If you’ve listened to my musings during the Stacy Peralta Housekeeping Corner, you’ll know I have strong feelings about the importance of creatives and contributors being paid fairly for their work - especially if as a brand you claim to be serious about inclusivity and diversity.
Yet, even in the year 2022, brands are still offering ‘exposure’ or similar reasons as justification for not paying people fairly for their skills and time.
Still, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve held a hopelessly unfashionable opinion that goes completely against the prevailing status quo.
So it got me thinking - is it ever OK to NOT pay people correctly for their time and expertise?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this 👇
Charities maybe, occassionally, but brands, no. Never. As a freelance film-maker I know says (shouts) "People die of exsposure."
Once I said yes to speaking at an event for free, because it really was a great opportunity for me to (hopefully) show my expertise in front of my perfect audience. And it worked, I got several new clients. I knew and liked the organisers, it was their first event of this kind, and I wanted to support them. They paid for travel, accomodation and got me pissed. But this was a bit of an exceptional circumstance and very much my choice - I looked at it as a marketing cost with a strong potential return.
There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any occassion where a business or brand should ask any creative to work, or provide their work, for free. As many people point out, try asking your accountant to do your books for free "because it'll be good exsposure." Better yet, try asking a plumber.
I understand why a young creator, trying to get noticed, would say yes to a 'cool' brand, but those brands really, really shouldn't. I think it's OK to shame those that do.
There is a strange tradition of undervaluing and under-compensating creatives from all backgrounds, with brands often treating us as if we should feel lucky to get paid. We NEED to demand a new normal and hold brands and the people behind these decisions accountable.
If you really value me, pay me.
I don't think this type of thing should be too transactional either. It can't JUST be about paying people. What a difference it makes when someone behind the scenes at a brand, agency or event, makes the effort to build the relationship and engage in ongoing respect and support. They paycheck is important, building a meaningful, mutually respectful relationship is equally important.
This has been such a big one for me - always feeling like I don’t belong in the space I’ve found myself and not sure what value I can bring - it turns out - a lot! I’ve mostly spoken for free due to being scared to ask for payment as I feel it’s them doing me a favour. I’ve definitely been learning a lot about how to value my experience, my expertise and what I bring to a conversation so I’m finally feeling brave enough to ask for payment - at least to cover my cost (ok so I am realising I’m valued more than diesel prices!) but it’s a really hard thing to ask especially if you’re new to all this. Brands can definitely lead the way by paying in more than exposure. Exposure is fantastic yes - but it doesn’t pay the bills. A lesson in self worth and value is a hard one to learn (I’m still learning to ask!)
Wholeheartedly agree, that it isn’t ok to ask people to speak for free. Exposure does not pay the rent and mostly leads to very little. A small amount is better than nothing. No financial reward sends a clear signal that your work isn’t valued, apart from how you can make money for the organisers. I get the argument about new or emerging events and I’ve got a formula about paying it forward. I think this is a different matter. Also I want to be associated with quality. If they are not paying their speakers what else are they cutting corners on for profit? There have been some interesting posts globally about people turning down Ted
Talks for the same reason, Ted Speakers don’t get paid.
I’ve been thinking about your question. There are situations where I don’t get paid for my expertise but I’m not convinced that it’s justified.
Sadly I work in a sector that heavily relies on free labour. As well as my paid employment, I’m a board member for charitable organisations. In the UK it is against the law to pay board members of charities and yet the governance responsibilities are significant. You can get paid as a non Exec director of a for profit organisation. Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about small local organisations. Some charities have over a $1b turnover. The complexity and commitment is similar, just less valued it appears.
Having worked in both design and photography, both as freelance and staff, the open-ness that you see in certain sectors of the 'full-time employer' world makes it much easier to get fair compensation – for example, with the help of platforms like Glassdoor, or the transparent pay scale of .gov careers, its easy for a UI Designer to say I should be on around X amount, growing to Y over the next 12 months, or whatever.
With freelance there's not that open-ness, certainly not in the UK, which makes pricing much harder – much harder to have a shared expectation between client and creative. Team that with the fear of not landing a particular job and its super easy to under-charge clients, especially if confidence is low or there are other, perhaps less experienced (although I appreciate that's a generalisation) creatives looking to, or able to, undercut.
