Have you ever asked someone, “Can I pick your brain?” without intending to pay for their insight? If so, you’ve been an accidental a$%hole (well, at least I hope accidental).

A lot has been written about the brain-picking question. It is oft-dissected because it’s the most blatant of many supposedly innocuous, even pseudo-complimentary conversation openers that drive freelancers and creative consultants into fits of quiet rage. It’s not that freelancers/consultants necessarily need to bite their lip in the service of their career more than everyone else. Professional settings require people to be mindful of others’ feelings. Relationships can be ruined, company reputations killed on Glassdoor, by people at any level being overtly horrible to colleagues.

However, freelancers and consultants occupy a uniquely frustrating position in that it’s hard to tell who’s paying them, and for what. Therefore, opportunists can assume the best of the independent consultant’s situation. They can blithely approach with an attitude of “Hello, you are being compensated handsomely for occupying this space, and therefore, it is your job to assist me.”

The two groups of people who impose on creative consultants the most? Clients (especially potential clients) and the PR/social media teams hired to represent clients. If you are a client, read on to discover the thoughtless phrases that send great potential talent into a spiral of feeling undervalued. If you’re someone whose PR/social engagement team represents you, discover the openers that might be destroying the relationships you’re paying to build.

Phrases to Avoid and What Freelancers Really Think

NOTE: The people who are most-often targeted with these phrases will probably never respond candidly. They just seethe, dream about blacklisting the sender, and condemn them to their peers. Here’s what they say in private.

Avoid These Phrases as a PR, Marketing or Social Team

Are you working on anything right now?

Freelancers’ responses:

  • For my entire career I’ve been hoping to one day have the balls to answer that Q with a simple, “Nope. Nothing. Why?”
  • I got that one today and I almost threw the computer at the wall.
  • The best part is that it implies laziness on your part, but it’s actually on theirs.

I know this is really last-minute, but I wanted to see if you were free to come to our event TONIGHT.

Freelancers’ responses:

  • Anything that shows you were clearly on the C list for the event is THE WORST.
  • Yes, I have a babysitter who just sits by the phone waiting for me to call her for same-day invitations.
  • This is nice speak for “Hey, someone cancelled. Wanna fill their seat?”
  • I delete immediately.

Attached are high-res images that you can use.

CONTEXT: When normal folk get an unrequested email from a stranger with huge files attached, they call it SPAM and report it to their web hosting companies. Media and content producers get these emails every day, presented as though they were a gift. They are not a gift.

Freelancers’ responses:

  • Why do I want high-res images of a thing I hadn’t heard of till 2 minutes ago, that is not relevant to my life at all?
  • Not to mention, nine times out of 10, using said image would get us in trouble because they haven’t been properly sourced!
  • This is hands-down my biggest time-waster, day after day.

Maybe I should try your job! It seems fun.

Freelancers’ responses:

  • Thank you for minimizing the work I put in to get here. Also, you seem like a very dedicated team player.
  • As if what I do is just easy-peasy, and anyone can do it no problem.


We’d like to partner with you on a campaign, but there’s no room in the budget. Can we compensate you with product?

OTHER VERSION:  “I want to share an opportunity with you. [Unpaid].”

Freelancers’ responses:

  • What a deal!
  • If there was room in the budget to hire an agency, there’s room to pay.
  • As a general rule, do not use the word “opportunity” if you want me to work for you for free.
  • They’d love to make me a brand ambassador. Of what, quan? No payment was mentioned. [Hat-tip to this freelancer for throwing in an excellent Jerry Maguire reference.]

Avoid These Phrases as a Client or Potential Client

Can I pick your brain?

Freelancers’ responses:

  • If it’s a company, pay me.
  • HARD NO.
  • Pick your brain is a red flag; it means “I don’t want to pay you.”

Can we meet for coffee?

Freelancers’ responses:

  • I do a lot of quick-turnaround assignments, and traipsing around during the day means someone else gets that assignment rather than me.
  • Even if you come to my house and bring me coffee and my favorite confection, still, no.
  • A restaurant owner had me drive one hour to meet with him under the guise of hiring me for marketing services. He then proceeded to pick my brain on how to get his restaurant in publications. At the end of the our “meeting” where he did provide me with a sandwich for lunch (woohoo!), I said, “So how can I work with you?” He said, “Oh that’s okay, I’ve got it covered.” His smug grin made me want to knock his teeth out! Instead I wrote an article about it. And PS – I wasn’t sorry when he folded.

We’re inviting you to take a sneak peek at our new product and give feedback/take a quick survey/share your opinions.    

Freelancers’ responses:

  • Your VP of Marketing doesn’t know what he/she is doing and wants free advice and thinks the brand name is something I’d be thrilled to give insights to for free.
  • It’s mutually beneficial because we’re going to promote you to our 94 Instagram followers!
  • Sooo… you want me to tell you about your business.
  • It’s crazy what these companies think they can get away with.

Get More Insights From the Freelancer Perspective: