How to Stop Giving Away Strategy For Free and Get Paid What You’re Worth

By Jason Swenk on April 3, 2022

Do you want to start charging for strategy instead of just execution? A lot of agencies out there are getting paid for execution and giving away strategy for free. They end up being viewed as a commodity instead of for the value and expertise they bring their clients. It’s mostly about learning how to cross that bridge. Our guest today specializes in helping business owners make this transition. It involves a lot of trial and error, trusting your experience, and learning to listen to clients.

Stephen Houraghan is a brand strategist who helps businesses amplify their brands and teaches designers and brand builders how to specialize in this area with his Brand Master Academy. He started his career working in finance and stockbroking and eventually left that world to start his own agency offering web design services. With the rise of freelancer platforms, Stephen saw clients wanted more value, so he tapped into strategy, which in time opened the doors to a different type of business and relationship with clients.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Stop giving away strategy for free.
  • The thought and process of selling strategy.
  • Listen to clients to create authority.

Sponsors and Resources

Wix: Today’s episode is sponsored by the Wix Partner Program. Being a Wix Partner is ideal for freelancers and digital agencies that design and develop websites for their clients. Check out to learn more and become a member of the community for free.


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Figuring Out How to Charge for Strategy

When Stephen started working as a freelance designer he tapped into his professional network and was getting lots of referrals. He was doing what he loved and money wasn’t a worry. However, this started to change with the rise of freelancer platforms. Clients were pushing back on his prices and he realized he needed to offer more value to retain customers.

He started his agency and thought about how to compete with freelancers. Being more competitive would require solving the right problems for clients and offering more. He turned to branding, something he really loved to do. Eventually, that led to piecing together the puzzle of brand strategy.

Brand strategy is the key to making competitors irrelevant. Offering all the pieces of building a brand to clients put Stephen on another level, no longer competing with freelancers who just offered a logo or website. It took years of developing and improving his process but now clients do not compare based on logos and brochures but rather based on long-term success based on the strategy behind these items.

How to Test Your System for Selling Strategy

No matter how you fell into the agency world, there comes a point where you have to turn what you’ve learned into something which proves value to your clients. The bridge you need to cross to get to that point is experience. You need to realize you already have the building blocks to shift to this model. No one jumps into a creative project and just drags pixels around. It takes thought and a process. This process may be more or less detailed and, for some, it involves research and building a brand persona. Begin by documenting it and you will slowly develop it from there.

Usually, freelancers and new agencies will not charge for the labor involved in the process. Taking this step will really make a difference in your growth because there’s no ceiling to what you can charge when you sell strategy.

For his part, Stephen started by splitting up his services. He increased his design prices but made sure to sell them as the product of a comprehensive process. At first, he included the strategy for free as he slowly transitioned to taking his clients through his system. With time, his system became much more comprehensive as he tested and refined it.

A big part of doing this was pushing the impostor syndrome away. Of course, you have to be very careful to not just slap a title on yourself as you start to sell brand strategy but trust your experience. It is about building the system, but it is also about building confidence in yourself, your system, and knowing that clients need that system whether they know it or not.

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What are the Elements of Brand Strategy?

Knowing the concept of brand strategy is a start but you need to understand its elements and how to tie them together to create more value for clients. Stephen identified a lot of common elements, including buyer persona, competitive analysis, positioning, storytelling, brand personality, brand mission, etc. The challenge was to figure out if every single one of these elements applies to every business, in what order, and how he could go about developing them.

Asking these questions was the start of putting together a system to build a brand. It all starts with the customer, naturally, but it goes beyond the persona. You have to dig into their journey and understand each of the challenges in that journey. From there, it’s about looking out into the market and understanding all the players in that market. Look for gaps where you can go in and offer something different, new, and fresh. Your messaging, what you say, and the buttons you push within your message is your most influential tool as a brand.

That is the value of brand strategy. All these elements in the right order will help you resonate with your audience in a way that a logo or a website alone can’t replicate and will give you the ability to sell your thinking instead of giving it away for free.

Learn To Listen to Clients and Ask The Right Questions

The trial and error to figure out your process will most likely result in some mistakes. For Stephen, the most obvious mistake was taking the position of “I’m the brand strategist and you don’t know what you’re talking about”. He would tell clients that they didn’t need a logo and try to push them in a certain direction. “9 times out of 10 that conversation did not end well,” he acknowledges.

Both Jason and Stephen agree that selling on strategy is about asking the right questions in order to help them determine the direction they need to follow. It doesn’t work unless you ask the right questions, listen, and walk them through the plan. With this framework, they never lost a deal over price.

Remember that no one likes to be told that they’re wrong. You can’t just tell clients they need something they don’t think they need because they most likely won’t listen. It’s about showing and demonstrating the need to create the desire.

Stephen learned about negotiations and started to structure conversations with clients. He asked more questions and really tried to understand what they wanted and get them excited about the brand they wanted to build.

The Right and Wrong Way to Create Authority

Many people think building authority takes a lot of talking and flexing your muscles. Actually, questions are a really powerful tool when it comes to building authority. The more you are talking the less your clients are talking. It is so important that clients feel you are interested in their business and helping them build their brand.

With the right questions, you can get clients to consider that there’s maybe another path they haven’t considered. You can get them to dream about different possibilities that will help build a relationship and build authority. Remember, you always want to position yourself as a trusted advisor, and listening to your clients is a great way to do that as well as separate your agency from the competition.

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