I knowingly under-charge some clients, knowing that working for them will, and has, unlocked other doors. Is that fair for those clients to be party to that? Probably not, but rightly or wrongly, in the creative freelance market (in my experience at least) the onus is still very much on the freelancer to walk that line of what it expected or not.
Every year in the UK we graduate enough students from the ‘creative’ media courses to replace every single person in ‘creative’ media jobs that already exist. That’s just a fact.
Because of this there is a huge queue of ‘graduates’ behind anyone in a job in the creative industries. I’m sure it’s true that there are some cynical people, who hold the purse strings at some brands, who would seek to exploit this situation.
I do stuff for free, it’s a way to keep interested in what I’m doing. But I make sure that the stuff I do for free is interesting or for the public sector/charity or ideally both.
Don’t let people/brands/companies exploit your work course but perhaps try to discern what the longer term motives are for the brand or client.
Personally I wouldn’t want to be starting out today in the 21st Century as we discussed in our recent interview Matt.
I likely have a bit of double standards here. Let me explain.
In my capacity now I am always aiming to pay the going rate and if a young creative is doing work for us, they should be paid and the 'exposure' thing isn't the way to build a brand especially if you are a for profit entity. If someone works in any capacity they should be paid.
However with that said when it comes to myself I have done a ton of projects, work, given advice, talks without being paid and whilst I probably should have stood up for myself a bit more it also opened many doors for me. That's probably down to not valuing my own work enough or having the confidence to sell it in (all British traits), but yes I am trying to do my piece to set the bar for the next generation in my professional capacity but know I have slipped personally in the past.
Doing burlesque and drag taught me a lot about the value of time and labor because even the stagehands who picked up discarded costume pieces and set up props were paid. On the flipside, I still do panels at comic/anime cons for free and submit poetry to publications that don't pay (although I'm getting more selective because there are venues that do pay). The line between hobby and profession get blurry in creative spaces, but I do think brands, especially ones that are churning, should compensate people. Even if it's a "flow" situation where you give product to an up-and-coming influencer or cosplayer (because only handful of cosplayers ever make money from that), but even then I think that should be a pipeline that leads to monetary compensation if the person wants to stick with the brand versus leaving people in space where they only ever get free product because that's a cop-out too.
The fact that this seems to be so prevalent for creatives and not elsewhere is what stands out for me - and it seems to be even more common with brands in outdoor/action sports.
I’ll do work for free for a charity or initiative that isn’t intentionally for profit, and feel strongly that the work for exposure deal is massively bad practise for brands (and makes no sense for creatives). It devalues the work, and sets a precedent that’s really hard to change. I suppose it comes partly from so many creatives being self employed and from this unquantifiable thing that is creative thinking.
And nowadays, brands are more likely to benefit from being featured on a creative’s channels than the other way around - and individual athlete or creative social media accounts tend to have much more engagement from their audiences than brands (that personal connection thing).
But there’s always someone wanting to get into filmmaking or photography and wanting the outdoor lifestyle who’ll be prepared to do work for cheap or free to get a foot in the door (and who can blame them - that’s still the way in for lots of sectors like TV & film).
As a brand though, would you want to be known as not paying properly for creative work? In the US outdoor brands seem to allocate much bigger budgets to marketing and the creative side - of course a lot of them are bigger companies anyway, but if you want the higher spec film and video that seems to be the norm now, you can’t expect to have that without paying for it.
I made the decision a long time ago working as a designer in a small outdoor community, that I wouldn’t have ‘mates rates’ and if I wanted to do something for free it had to be for a good reason. I’m always happy to share information and take part in exchanges that could progress things in the industry (better representation, sustainability practises), but if someone is asking me to do something because of what I know or can do which they can’t, then that has a value. The book Logo design love by David Airey has a great explanation of the value of a logo… it can apply to all areas of creative work.
