I'm really attempting to be better at this because I did not realize that by doing things for "free" I'm actually losing money. As much as I love helping ppl & want to help anyone who asks, I know that I can't be putting my kids in daycare/ paying overhead/ etc. unless I'm making money. I do seriously believe in charity work & have made it my goal to always have one on the burner, but it's for those who really need it.


  • Elara says:

    Great post, Maria! I have struggled with the same thing with my spiritual work – the old mentality that you shouldn't charge for something spiritual. However, if I don't, how will I ever do what I love for a living?

  • Anonymous says:

    For those of us selling intangibles, educating the client is a requirement. Annoying, but true.

    I was really happy 2wks ago when a friend who is a Dr. called me and said, "I need help with X and I know you're good at it and do this for a living, so I want to tell you up front that I want you to treat me like a regular client and send me a bill. I don't want to spend my free time dispensing medical advice for free, and I don't expect you want to do your work for free, either." So refreshing!

    Thanks for the public awareness announcement – always good to be reminded of this reality!

  • Classic...with a twist says:

    Always a struggle and thanks for addressing it! Please head to Dallas for your Colour workshop!

  • Anonymous says:

    PLEASE bring your class/program to the East Coast!!!

  • Jane Hall The Voice of Style says:

    Great post Maria, and very important to anyone in ANY field of selling their ideas to the public. Being in the field for 35 years it has been an ongoing issue of getting paid for that experience. I really don't think that the public in general understands that ideas don't fall out of the sky and that it requires mental time "conceptual" time to create. On design jobs it also takes enormous amount of administration time and dealing with the client's needs during the process. I have found that I can spent as many as 60-70 hours working on these sorts of things that I have not charged for and this and is not taken into account.

    I am having to change my business model to charge for these hours and I find my clients are having a difficult time understanding why I have had to make these changes.

    I also have often wondered why people don't seem to have a problem paying other professionals such as lawyers, accountants,etc.

    In the western world all the most forward thinkers are predicting our very survival will depend on creating a creative economy, fueled by creative thinkers. We will need as a culture to learn and respect the value of an idea.

    Everything we see around is a result of a creative persons idea, yet as a society we place no value on it and expect people to give their ideas away for free.

    I do think it is a struggle for all creative people to feel comfortable and secure enough in their ability to ask for money, and it seems in opposition to the joy of the creative process. It has occurred to me that the most successful creative people have always had a person that would be the logical business person to take care of the the " money" part as it is really something that gets in the way of the relationship.

    Happy New Year

Leave a Reply