Let’s talk about free work
Clients are changing the ways they try to make creatives work for free.
We’ve all done it. Desperate, naive, or insecure — we’ve all worked for free. On occasion it’s a charitable endeavour; a positive experience. Others it’s a mistake. But at some point in our careers, all of us have waived our fees for some reason.
It’s almost a rite of passage. Take on free work and come out the other side with greater respect for one’s own worth. But, with the gig economy continuing to make a mockery of professional practice, the demand for free or low-budget work is becoming overwhelming. With so many young artists entering the industry, desperate for work and experience, learning how to say no has never been more important. In a job market that has many clambering to meet unrealistic expectations, platforms like Fiverr, Reedsy, Upwork, et al. are keen to exploit that desperation to cater to their cheap clients.
As such, many experienced creatives — who lived through the age of “exposure” — have used the reach social media grants to better prepare young artists for the challenges of the gig economy. But it’s not easy to keep up with the myriad techniques people instigate in order to exploit creative professionals.
I’m not coming from a tangential position. I’ve been there. As a student, I worked for an underfunded Cambridge-based charity pro bono. I believed in them and what they do, and I’m glad I did. But I also volunteered for my university’s students’ union. As well as a useless certificate, I got a number of referrals. Unfortunately, the SU had told all of them I worked for free. Later, I worked for a friend on spec. When the time came to collect, they went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the money they owed me.
If you look at experienced creatives in desperate awe. Don’t — we, too, have been unspeakably stupid.
Nor does it end as you get older. Almost ten years into my career, I still field weekly emails asking me to work for free.
Despite a pandemic that has driven everyone to creative media, we are still seen by many as hobbyists. And as clients have evolved to better manipulate us into unhealthy working relationships, so too must we step up our game. We have to be more aware of the ways in which people are trying to devalue us, warier of the platforms that appear too good to be true, and more aggressive in the exploration of our own worth.
It is no accident that cheap clients often target younger creatives. In fact, many freelance job postings now ask for recent graduates or students specifically. There is a perception that less experienced professionals possess less worth and thus should cost less. In reality, a lower skill-level that leads to young artists taking few commissions and taking more time over each means that, on a project-by-project basis, younger creatives should really be more expensive. But when we’re fresh out of university or starting our careers, it’s hard to recognise. It takes time to believe you’re worthy of the title “professional.” But that leaves us open to manipulation of our worth.
Like many young creatives, designer and illustrator Laura Hurst felt she didn’t have “the confidence [or] the experience to decline [free] work.” She notes that clients were often difficult; requiring “a lot of managing.” She goes on to report that cheap clients often left messages that “felt quite manipulative” — that the language used “changed in order to try and get me to shift on the costs.”
The goalposts of what constitutes entry-level work have shifted in the last ten years. Junior positions are now inaccessible to junior creatives. Many young artists are turning to freelance work to demonstrate their experience — even if that work is unpaid — placing them in the firing line of the same clients Laura describes.
As creatives have sought to build communities of their own, away from exploitative platforms and bidding sites like Fiverr, clients have become increasingly privy to our worries about the industry and our concerns about our positions within it. This is especially pertinent as we see junior artists struggle for security in the current economy. So much of this struggle is now public, whether on social media or in attempts to solicit advice on platforms like The Dots. But in seeing how our concerns are evolving beyond the concept of “exposure,” clients are beginning to modulate their language to better tap into these insecurities.
Much as it’s been important to drive “exposure” as a currency out of artistic industries, so too is it important we keep note of the new ways with which clients try to devalue us. That way we can better guard against them. That’s what I want to do here — highlight some of the ways I’ve seen in which clients are evolving. In particular, I want to highlight and categorise the language they are employing to game an increasingly savvy marketplace.
This is the oldest technique still in use. We’ll look at how clients try to undersell themselves later. But the language they utilise in presenting their briefs as an opportunity is generally the opposite. Clients will present the chance to work with them as a chance to do something exciting or novel; to be part of a growing enterprise. The framing is important, however, because contexts are rapidly changing. It’s not simply an exciting opportunity — a fact that is easy to debunk. Rather, briefs are presented as opportunities to make up for your own perceived deficiencies.
Clients are well aware that junior roles have unrealistic experience requirements. So, they advertise their unpaid jobs as the solution. Often they will class their brief as something that will “look good in a portfolio or on a CV”, or even as a chance to upskill.
When you’re dealing with constant rejection from inaccessible junior jobs, it’s easy to view a chance to increase your experience as a lucky break. But the work that results from these kinds of relationships is often far below what the creative is really capable of. Not part of a new or exciting venture, rather than an attempt to find cheap labour.
A few years ago, Fiverr dropped a disastrous campaign that promoted unhealthy working practices. The crux of the message was that creative professionals could only be defined by an unhealthy relationship with their work. It was a celebration of the worst aspects of the gig economy and, like everything Fiverr produces, was dismissed by professional practice. In a similar kind of discourse, clients often challenge creatives to devalue themselves — thus saving clients the trouble. “Are you up to it?” they might ask, suggesting you could prove something by taking on a job for free. And much as Fiverr portrays actual professionals as pompous and pointless, clients have started challenging artists to shed that image by buying into the low-budget world of the gig economy.
Writer, Andrea Siegel notes that many young creatives “do not think they’re good enough.” They feel they “need more and more references to prove themselves.” In a broken job market, it’s true. Stuck in a liminal space between education and professional assurance, it’s easy to believe you do have something to prove — if only to yourself.
As with so many cheap or free jobs, they often go wrong. The relationship breaks down or the creatives endure inconsistent messaging that leads to sub-par work. The insidious aspect being, given how the relationship started, it’s so much easier to blame yourself. With so much left to learn, it’s natural to think your lack of skill and experience are the cause and, as a result, take on more of the same jobs to try and prove you’re capable of building relationships with clients.
The appropriation of the word “collaboration” is especially upsetting in this context. It’s true that professional artistic relationships are, at their best, collaborative. That does not, however, make creative-client interactions collaborations.
In an artistic context, collaboration is the trading of services and ideas between creatives. It’s not a payment-in-kind transaction; said skills aren’t a currency. Rather, it’s a case of working together towards a common result.
A designer might ask an illustrator to collaborate on a personal book cover to fill gaps in their own skillset. A fine artist might request help from a photographer to better present their work online, which in turn can be displayed in the photographer’s portfolio. The projects are generally small and fun. If anyone profits, it’s everyone involved as a result of the finished product.
When clients use the term, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. In communities in which sincere collaboration requests are frequent, clients try to ingratiate themselves with creatively-starved artists. There’s no exchange, no common benefit. It is simply a creative brief hidden within contextually inappropriate language.
Collaborating on a magazine does not equate to developing the whole publication for free. Nor does it mean developing someone’s brand for them. Yet these massive jobs are just some that have been recently flouted in artistic communities under the misbegotten moniker of collaboration. What used to be a refreshing concept in the industry is now something we have to be wary of.
The Cry for Help
This technique has been especially common during the pandemic. Despite continuing efforts to devalue creatives, we’ve shared an awful lot of goodwill with each other. To take advantage of that, clients play the victim. By taking on their project, they suggest, you’ll be doing good in a difficult time. Or, worse, you’ll be doing them a favour. The implication being you can expect one in return at some intangible point in the future. I don’t doubt this will extend beyond the pandemic, but clients have currently found an easy context to try and incite sympathy given that it’s upsetting everybody.
The example above demonstrates the breadth of some of these supposed cries for help. It downplays the size of a large project, tries to sweet-talk creatives (badly; “creative soul” — bleurgh), and then suggests the possibility of payment in the future. It reads less as a job offer and more as a flimsy IOU. Though not necessarily deliberate, the type of business is important too. We all love bakeries. We’ve all grown fat on our own banana bread in the last year. Consider if an investment banker tried to use the same language.