The obvious answer to this question is 'no' and I'd argue the question is leading because it says 'pay people correctly' 😉, but I actually think there is a bigger conversation to be had here about transparency. In the outdoor sector there tends to be huge discrepancies between who gets paid and who doesn't, who gets their travel covered and who doesn't. Often the higher your profile the more you can ask for and get, which obviously disadvantages those with smaller followings or less exposure (which also - surprise surprise - tend to be underrepresented groups due to all the systemic bias bleeding through into what opportunities are available on the way up and how they are viewed by the 'mainstream', whether they have had the privilege to work for free to gain exposure etc). What I'd like to see more of is brands and event organisers being upfront - this is what we have in the budget for everyone or this is how we are organising what we pay people if they are paying different fees for what could be viewed the same work. And then that needs to be communicated widely. We get opportunities sent to us through All The Elements and I get the budget (or lack of) from the organisation, then pass to people to make an informed choice. Sometimes if it's local, less work and has good reach or future contacts, it can be worth it. But new people to the scene need to know if the rest of us think its crap pay or a bad deal. I often pass things along with 'you're worth more than this but you might want to do it because of x, y, z'. Transparency and informed choices put the power back in the hands of the creative or contributor. Without that we're all being taken for a ride.
I wonder if there is another perspective here; what the creative can ‘take' from the brand beyond finances and ‘exposure'? Specifically how the creative can use the job to grow and evolve their own practice. It’s definitely not a long term strategy so requires honest reflection and foresight of what you the creative wants long term. When learning a new craft there is only so much you can do with your mates / on your own, at some point you need to step up your practice. In the example of a photographer there are the jobs where you get paid x amount to turn up and document an event/take a portrait etc with very specific direction and I would say this is broadly the ‘exposure conversation’. And then there’s also the type of jobs where the conversion is ‘we have x amount in total for this production’. These are the type of jobs where you can make a choice to be paid correctly and do the job strictly in the parameters set out, or you can use x amount of the budget (and x amount of time within the shoot) to 'try a new technique, try a new lens/lighting set up, hire a DOP versus shooting it yourself etc… specifically to develop your creativity. You choose to take the hit financially in terms of your take home pay, but you ‘take' from the brand a body of work you would have been unable to create without what they have given you. Again, not a long term or multiple job strategy but rather I would say there is a grey perspective as well as a black and white one. Finances are one aspect of what a creative can take; as a creative I think we should be open to seeing what else is in the equation.
My experience of trying to publish in the scientific literature-world (i.e., journals) might be of some relevance here. With independent research (read ‘unpaid’) you either have to find a publication that will take pity an publish without costs or find upwards of £1500-£3000 for the honour of publishing. These papers are then reviewed by other scientists, for free, in order to be considered accurate and worthy. These titles then charge everyone to view them (needed to perpetuate new research. Total racket. I mean it’s not like it changes when you become ‘published’ and it’s not ‘creative’ but it’s an example of a model that exists to benefit the bottom line not the individual. There is pressure for scientists to publish (and be a reviewer) within their work and so the publications continue to benefit. It also drives a bias in findings but that’s a whole other thing.
In the old days I used to get offered product in place of payments from brands of all sizes for photo work they used or commissioned. Sometimes it was a better deal financially to take the offer but it would mean flogging everything, quite the ball-ache.
Sometimes this appealed, but in the end you’d always end up wearing the clothes they sent or giving them to mates instead and struggling to make ends meet.
It took a long time to get the confidence to bring this up with brands but I managed on occasion to argue my point. I think eventually it was only really addressed once the industry caught up and got it’s shit together. I think historically video guys got it worse to be honest, no one ever wanted to pay for video. I imagine it’s the other way around now but I clocked out about 5 years ago so can’t be sure.
as my good friend once told me (yesterday, after showing him this thread... "future work doesn't pay today's bills"...
so I guess it depends on if you have bills to pay? sure when I was younger, had less overheads, I did work for some brands well under the going rate, to be honest, mainly out of naivety (I just didn't understand the value) some of that work is still in my portfolio today and 100% opened doors for my career. Now, I've got a family to feed and bills to pay, so I have to think about things a bit differently. I still take on the occasional job for nothing or cheap, but I've got to ask a few questions... is it helping friends or people in need?, is it going to benefit me? (creatively or in my career), and will it mean I get to go surfing?
I would say this plays a huge roll in my not working as a “creative” in the outdoor industry. If had my share of seasonal jobs, but I’ve now entered the salaried world and I don’t know if I’ll ever leave.
Would I love to go back to the outdoor industry world, yes! But if people don’t get paid or struggle to get paid. That’s not a way to support one’s family.
This seems like just another form of ensuring that the entitled continue to get exposure because the can afford to not get paid. It’s sad because then we get a continuous echo chamber of ideas and content.
You just invoked Betteridge’s law. No, it’s disgusting to take advantage of anyone for any type of work. Would you expect a young plumber to fix your toilet for exposure?
