Should creative professionals work for free?

Empty wallet

Last week, I asked the Linkedin hivemind – should creatives work for free? Within hours, I was subjected to a flurry of comments from “I’m a huge advocate of working for free” all the way through to “Should anyone work for free?

The reason I asked this question specifically of creative professionals is not only because I am one, but also because it is so often told that designers, writers, illustrators etc. are asked to work in exchange for something other than money… most frequently: “exposure”.

The trope of creatives working for free has spread so far and wide that there’s an entire Subreddit dedicated to shaming people who ask for this exact thing: /r/forexposure.

Many people commented on the status to express that this is an age-old discussion we should bury once and for all, yet a quick Google search showed that this topic is as hotly debated as ever. With everybody’s favourite human-muppet hybrid, Gary Vee, spouting the benefits of “working for free” alongside various other business influencers.

So, what is the consensus? Here’s what Linkedin had to say:

Freelance graphic designer Sarah Jamieson offers her services free-of-charge to a local charity, who she is super proud to work for. However, other than in these charitable instances, Sarah maintains she’d never work for free.

Fellow North East content marketing writer Fay Nyberg agrees, stating that she does “volunteer work and [I] find it very rewarding to apply my skills to help causes I believe in.”

In this case, I totally agree. Whatever skills we have, be them creative or otherwise, volunteering for charities is an incredibly fulfilling way to give back and, unless specifically stated, I wouldn’t expect payment for supporting a small local charity with the odd copy or website job.

Working for free for other businesses

However, when it comes to working for free for other business, that’s where things get a little heated.

James Barker, Digital Media Lecturer at Stockton Riverside College, stands staunchly against the notion of working for free: “This is a topic which has gone around in circles for years. No-one, in any profession, should be expected to work for free.” James recognises that some freelancers will work pro bono at the start in order to grow their business, but there must be a cut-off point.

Lauren Mcwilliams of For You Photography has first-hand experience working for free when she first started in business, she admits that it wasn’t easy to gauge what to charge and when: “I did work for free when I first started off, this was to build my portfolio. However, now I think if I offered my services free I would be undervaluing myself.”

Freelance brand strategist Madison Hanna explores the idea that working for free can help us gain experience in new areas of business: If you’re stretching your creative muscles in a new way (that you haven’t been paid for before), I think it’s OK to work for free – with the caveat that it’s in exchange for a strong portfolio-building piece.”

Graphic designer Catherine Elmer agrees with Madison, having used free work to grow her portfolio but she recognises that this isn’t a permanent fixture: “As I am reasonably new to the business I have been doing jobs for free so I can get the opportunity to build my portfolio and reputation within the industry but I don’t plan on working tor free forever.”

Another new freelancer Manpreet Sandhu of Skyrocket Copy confirms that working for free should never be a longterm strategy: “I’d understand why a creative starting out might do some free work here and there (especially for charities/NFPs) but once you’ve established a good portfolio I think it’s important to always make sure you’re paid what you think your work is worth.”

Meanwhile, others see great benefit in working for free. David Winter of Winter Media added: I’m a huge advocate of free work for the opportunities it can bring, and the connections it can make in the early days… I’ve seen a lot of paid work stem from free work just a few weeks prior.”

However, David also recognises the downsides of free work, he adds: “I’m still cautious of businesses who would EXPECT people to work for them for free, and that’s where you review requests on an individual basis.”

So, what do I think?

Well, in my experience as a freelancer I’ve only worked for free twice – once in support of an amazing charitable women’s organisation and another for a close family member running their own business. In all other circumstances, I maintain that all creative professionals should be paid fairly and even generously for their work.

My biggest concern with the likes of Gary Vee and others promoting the benefits of working for free is that it encourages a cultural shift, one that affects all of us. For example, if one copywriter is known to work for free/very low rates, it sets a precedent across the industry. Business owners without creative experience will continue to devalue our work and see it simply as something you can get for nothing.

The creative industry has spent decades proving its worth and yet designers, writers, illustrators etc. are regularly expected to work for free or little-to-no money.

How do we get past this?

It’s never easy to explain to traditional businesses the value of creative skills. Many are lucky enough to have individuals placed in key roles, such as marketing and creative directors, who understand why what we do is important and the huge impact we can make.

However, in many cases, we’re still massively undervalued or even left out altogether. The first thing we can do is start standing up for our craft. Someone asks you to work for free? Explain to them why you don’t – ask them, would a plumber work for free? Would a lawyer? No. We all have bills to pay and creative professionals are no different.

If you’re new to your industry or a recent freelancer then have faith. Go for that first paying job and once you’ve nailed it, ask for a recommendation, a review and keep chugging along until the second comes along… and the third. If you’re good at what you do, referrals will be a very powerful sales tool and, in my experience, the most profitable by far.

“If you’re good at something never do it for free” – Heath Ledger.