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Career Myths You have to understand your self-worth

When you first start out in the creative industries, there is a lot of received wisdom. "This is how it works." "That’s just the way it is." But how true are these truisms? We partnered up with Lecture in Progress to look at six myths you often hear when it comes to creative careers and find out how true, if at all, they really are.

Illustrations by Camilo Huinca.

Myth 2: You should never work for free (when starting out)

Who doesn’t love getting something for free? Free samples, free trials, free toys in your cereal. It’s nice knowing that you’re receiving something without having to hand over any extra cash. But it doesn’t take too long before that feeling is replaced with immediate suspicion: where’s the catch?

For creatives in particular, the F-word has become synonymous with exploitation: false promises of fame and exposure. Getting something for free? Great. Doing something for free? No thanks.

The debate has been won

“The creative industries – film, design, media, fashion – are some of the worst users and abusers of unpaid interns,” says New Zealand filmmaker Leo David Hyde. “Companies exploit the fact that so many people are looking for career opportunities and play us off against each other in a race to the bottom on payment and working conditions.”

In 2015, Leo drew attention to this issue while he was interning, unpaid, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. He made headlines after it was revealed he was living in a lakeside tent as he couldn’t afford the rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

The tent was a stunt to raise awareness about unpaid internships. Together with his partner Nathalie Berger, he released a documentary about the experience. “We emailed hundreds of employers of unpaid interns, asking them to take part: none would go on the record. It’s rare to hear an employer speak publicly about how great unpaid internships are today. This shows the debate has been won: not paying young people for their work is a moral (and often legal) failure and is pretty much indefensible.”

Fuck you, pay me

We’re not just talking about internships here. There really are very few arguments out there to suggest that doing unpaid work of any kind is ever a good idea. While the world might finally be waking up to this, we know that creative skills are valuable, in high demand and should be paid for. The World Economic Forum also reckons that creativity will be the third most important skill for future jobs by 2020.

Earlier this year, a report from the United Nations also confirmed that the creative industries are the lifeblood of the creative economy. (The irony of Leo’s campaign might have been lost on them.)

In 2011, a mantra against unpaid work was born, when American design director Mike Monteiro took to the stage in San Francisco, to talk about being paid as a freelancer. Together with his audience, he chanted the Goodfellas-originated phrase: “Fuck you, pay me”. At a time when we’re still having to reaffirm that a creative career is more than just a “hobby”, it’s not hard to understand why the phrase resonated so widely in creative circles. At this point, any sort of unpaid work is seen as unacceptable.

Sometimes it’s better to work for free, and build a portfolio with a team, where you get to be the creative director, and lead the photo shoot

Halima Begum

And yet, in the UK alone, in 2017 it was estimated that free work was costing freelancers an average of £5,394 a year; 90% of arts internships still remain unpaid; and in a 2018 survey, a massive 54% of illustrators said they had worked for free, but wouldn’t again. You should never work for no money, but somehow, it seems like we still are.

And the question of working for free isn’t just a concern for those starting out; it continues to plague creatives throughout their careers . It’s the debate that just won’t die. One of the reasons creatives are still doing it, is because clients continue to ask them to.

Take Canadian advertising agency, Zulu Alpha Kilo who, in 2011, made headlines after deciding to stop doing spec work (aka free pitches). “When you work for free, you devalue yourself and your creative product,” affirmed its founder, Zak Mroueh. Their viral #saynotospec campaign followed three years later.

Collaboration-gate

Only now, clients are careful to package the request somewhat differently. Hong Kong-based illustrator Charlene Man experienced this when a well-known fashion magazine pitched her a potential project as a collaboration. “It was totally a commission,” says Charlene, “I would have had to do exactly what they wanted.” So with no fee and no creative freedom available, she turned it down.

If there’s any word that deserves to be printed on a giant red flag, it’s “collaboration,” because by today’s standards, this is almost always shorthand for “there’s no budget.”

But the other reason creatives are still taking on unpaid work is because they want to. You might be approached to work on a cause you believe in, and want to support. Your brother’s band might need a new logo, or your mate’s new website might need some editing. In fact, American designer Paula Scher told AIGA Eye on Design that the things she did for free over the years were “very significant parts” of her body of work. But Paula insists, you have to set boundaries.

“You’re not going to collaborate. You’re going to do the job the way you think the job is gonna be done – and they’re gonna use it,” she added. “That’s a power thing. That’s not a victim thing.” Doing pro bono work is a personal decision – it doesn’t mean you’ve been duped, or that you don’t value your skills or time. She knows this first hand: her now renowned hand-painted maps came about from an unpaid project for AIGA back in 1988.

Calculating your self-worth

In fact, turning away certain projects might mean you miss out on a chance to learn something new. London-based illustrator Emma Block had never done live illustration before the opportunity to do so arose at an event, The Bloggers Market. While she didn’t feel like she could charge for the work, she did request an exchange in the form of a Tweet or Instagram post from each sitter. Was it worth it? “Definitely” she replies.

“It led to a lot of high-paid work. I met people who went on to hire me, reached a wider audience through social media and had professional photos taken of me on the day.” This worked because that ever-elusive promise of exposure and experience wasn’t just left to chance. Emma carefully orchestrated it beforehand.

“You have to understand your self-worth and where you are as a professional,” agrees fashion photographer Halima Begum. For her, when you’re starting out, “sometimes it’s better to work for free, and build a portfolio with a team, where you get to be the creative director, and lead the photo shoot.” Halima did this herself. It gave her free creative rein and real-life experience on a shoot – something a degree can’t always prepare you for.

Your terms and conditions

What’s important to know is, if you want to take on unpaid work, you can. Just make sure you’re getting something in return.

If working for free puts you at a disadvantage, it’s not a good idea. If it means you can’t sustain a decent quality of life, forget about it. But if an opportunity comes up to support a cause you believe in, or that will truly benefit your portfolio – one that you can afford to take on, but can’t afford to miss – do it.

The word “free” often comes with an asterisk at the end of it, pointing to the small print, the T&Cs. It’s common practice for brands and companies to protect themselves this way. So if you’re going to do work for free, ask yourself: What are your terms and conditions? And if you aren’t invoicing for cash, what are you invoicing for? Don’t just hope to get something in return – make sure you do.

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