Is this something we could bring up and use ISPO Munich as a launch pad for it ?
I honestly think that as an entry, showing what you can do for free isn't a bad thing. But when management begin to take advantage of that...then we have a problem.
I worked for a brand for a long time who would have a constant revolving door of interns and then when it came to projects, there would always be a push to hit up local universities or to find a fan of the brand as they would work for free.
No one would move from intern to staff and at points you could see they were there not because the help was needed but because it was just free labour.
I got quite awkward as everyone coming through believed they were the first person doing this and a shoe-in for a job.
Short version: Yes. But don't take the mick.
No, it’s not. But maybe, another important way to ask this is “Is it ever okay to not be paid for our time and contributions?” Because my answer to that is a definite yes! This question shows that we sometimes (for different reasons) have choices on this - that it can be more complicated. Because I’m in a position to, I’m happy to forego payment for content as a way to support people and projects I believe in or to allow them to pay someone else more. But this is always a decision made with knowledge of a project and the people running it. And I never take this choice if there is some kind of income from advertising involved.
It depends. If there’s equipment or some other kind of equity, a kind of future whereby a creative can make an investment for them to gain from their endeavours at some point, why not. It’s a case by case decision. I’ve a 25 year old Santa Cruz powder board that’s still got the original sticker on the Ptex sitting in the office. I swapped a couple photographic usages for this rare snowboard, I liked the swap then and I still do. These days with a lot of big corp work and still shooting our sports shooting on a Red V Raptor, Komodo, Canon C300M3 and an R5C, cinema lenses etc it’s easy me to raise a solid eyebrow when the word ‘free’ enters the conversation! When your sat on your arse with f all work, you’re girlfriends left you and you don’t have enough money for a pint, wondering wtf your going to do with your life and your camera, as I’ve done more than once and someone offers an all in trip to Hawaii, as I’ve done, whose going to turn that down?! I’ve chosen ’free’ wisely, on most occasions! Only when I know it will benefit me in the long run. If it’s a good, kind hearted, cool project I I’m happy to contribute free too as sometimes a project needs to be supported that don’t make sense but deserves a place in our world. I will donate the fee if the project is heartfelt to charity if it’s a passion project too. The minute large corps try ‘free’ on though ye olde eyebrow goes up again sometimes backed up with a few choice words. If they are in the game to make profit, so should the creative, I think after 40 + years in this game it’s a simple equation, if you think it stinks, it probably does.
Only if brands give you their product for nothing.
In a competitive industry where people keep their cards quite close to their chest, and where renumeration can vary so much between jobs, it’s difficult to get a grasp on how much your contribution to the world is actually worth. It’s quite a vulnerable position being unsure of yourself, and as creativity is so personal that insecurity can run quite deep. I think that being led to believe it’s fair to work for free can make that even more confusing and daunting. It’s a massive generalisation to say this, but I think there is somewhat of a correlation between creative thinkers and self-doubters. Maybe that’s a contributing factor to why this is so widely accepted as the norm in creative industries.
The bigger issue really, as folks here have already pointed out, is the unlevel playing field it creates. You’ve got to be pretty lucky to have the support to offer your time for free for any sustained period, and what does that do to the variation of stories we see in creative media? – and in turn the inspiration that permeates back out into the world? There is a significant drive to present more inclusive content with stories featuring more diverse people, but if that enough? Surely it’s important for stories to be told BY everyone, not just ABOUT them. Creating a more even point of entry is only going to be a good thing all round. Simply making it easier to get started by always paying young people fairly and equally is one step towards cultivating an organically diverse culture that is more open to everyone.
There is of course value in having a way of getting started. People want to see what you can do. Whether that’s a showreel or portfolio, you need to have something to show for yourself when pitching for a job. You could go out and make a personal project with some friends, but not only do you need the time to make it, but you also need equipment, locations, cast etc. At least with taking on a free project for a brand there is the possibility for a bit of budget to hire a camera, maybe they have athletes you can film and can get you into a place to shoot it. In a lot of ways, it can be the perfect opportunity to walk away with a piece of work for your reel that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to make. I can probably track back every major ‘break’, or solid relationship I’ve built to some project I did for free early on. I also think that that hustle, and the skillset derived from making an idea work on a shoestring, is quite a formative part of developing as a creative professional. It teaches you to be resourceful.
