Opinion

‘Tis the season to pay young creatives properly

Simon KearneyIn this guest post, Simon Kearney says agencies should stop taking advantage of young people trying to get a foothold in the business, and pay them what they are worth.

A famous Singapore chef – who shall remain nameless as he’s already got enough free publicity – told me once he got his friends to pay him to cook them dinner as he learnt his craft, because if people won’t pay you for your services they won’t take you seriously.

It is absolutely true and he’s got six restaurants today to prove it.

I know exactly what he means. At Click2View, when we have a tough discussion with clients early in the job about enforcing our strict payment terms, the end result is usually a greater amount of respect in the relationship going forward.

With Christmas approaching, this is the time of year when all those discussions come home to roost as you have to close the books and prepare, hopefully, to pay all our great people a well-deserved bonus. (Pay up clients! You know who you are.)

The creative and publishing industries are going through a hard time at the moment as we move to digital distribution. If we were a nation, we’d be like Japan, a massive global economy caught (until recently in Japan’s case) in a deflationary spiral. Our business models are in flux, real incomes across the board aren’t rising and haven’t, if we’re honest, for ages.

As a result we’ve seen many examples of people being asked to work for free lately. Think the pitch and ditch approach from clients, or the Betty TV example wherein a musician exposed a profitable production company for asking him to work gratis.

I’m not worried about us agencies, we can handle ourselves. The end result down the bottom though is a generation of kids whose start in this game will be stunted by the times and if they don’t learn to handle themselves, like my chef friend, we will damage our industry.

The shit always flows down.

Six months ago a young graphic designer we had hired came into our office to have a look at some promotional hand outs she had done for us. They were beautifully hand drawn and she beamed at the cards.

“It’s my first job, can I take one?” She asked. “Of course, take as many as you want,” I said. To my shame, I was a bit dismissive, then afterwards I recalled my first years as a newspaper journalist cutting out all my articles and pasting them into these enormous scrap books I knicked from the advertising department (thanks Rupert). I still have them in the store room at work.

This designer had just graduated from the art school near our office and we had seen her work in the final year show. I think we paid her S$150 for a day’s work on the job. Not much, but she’s straight out of school, so a reasonable amount in our market.

It was never a question that we wouldn’t pay her, but we’ve recently employed our first full time graphic designer, with a lot more experience, and she has told us that that the young girl was lucky to find a client like us. The norm, apparently is a host of jobs, for free, on the promise, of, one day, a paid gig. Well let me tell you, that day never comes if you give in too early. And you never negotiate from a stronger position when someone needs something and you can deliver, then and there.

As someone who profits from the creative work of others I want the best I can get to sell to my clients, and that has a value. It would feel like stealing getting someone to work for free and then selling it off at top dollar. Not only that, I don’t want to contribute to an industry mind-set that is engaged in constantly discounting to win work. If we in the creative industries devalue the components of work that go into our products we’re creating a race to the bottom which benefits nobody. It is deflationary.

When my business partner, Neal Moore, and I set up the company, we didn’t realise at the time but we each had a mission in mind. For me it was about monetising the skills of journalists – editors, reporters and photographers – my old work mates. For Neal it was about creating a career path for his soul mates; musicians and actors.

With newspapers withering I found it hard to believe that my former colleagues should be marginalised in whatever the workforce looked like afterwards. People who had interviewed prime ministers and dictators; braved war zones, violence, and hostile environments like those fashion industry cocktail parties; negotiated with the lowliest petty bureaucrat in a foreign country and parlayed with the most important CEO in a boardroom. Those, who all the time produced great copy, day after day, in an endlessly complex legal environment.

Neal, coming from a music, television and drama background, was independently thinking about the worthiness of artists, like musicians and actors when we set the company up. He had always been in my ear about how the working professionals in these industries (we’re not talking celebrities here) had just as much right to earn a decent wage, the sort of wage that allowed you to buy a house, get married, send your kids to school and provide for your retirement.

You can make a blockbuster movie anywhere in the world – as long as you have all the people whose names appear in increasing numbers after the final curtain.

In the current environment, it seems all of us in these creative industries, especially freelancers, have been dealt a pretty rough hand as we move to digital distribution. That’s why, in light of recent events, we decided to formalise our payment policy at click2view, and in the process we created a special mark that signifies that we will treat our freelancers and staff decently.

So our new payment policy simply sets out that we will not ask for, or accept, free work from our freelancers or interns. Where content is commissioned and produced by professionals for profit (no matter what stage they are in their career) it should be paid for.

The mark is the “Paid Thinker” mark. I’ve always liked the idea that I worked in a business where thinking, even if it means 15 minutes staring into space, is valuable. And all creatives like to think of themselves as free thinkers but that freeness of thinking is valuable so the mark represents a “paid” value proposition for creatives.

We can all call ourselves artists and writers these days if we have a blog or sound cloud account. That’s the beauty of the digital era, we are who we believe we are. But that should not detract from the value of the work done. If we at the business end of the industry don’t pay up as well, we’ll have a much harder time arguing our value propositions in the future – and that’s where the profits lie.

Simon Kearney is co-founder and managing director of Click2View

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