The Ethics of Paying Creatives and Contributors: Five Things We Learned
Last week, I posted an Open Thread around the ethics of fairly paying creatives and contributors.
I was interested in hearing other peoples’ opinions and experiences - and the reaction amazed me tbh.
Click here to read through the entire thread (there are some brilliant views on there) and read on for my five takeaways from the entire conversation.
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1. Conventions have a lot to answer for
Hang around the marketing world for long enough and you realise that most of the stuff people do is because…that’s the way it’s always been done, or because they see other people doing it. Rather than, y’know, because it’s the right or sensible thing to do.
Why else would people on LinkedIn be writing their blatantly clout-chasing posts with that weird, gnomic line-spacing, as if it bestows gravitas on their mediocre platitudes? Why would old-school brands still be insisting that their agency waste cash on an expensive showroom that has zero relationship to the way media actually works in 2022? Why on earth have people started saying ‘the ask’ rather than ‘the request’? And so it goes….
The answer is simple: because they’re following the herd without stopping to ask themselves whether any of it makes sense. And it’s the same with this conversation. Time and again, contributors chipped in with the opinion about how wrong-headed the convention of offering ‘exposure’ or ‘networking opportunities’ in lieu of payment was, before concluding that there was nothing much we can do about it because ‘that’s just the way its always been’ (I’m paraphrasing, obviously).
Gently challenging this particular convention was kinda the point of the entire thread. Because, like outrageous shareholder premiums and excessive energy bills, this current status quo is by no means inevitable, as much as people who really should know better will try and persuade you otherwise.
The sooner we speak openly about issues like this, the sooner things will change.
2. Nostalgia is a powerful drug
One of the most surprising aspects of the thread to me was the number of people (OK, men) of a certain age and demographic who acknowledged that they’d fallen foul of this convention earlier in their career. But who were, now they’d achieved a modicum of success and financial security, almost nostalgic for the good old days, when everybody go shafted, and it was a great proving ground upon which to demonstrate how keen and/or talented you were.
Still others justified the fact they’d taken on work for free or low fees by saying they’d used it to test out new techniques or approaches, or that the product or free trip they’d received had made it all worthwhile.
All fair enough. And, as I’ll explore in the next point, I’ve been there myself. But the problem with this view is that it assumes everybody has a level of financial security that enables them to enter the game on these terms. When in reality - did I mention those energy bills? - only a vanishingly small percentage of the population enjoy this level of financial freedom.
The result is that certain industries tend to be dominated by one type of demographic and, subsequently, creative approach. And for me, where this becomes particularly egregious is when those same industries make a huge song-and-dance about how committed to diversity they are (and let’s face it, they’re all at it right now).
Personally, I do not see how you can be truly committed to diversity if you are not prepared to pay people fairly for their work, expertise and time. I didn’t see one argument in the thread that persuaded me otherwise. Indeed, I didn’t see anybody in the thread even prepared to have a go at tackling this argument.
Contributor Jon summed it up well:
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 is 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.
3. But it’s complicated …
I think that’s one thing we can all agree on, at least for individuals actually trying to make a living in this particular gig economy. Certainly, many contributors to the thread discussed how they’d made value judgements in certain situations based upon the stage of their career, or their relationship with the person or company in question.
Friend of the pod Jon Weaver put it well:
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.
The entire conversation also made me realise how unwittingly culpable I’ve been in propping up the status quo thanks to some of the decisions I’ve personally made over the years.
Take the work I do for the snowboard media. Now, I’ve been writing for the surf, skate and snow press for 25 years, so I can pretty justifiably call myself an expert on the value of labour in that market.
And the truth is, it’s the same now as it was 25 years ago: which of course means, comparatively speaking, it is actually way, way worse. (I was told recently what the editorial salary and budget is for a well-known UK surf title and I actually couldn’t believe my ears. It makes that role a paid hobby, rather than an actual career choice).
So if I was really putting my money where my mouth is, I’d be refusing to work with these titles on principle, right?
But the truth is, I do still work for these titles. Why? For the perhaps misguided reason that if contributors charged them the right fees, they wouldn’t be able to afford to operate, and an increasingly one-note media landscape would get even more moribund.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I’ve been subconsciously justifying this by saying ‘the culture’ is better for the existence of these mags. But again, if you look at it dispassionately, what this really mean is that, again, the same experienced/financially secure/established contributors end up turning up in the same titles over and over again. Yep. Guilty as charged.
