Allan McKay's Tips: How to Negotiate Your Salary

In this installment of Allan McKay's Tips on career building, I want to talking about the power of negotiation. The topic involves becoming comfortable discussing money with employers, how to negotiate your salary, and how to position yourself so that they pitch to you. I understand that talking about money can seem a bit taboo. Usually discussing our salary, a bonus, or a raise with prospective employers or current bosses can seem downright scary  at times. We might be afraid we'll scare employers away or loose our existing positions. However, fear of talking about money also means a lot of us are left in the dark about how to negotiate effectively. This article focuses on how to alleviate that anxiety by giving you some strategies for getting what you want at the bargaining table. I will show you how I personally begin the negotiations along with some suggestions about what to say. I think learning the art of negotiation is vital for anyone working in the industry, especially in today's job market. You can hear the entire Podcast episode at the Allan McKay Podcast. I look forward to reading any insights you might want to share on this subject. exercise

Negotiation as an Exercise

Whether we're asking for a raise or trying to get our kid to clean up their room, negotiating to get what we want is a ever present part of our existence. There are many examples of effective negotiation in everyday life in which to draw inspiration. For example, I like the movie Boiler Room for this reason. In the film, there's a scene where Giovanni Ribisi is eating breakfast and a telemarketer calls up to try to sell him on a newspaper subscription. He ends up toying with the guy for fun and coaching him just for kicks. He eventually coaxes him into trying to make a better sales pitch just for fun, totally messing with him the whole time. The thing about being good at negotiation is that you need to get comfortable doing it. That means practicing it often. You can treat the art of negotiation like a muscle and exercise it. As with any area of your career, you need to view it like a business. You should be able to stand up for yourself and make the biggest impact. evolution

Aggressively Reinvent Yourself

More than likely, you're going to begin at a studio at a introductory junior position. You may think this is a place where negotiation is practically non-existent. However, these early experiences are exactly where you need to begin planning your negotiation. As I stressed in my discussion on preparing for a job interview, the first impression is the most important. Even after you get the job, your junior position is just another "first impression" of sorts. It will determine how you can leverage what you contribute to the company to negotiate for future salaries. Therefore, it's important that you start out quickly establishing yourself. Let's say you start out with a relatively modest weekly/monthly salary, and you're goal is to eventually double that, say within the first year. A lofty goal, but certainly not impossible if you aggressively reinvent yourself. Again, this is a type of personal branding, the same type of strategies you hopefully worked on to get the job in the first place. Networking was probably a big part, if not the sole reason, you got the junior position in the first place. However, you don't want to be known as a "junior" for very long. You should continue to aggressively network within the company. To help I suggest you work on and volunteer for as many projects as you can. Try and choose more short form project likes commercials. These have a faster turn around rate and are relatively easy projects to complete. The key here is to get as much experience as possible. Dump your old demo reel and cut a new one that includes what your currently doing for the studio. Upgrading your portfolio and reels will be the proof of your professional growth you can use for later negotiations. Typically when you start out, your portfolio is going to consist mainly of work you've done all by yourself, but you're probably not going to be good at everything. However, after getting a job, you will have other talented people and larger budgets to work with, which will create much more polished results. You should use these resources to create projects you can include into your portfolio and reinvent your self. Completing shorter projects with faster turn-a-rounds will also get you more networking opportunities. You will also learn to work more quickly, and you portfolio will contain more polished additions. This approach could gain you 15-20 projects within a year. So, the possibility of completely reinventing yourself within a year is a plausible one. studio hopping