Moreover, we are supposed to take on faith that a “fashion buyer” who has failed to budget for one of the most fundamental aspects of their business can successfully run a bakery.
A lot of red flags.
Despite the complimentary language, they make it clear this is a task for “people who would treat it as a portfolio building task [or an opportunity to gain] some experience.” It’s worth mentioning here that clients have no idea what the purpose of a portfolio is. None. They have no concept of how to add value to a portfolio. But in clarifying who this is targeted at, they make it clear they
- are aware of junior designers’ concerns in the current marketplace
- have no intention of paying for what they regard as a career-building exercise.
This brings us to another important point. If you take a job on spec. — i.e. on speculation of payment — you’re working for free. There are no guarantees, no contracts, just the flimsy promises of someone who will likely change their mind if they ever intended to pay you in the first place. Don’t do it. You’ll have a horrible time and you’ll never be paid.
We considered how clients might oversell themselves under the pretence that working with them is an exciting opportunity. But many clients also try and undersell — or at least give the impression of underselling — in order to leech value from creatives.
In my current sphere of practice, which is book design, there are countless requests for reader magnets. These are smaller products — generally rushed short stories — that authors give away for free to entice customers into their wider catalogue. Because the book, if you really want to call it that, is short or only in use for a limited time, authors don’t want to pay. The parameters of the work haven’t changed. It’s still a book cover, it still needs to fit the market, and still needs to be professional. It takes the same amount of time and expertise as a cover for a 400-page novel. But because it’s not going to actively make them money, and they thus don’t ascribe value to it, clients decide that the professional services they require also have no value.
As such, a lot of clients will frame themselves as new to business or call themselves a start-up. While we often equate the term “start-up” to hip, bustling tech companies, in truth a start-up is simply a self-funded business. None of which entitles clients to free or cheap work. But much as these clients decide that young, inexperienced creatives lack any value and are thus easy targets, they also, somehow, reason that being young or small or inexperienced as a client should dictate how creatives price their work.
Cheap clients and the briefs they advertise are an ethical minefield and there’s no one way to deal with it. Nor am I going to offer advice because how you address these kinds of jobs is highly individual and, frankly, we all have to learn how to say no in a way with which we’re comfortable. However, whether you challenge these clients, have a calm discussion about their budgets, or outright reject them — even if you ignore them — you’re not wrong. No matter how they may react.
But it also highlights what this is all about. Money.
It’s not easy to talk about. There are people who are otherwise experienced in their field who still struggle to have conversations about money and salary. But as a creative, it’s something you have to get good at quickly. Because once you can talk about money; demanding it, negotiating around it, you can cement your worth. When you do that, you stop thinking you have to take on free work.
Because you can take on free work if you want. Hopefully in an ethical sphere — in a way that doesn’t devalue you or your peers. Hopefully to do good, rather than just help out a family member who should know better or horrible clients who don’t value other people. But you don’t have to. There is no reasonable context in which you have to take on free work.
As junior creatives in the 2020s, you are some of the most informed and savvy professionals in the industry. The broken job market we’re currently stuck with and the clients it encourages don’t want you to recognise that. They want to retain all the power. But you owe it to yourself, as professionals — because that’s what you are — to find your value.
If you’re worried about your portfolio or lack of experience. If that’s making you think you have to take on free work to bolster your applications or bring in new clients, you don’t. And once you’re aware of your value, you’ll realise that.
If you want to improve your portfolio, self-initiate. Good, competent employers aren’t interested in what you created when you had a cheap client on your case. They want to know what you’re capable of, what you can bring to their professional practice. Briefs you build yourself, that you enjoy, and in which you are creatively unbound are going to be infinitely more valuable than a logo you made for a local hairdresser who doesn’t want to pay you.