Does that constitute a healthy scene? Or would a truly healthy scene be one where people were paid correctly, and hence gave more opportunities to a greater number of diverse voices? I think we all know the answer to that one.
It can be complicated for brands, too. After all, how does a start-up afford the type of content they want without striking quid pro quo deals with mates? Something I have again participated in?
I’ve also run marketing campaigns through my agency ACM at vastly reduced rates as a way of helping people I like get a campaign up and running (although, interestingly, absolutely every brand we did this with ended up being the biggest piss-takers of them all, and it usually ended badly. That old trope about the lowest payers taking up the most time and energy is, in my experience, completely the case. Which is one reason we don’t do it any more).
Like I say, it’s complicated…
4. On the other hand….
It really isn’t that complicated. Take the individual choice thing. It seems fairly obvious that most contributors and creatives are being forced into those scenarios (where they internally justify the lack of fee for different personal reasons, as above) because they have no other choice. I’m willing to bet that if a decent, liveable fee WAS on the table, almost everybody would take it.
As I said in response to one contributor who bemoaned that fact that I was making it all about money, and who felt that there were other equally valid reasons to justify doing a piece of work (I’m paraphrasing again), ‘surely, ideally, a good job would encompass both fair pay AND personal development’?
It’s the same with brands. Sure, there are occasions where brands truly can’t afford the thing they want. In which case, how about you focus your energies on whatever activity you CAN afford? After all, when you boil it down, that’s what creativity actually involves: transcending your limitations to create something of value.
In most cases, I’m increasingly convinced, the reasons most brands do this is because … they can. (After all, it doesn’t much research to go online and see what an event that is asking you to speak for free is charging for tickets or sponsorship packages, for example).
As I put it somewhere in the thread, if you saying you can’t afford it, you’ve either got a problem with your business plan or you’re being pretty disingenuous.
Contributor Jo T:
“…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. If they’re not paying their speakers what else are they cutting corners on for profit?”
Above all, what people crave is transparency. As thread contributor Soraya said:
“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”.
5. What about Looking Sideways?
I’m amazed that this was only brought up by one contributor, but the question was rightly asked: what about Looking Sideways? How do you approach this?
And it’s true that the entire exchange made me think long and hard about how I approach this question, both through the podcast, and through our agency All Conditions Media.
With ACM, it’s pretty simple. We benchmark salaries to make sure they’re at the right end of the market range, and pay our contributors the fair and going rate where we can. For example we’re hosting an event this September, and will be offering all our speakers a fee to participate.
With Looking Sideways, I work with contributors and guests. When it comes to contributors, I work with an editor, Fina, and pay her the rate she pitched me when we first began working together. Then I’ve been working with an intern for the last two years, who I’ve also paid. Anybody who writes an article for my Substack, I offer to pay.
Owen Tozer, my main contributor, is one of those ‘It’s complicated’ cases. Because we’re best mates, we’re able to have completely transparent chats about this stuff and take it case by case.
The rule of thumb we’ve worked out is that if the job comes with cash (ie if it’s been sponsored, like the recent Db trip to Hossegor) he gets paid. Indeed, I’ve often agreed to work for free or at a vastly reduced rate if it means I can get Owen on the job (yet another example of me flexing my privilege, now I come to think about it). Projects such as Looking Sideways Vol. 1 we split 50/50.
When it comes to guests, I’ve thus far approached them as I would any other guest or interviewee working with a media outlet - I haven’t paid them. In the 25 years I’ve been working as a journalist, I’ve never once offered to pay an interviewee. Is this wrong? That’s a question I’ve been asking since I posted the entire thread tbh. Possibly, and the contributor who asked me the question certainly seemed to think so.
The conclusion I’ve drawn is that this is an example of me blindly following a convention, rather than kicking the tires, and asking myself if it’s a convention worth following. So from this point, when it comes to guests, I’ll follow the same principle as I do with Owen. If the episode is earning me money, I will offer them a fee and travel expenses for appearing. If it doesn’t (which is usually the entire podcast), I’ll explain the situation to them and give them the option of pulling out if they’re uncomfortable with that set-up.
Did you read the thread? Do you agree with my conclusions?