But going back to the main point, is it fair that the point of entry requires some degree of privilege to entertain? It’s not exactly an issue confined to the creative and outdoor industries. University fees are frickin’ nuts these days!
I’d love to hear anyone’s ideas for how to change that status quo. I guess Matt, your fund with Db is a great example of offering a way in that anyone with a good idea has a chance at. But it’s a narrow field, how we develop a systemic change that allows equal access to creative careers and the outdoors in a meaningful way is a big question.
I think if a brand or agency is going to ask for free labour from young people, they should consider what they can do for that person after that project is finished and deliver on it. I don’t mean hanging a carrot of false promises, but actually have a pathway laid out for promising talent to grow into. Whether that is a paid internship scheme, working on their next campaign or simply taking an active role in helping that person build a meaningful network.
I think it’s ok for projects from time to time to get started before there is sufficient budget to pay those involved. It can be very challenging to get ideas funded before there is something to show. But relying on people to work for free as part of a business model or campaign strategy is just exploitative and is only going to perpetuate disparity and weaken the industry as a whole moving forward.
I think there are some exemptions - the main one being amount of money available.
Most charities literally couldn't exist without free support, as they legally have to be directed by trustees who in turn (mostly) cannot legally be paid! But they exist to make the world a better place without financial profit. David Spurdens said this well with "If they are in the game to make profit, so should the creative".
Another seems to be around on amount of work done where it's generally impractical or not done to pay for quick initial chats or interviews. Then again some like lawyers can be paid from the go so perhaps it doesn't have to be that way.
Sitting a bit in both camps is... podcasts?! Podcasts aren't inherently that different to speaking at an event but it sounds like in the majority guests don't get paid. Would be interesting if you'd mentioned the looking sideways stance on remuneration if discussing event speaker fees. Most don't make much if any money, it's difficult to monetise than physical events so would it be possible to do so I most cases? But shorter planning to be a guest than present and generally reduced travel requirements make it feel less problematic
Late to the party here, so I’ll ask a related question I’ve been pondering - is the Substack model for real / viable, or effectively just a pyramid scheme?
This thread is brilliant and thought I'd share my experience of taking advantage of low-paid/free work. As a freelancer of 7 years, I started by filming weddings/theatre shows/cheesy local business videos; there was absolutely no way I thought I’d ever work within skateboarding, although it’s what I’ve lived & breathed since I was 11 years old (now 30). Residing in sunny Blackpool, ‘skateboard jobs’ are, as you can imagine, pretty non-existent.
Up until I took a role at a skatepark in Feb 2020, I’d only ever been paid in hoodies, caps, bearings or stickers for filming anything skateboarding related, not that it was/has ever been about the money, and I was always grateful (just trying to paint a picture). That role at the park was extremely low pay for what I was doing and for where I was at in my career, but at least my expenses were covered, and the role was mostly within my field of interest. I took it as an opportunity to network and meet the right people, which is precisely what happened. There were opportunities from the get-go, some paid, some for free, but it gave me the platform to showcase what I could do as a filmmaker/“content creator”(yuck). Two & a half years later, I’m full-time at Skateboard GB and get to work with many reputable skateboarding brands on a freelance basis. Most importantly, I get to work with incredible skateboarders. I’m so grateful to that skatepark for that opportunity, despite the starting pay (which they did increase over time, legends) because as I say, it was never about the money… my life/work life has now totally changed.
Without taking that low-paid gig at age 28, I would still be filming work I’m not passionate about and paying my bills in bearings.
Usually my response when people ask me to work for good exposure : « I’m sorry, I don’t have time to work for free to help you make money right now… »
When I was out of uni, I wrote plenty of stuff for boardsport magazines and websites and also did a double page piece for The Guardian.
The Guardian was the only one that paid but I didn't hold it against the others because most of them were completely enslaved to the brands giving them peanuts which they couldn't share with monkeys like me without starving themselves. I basically ran out of money in between winter seasons but more importantly ran out of stoke working in a bar in the night and writing in the day.
15 years on and the corporate beast is on my back and there's no way I could keep the family afloat by going back into that world. Equally, if I had the time again, I would have loved to have a mentor who could have helped me prolong that period to see if it would have worked.
I saw it as a rite of passage rather than exploitation to be honest and I think it was a lack of experience that made me quit. I was young enough to survive the lack of money but didn't have a well trodden path that made me realise it might all work out in the end.