I wanted to write this article so that whenever someone asks me or the team to do something for free I have a clear explanation on why we’ll probably say no. Nothing sums up my thoughts more clearly than this clip from Zulu Alpha Kilo. The creative agency behind this clip that 100% deserve a medal (or a beer) for their work on this clip.
What’s spec work, and why do you say no to it?
Spec (short for speculative) work is when a business asks someone like us to do work for free. It’s typically under the promise that if we do this specific project for free that there’s heaps more paid work ahead.
In my experiences, that never happens in reality. Without a true project scope with consequences (e.g. if you the client want to do 1,000 revision rounds you need to pay after the first 3) spec work often turns into a time suck that leads underdogs (like us) astray – chasing down rabbit holes that are guaranteed to lead nowhere.
Have you ever walked into Maccas and said to the manager “look, it might be a great burger, but i’m not sure if it’s the right fit, so if you do the first burger pro-bono, and it’s good, i’ll promise to give you my burger business for the next year?” I’m going to guess not, because that’s a really a weird thing to ask at Maccas, let alone anywhere else. So then why is it okay to ask a creative to do the same thing? Would you ask a mechanic to work for free? Or a doctor? A Vet? They’re all just giving away their time, surely they can do a sneaky freebie, right?
Learning new skills cost time
I like many other creatives, have spent literally tens of thousands of hours learning and refining my skills to deliver a great product to you, my most valued and beloved client. Picasso’s first works were junk, and so were mine. But in defiance of the voice in the back of our heads telling us to give up, we, like millions of other artists and creatives persisted in honing our crafts. Then, after many thankless nights, projects gone wrong, tears shed – eureka! Finally something we can be proud of starts to take shape. After years and years of hard effort, we’re at a point where all of those trials and tribulations start to mean something. Now, our work has value – value that people would pay for.
It’s not just about the cost of time, either.
Just like any other business, we have hard costs. Those lenses that help us articulate our shared creative vision cost thousands of dollars. The cinema camera? Tens of thousands. Plus there’s lighting, sound equipment, grip gear, laptops, macbooks, screens, software, taxes, insurance, book-keepers, accountants, assistants, travel costs plus many, many more factors that come straight out of our pockets when we’re not charging you a cent to do what we do best. We make the process look easy and effortless because that’s what you pay us to do, not because it is in reality. What we do is hard yakka, but we do it because we love what we do.
“..if you’re a business offering a product or service to another business, you should be getting paid.”
So with all this in mind, why do other creatives still do work for free? Well the misnomer is that to get yourself out there or to show that your work is better then other competing agencies, you need to do some work for free to win the people over, right?
Let’s preface this all and say that while we think creatives should never work free, there are definitely some situations where doing some work for free in the form of things like TFP (trade for portfolio with models and other creators and artists) are great! It can not only be beneficial to showing what you and other aligned creatives can achieve but can help you continue to refine and grow your skills. The golden rule to apply in order determine if you should charge or not is simple – if you’re a business offering a product or service to another business, you should be getting paid.
What about discounts?
Leonardo Da Vinci didn’t do the Mona Lisa for peanuts because there was a street artist who said they could do it for less, and the same applies here. We handpick the best tools and people, period. And by being at the forefront of innovative content creation, we’re often able to do more for less, but even we have our limits on what’s possible. Simply put – if you’ve found someone who does it for far cheaper – there’s probably a reason why, and it usually comes at the cost of quality.
At the end of the day, I will always want to work with clients who value and respect what I bring to the table and who I in turn respect and value what they do in kind. That’s also not to say we won’t be accommodating – I’m a keen deal-maker, and we’re happy to make a project work in your budget. But price-matching, discounts for the sake of discounts or worse still, working for free? Hard pass, sorry mate.