Using Other Job Opportunities 

If you're growing too fast as an artist within your current company or whether you think freelancing is more in line with your goals, you can now take the wealth of experience, knowledge, and connections and set off for "greener" pastures. Going from one studio to another while working freelance is a great way to bump up your salary rate. Each time you move from one studio to another, you should use as an opportunity to fast track your salary, to ask for more than you previously made. The key to making this work is relationships. By going away and revisiting previous studios, you can renegotiate more effectively. They already know you, and they know what you can do. Returning to the same studio gives you the break you need to say, "Ok, I'm going to need a little more money this time.' Completing lots of different jobs can create career momentum, which can help push your salary base a little further each time. However, it's important not to get too greedy because you can scare off studios. You want to try and strike a balance. There are consequences to both underselling and overselling yourself. Both can give the perception that you have too little confidence in your abilities or too much. With time you'll eventually come to better understand how much you're really worth within the industry. Then you can begin an effective negotiation. money

Consider the other Party's View

What a lot of people aren't aware of is that (as uncomfortable as it might be), to negotiate effectively you need to consider the other party. They're more than likely not going to be comfortable with negotiating either. Negotiation isn't a linear, one-way process--it's a back and forth one. And it's up to you whether you make it a 'give give give' situation and let them push you over or if it's a more balanced give-and-take experience. If the employer's intention is to talk you down to the lowest dime, then that's entirely up to you if this actually happens or not. If you reestablish your position and make this a discussion about whether you can come to an agreement--and you're willing to walk away at any time--then suddenly it will be about trying to sign you. In other words nothing is 100%. This is the situation you want to be in. Consider the other party in this type of situation. What is going through their head? They are probably just as uncomfortable as you are. they're probably just as much afraid of insulting or losing you as you are. It's probably true that they may have more experience negotiating, but it doesn't mean they want to sit there trying to make you happy. What they want is to have you commit so they can move onto the other duties they have. More importantly, what are they going to say if they don't land you? You're a really good candidate. Do you think they want to loose you over a few dollars you couldn't come to an agreement on? It's costing them time to interview you, to interview others. It costs money to hire recruiters, to put out job ads, etc. All of this ads up very quickly, and it's in everyone's best interests to fill the position as soon as possible. As soon as you start to realize that this is a two way street, the situation quickly becomes not just about winning per see. It's not about talking your way up to ridiculous amounts of money and pissing the other side off. It's about being confident in and knowing what you're worth and standing by it. Many artists think they don't need a business mind. However, they're usually the first ones to complain that they're underpaid even though they're probably the first to give in without a fight. monopoly

Controlling the Anchor Point

Typically, when companies build a salary proposal they will usually mark the salary down about 20 percent. That's because it's expected to get raised up in the negotiations by about that much. This is called setting the anchor point. The purpose is to create a cushion to bring to the negotiations. They have about 20 percent of salary concessions to work with before they exceed what they actually expect to pay you. No one wants to appear as if they weren't willing to give in a little, so we artificially create these cushions to "play" the game with. Both sides can then safely raise their first offered amount. However, how much it's raised will depend on your actions. You may want to do the same 15-20% mark up to set your own anchor point beforehand, but let them make the first offer. This doesn't matter whether you're doing this over the phone, email or in person. Everything still applies. However, I think negotiating is much more powerful in person, but only if you're experienced at it. But starting out with email is fine. In fact, most money negotiations are done through email so that it is put in writing. Regardless of whether you use an anchor point or not, what you absolutely have to ensure is that they take you seriously. Achieving this first and foremost means appearing confident about who you are and knowing what you're worth. sherlock

