When To Say Yes To Working For Free

Designer, illustrator and art director Gordon Reid – aka Middle Boop – explains when it's ok to work for free, and when you should tell those brands and 'clients' to go to hell.

As a professional in the creative industry, there are all sorts of opportunities that could come your way – with varied timeframes, budgets and promises. Whether it’s creating an above-the-line ad campaign with a couple of years usage and a buyout, or banging out a 'Your TV License Is Overdue' letter template – which was certainly the pinnacle of my career – it’s often very tempting to try and take them all on. This is especially true in the current climate and no matter how experienced and established you are, you will always get stung at some point with a troublesome or non-paying client. Or a project that falls flat on its arse, leaving you out of pocket and not even with the ‘portfolio piece’ that was promised.

That’s unfortunately just the nature of the beast in our industry and I have found through my career, it’s really important to learn when to say no to offers – to suss out the genuinely solid projects from the ones that are just a waste of your time. Of course, I have learned this the hard way – but here’s my approach to separating the wheat from the chaff.

I’m certainly not against free work. In fact, I believe it’s imperative that you do free work, but it has to be for the right reasons – and on your terms (as much as you can). There’s no point taking on a piece of that won’t allow your own style or your own voice to shine through the work.

My rule of thumb for free work is to only go for it if there’s a well-thought-through brief behind the project which will allow you to create a piece that might potentially be award-winning or allow you to experiment and develop your style. You’ll enjoy the work and it will be a talking point for bigger projects that will pay.

Here's an example.

Playing Arts has a huge online presence and a great reputation. I've spoken to a number of artists who have worked with them who really felt the benefit of being featured in their decks of cards.

At the time – as I had just got out of a particularly long and un-website-worthy project – I needed something to get me back on track with creating exciting work. A project that I felt I'd done a good job on would create a buzz – and it certainly did. I think I got about 1,000 extra Behance followers because of that (If that means anything really).

When to say 'no'

If you're being asked to work for free on the basis that "you do this one for free and there will be lots more work down the line that might pay" – or to do it for "the exposure" then run a mile.

Don’t do any work for free for any bigger brands or agencies, unless you can quantify a defined benefit. In general, the big boys have the money to reimburse you for your time, and therefore should do.

The amount of projects where huge brands try to get away with not paying for creative time is disgusting. The big one recently was for Virgin Trains. The premise was, Virgin Trains wanted a new beer label for their Virgin branded beer and asked designers to send in their ideas and finished artwork for free.

Someone somewhere was then to choose their favourite and the winner would win the ‘great prize’ of two train tickets. There is something fundamentally wrong here. A brand as big as Virgin blatantly wasting aspiring creative time with something like this is really not on.

This is by no means an isolated case. I have been asked to create work for nothing more than exposure for some of the largest advertising agencies in the world, huge high-street chains and even one of London’s largest football teams. All of these clients have the money to pay properly for work.

These cases belittle our industry – and the more people that say yes to working for free, the more of them that will crop up. It’s a huge struggle for many people in the creative industries to make ends meet and unfortunately, offering exposure or ‘tickets’ really isn’t enough for good intelligent thought and strong application.

When to say 'yes'

So is it ever ok to say yes to working for free for big brands? Occasionally yes, as I did here for Coke.

Being a part of the creation of artwork someone like Coca Cola is always going to be beneficial. I would usually hit them with a good-sized estimate if it was a commercial job, with usage and a buyout included on top. But this piece was for the Coke 100 show and exhibition – so it was more about having a bit of fun and creating something that I knew would get a good amount of press, which is sometimes worth more than the fee.

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