‘It can easily spin out of control’: Confessions of a freelance creative on the rise of scope creep

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

For freelancers on retainer, managing clients’ expectations while also staying within the bounds of the agreed upon job can be a delicate balance. For the sake of the relationship, freelancers have to find a way to navigate repeatedly being asked to do work outside of the scope — a common occurrence in advertising often referred to as “scope creep”; freelancers as well as agencies deal with it — and getting paid for that extra work without upsetting their client. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a freelance creative who works for brands, agencies and individuals, about scope creep, why it can be an issue and how to manage it.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What is scope creep? How can it affect your relationship with a client? 

It’s a huge issue for a lot of freelancers. It’s a [bigger issue] if you’re on retainer.  Scope creep is when you agree to doing something and your client asks for something more like, “Oh, can you just throw this in? This will just take five minutes.” Or maybe they’ll say, “This wasn’t what I imagined. Can you do this instead?” The reason you have a scope and a contract is to be able to fall back on those documents. That way you can tell the client that you can certainly do what they ask but it will cost X number of dollars. At the beginning of a relationship, when you’re finding your footing of how you’ll communicate with a client it’s easy to allow some scope creep. But it can easily spin out of control. 

Can you give an example of how that might happen? 

I’m on a retainer for one client. We made a scope. I realized quickly that she has so many other needs outside of the scope of the work. I ended up doing a bunch of stuff that was beyond the scope of what we had agreed upon. I spoke with that client to tell her that I couldn’t manage all of her needs. We did a new, focused scope but again the client still needed all of this other support so that would come through my inbox. I’ve got a flat rate no matter what they send my way. And lately, it’s gotten out of control. 

Can it be solved by being clearer about boundaries? 

Some people are much better [about setting boundaries] than others. Some clients are much better than others with boundaries. In my case, I’m not awesome at it and this client is really bad at understanding it. So it’s been a bit of a struggle. 

Has there been more scope creep over the last year with layoffs due to Covid? Are companies trying to get more out of freelancers with a constrained budget? 

There’s definitely a risk of that. I’ve been a subcontractor on a team with others before where there was a lot of scope creep, especially with the other two [team members]. They’d be like, “Hey, can you just design this thing for us?” or “Can you just create this campaign for us?” The requests were coming from other staff members, not the main point person, so the CEO finally had to specify the scope and tell me not to do the other requests because they were distracting from the plans in place. 

What do you wish clients understood about scope creep? 

The requests that are like, “Oh this is quick and easy,” are super condescending. If it was so quick and easy you could do it yourself. And even if it is quick and easy, that doesn’t mean I’ve budgeted the time and mental bandwidth to do it. If clients could refrain from that type of language that would be helpful.

Anything else? 

The scope is there to protect the client in some ways. If they keep throwing curve balls or adding on things, that detracts from what they’ve hired us to do. If another scope needs to be opened, that’s wonderful. But adding on things without adding on compensation just shows you don’t respect our time and expertise. Even if you do, it doesn’t allow for optimal working conditions. If you really want the most out of your service provider, they should really stick to scopes that are nice and clear. Then strategies can be built around it without throwing things in left and right. 


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