Know Thy Employer

You absolutely must do your homework on the company. Learn as much as you can about who the company is and/or what they are currently working on. It's great if you know people there that you can ask, but if not look them up online to get an idea of the work environment. For example, find out whether it's chaotic, or how many other talented and experienced people they employ. Study and understand the basic structure of the company. The more you know about them, the more you can find the best way to angle your pitch. Most importantly, try and figure out if the person doing the interview is also the person making the final decision. What you say and how you pitch your salary proposal will be determined by who is actually doing the hiring. For example, if the supervisor is interviewing you and they have final say, then pitching to them will take a different form. Let's say you have extensive knowledge in a lot of the software the company uses. Consequently, you have plenty of experience, so you can also help supervise the other artists. Let's say in addition you can write script, so you can build tools to automate everything (translation: "I can help you produce a quality product!). A supervisor, who's directly responsible for management of people and production is going to value these particular qualities. But if you're hired by the producer, for example, you will want to emphasize that you're lightning fast at production. Therefore, you'll be able to get things done in much less time, making them more cost effective. In addition, you should also emphasize that you can manage others well and can script lots of tools, which will help automate production (translation: "I will save you money!"). Do you see the difference? You are pitching yourself in a way that is specific to both the supervisor (management) and producer's (money) priorities. Each individual should see how you will benefit THEM. Again, do your homework. Are they desperate to find someone? Who held the position previously? What was the problem with the prior situation? Cater your pitch to be a solution to that problem. If you know the previous situation, let the hirer know this by explaining: "Well I understand there's been time wasted because of the previous person on the project. So you're now looking to cram 3 months of work into one month." Then explain how YOU are the solution to that problem: "I can do that 3 months of work in the timespan you need." Now, use the position you've created to support your salary negotiations: "But, in order to produce that much in 3 months, I would need to be compensated accordingly." There's usually a bit of a switch at this point. You're outlining the rules and taking control of the negotiations. You obviously already know what the company needs at this point, and this places you in a great position for negotiation. pennies

Time to Talk Numbers

Most important: you never want THEM to agree to the first number YOU put down (remember the anchor point!). It's very easy to go too low or too high if you set the number. If you throw out an amount and they agree, you should instantly know you just lost yourself a few thousand dollars. That's why it's much better to let them set the anchor point. Then you can work with their number. Aiming too high is fine as long as you really think you're worth it. Aiming for 175k a year and thinking they'll negotiate down isn't a good strategy if you're seriously looking for 100k. They aren't going to take you seriously afterwards. But if you do think you're worth it, you better have some good reasons to justify it. But don't seem apologetic. If you look like you could back down, they will push back hard.

Negotiating Your Salary Over the Phone or by Email

Sometimes negotiations happen over the phone. These are more emotional interactions than say emails. Phone calls are better than email correspondence, but you need to be just as good at communicating over the phone as in person. If you're negotiating over the phone and they want to know a number, say something like: "I'd like a bit more information first. Can you please just send me a quick email outlining what you mentioned, and I'll get back to you?" Then follow up with "This sounds great, but I had a few more questions." Again, let them set the number first. If they come right out and ask what you want, say "I'm looking at a bunch of opportunities right now. I can't give a solid number because I'm really interested to see what you have to offer. Thank you very much." If their offer is too low, you can counter with: “Based on other opportunities I’m looking at,­ I think I’m worth X amount of money. Now, you've stated your minimum, and you’re also subtly letting them know that other companies are making higher offers. Many offers come in form of email, so you can write something like: "Thank you so much I really appreciate the offer. However, based on other opportunities I’m looking into, I was wondering if there was any flexibility in the base salary you quoted me?" Here are some final tidbits of advice for negotiating a salary:
  • Overall, be very positive about the experience. Seem excited about the prospects of coming to work for them.
  • Help them visualize the win for them if they hire you.
  • Try and make it emotional.
  • Go in with an "I've got all the time in the world" attitude.
  • Don't underestimate how much the other side of the table wants to resolve this.
  • Use silence in a strategic way. It can signal that you can wait it out, but don't let it seem like you're ignoring them.
  • Have a Plan B.
  • Don't be afraid to walk away.
  • Expect a "No". If you didn't get one, then you're not asking for enough.
  • Don't draw the negotiations out too long. Two counter offers is usually max.


Many of these tips can be used to ask for an initial salary, negotiate a freelance contract, or ask for a raise. They're a culmination of my experience in the industry, but you should feel free to tweak them according to your particular situation. I hope that at least some of these tips on negotiating for money have helped you. If you take away nothing else, just know that what's absolutely essential is knowing what you're worth and going into the negotiations with a genuine confidence. Know your strengths and weakness and be able to articulate why you're worth it.