When to say No: The day I turned down working with a popular brand
I always thought that if I got to a point in my career when I had to turn down working with a recognisable brand that I would be in a very fortunate position; that the only case in which I would do so would be because I was so busy with even better projects that I just had to turn the opportunity down (yes, I know, dream on). But I have realised that there are more and more opportunities that I have to say no to, as hard as they may be. Now, I am not one to name call, nor make any accusations publicly – I am a great believer in sorting things out behind closed doors; being respectful of clients, even in disagreement. The reason I write this post is not one of a personal angst but one of an exposure to how creative people are treated all too often. If creatives do not start to speak out and support one another then nothing will change. I write this as a plea to creatives not to sell yourselves short, and also to give an insight to many art directors and businesses what other creative businesses are up against on a daily basis. Thankfully most clients I work with are brilliant and we have a mutual respect for one another's roles, but there are the (unfortunately not so rare) occasions where there is little respect or consideration for how creatives work.
About a year ago a popular brand (no names mentioned!) got in touch with me and asked to use my work on their advertising; their website, bus shelters, t-shirts, and a whole range of advertising collateral. I gave them a quote for the pitch work along with a quote for if the work were to be used for advertisement purposes. The art director involved told me it was going ahead and I started to get a little excited, not only for the work, but because my illustrations would be the face of a brand I loved. This would be good for my career, I thought.
After six months or so, I had a call from the managing director of the company asking why he was getting charged extra to USE some of the pitch work when it had already been created. This can cause some confusion for people who are not used to commissioning illustration, but as the art director involved understood this process, and as they had seen my quotation and terms before I started the pitch work, I didn't think it would need more explanation. It is standard practice for illustrators (or should be) to quote for a license to use their work so that it cannot be exploited. Imagine if Coca Cola wanted to use one of my illustrations for their new advertising campaign, common sense would tell you that I would need to be paid considerably more than if my next door neighbour asked me for the same artwork to hang on her living room wall. The size of the client needs to be taken into account and also what it is going on and for how long. The Association of Illustrators have been a great resource in working out pricing fairly.
Unfortunately, no amount of polite explanation would appease the managing director of this company. He instead told me how great this opportunity would be for the exposure to my work, therefore why should I charge him more? I was open to negotiating prices with him, but he did not want to negotiate, he simply wanted the extra advertising at no extra cost to his company. To quote him he said "no offence but I could just take a photo on my phone for free." And I told him to do so and see how successful the campaign went. I politely informed him that he would be making a lot more sales through using my work than if he were to use a photo he had taken on his iPhone, and therefore I expected to be paid fairly.
Now, most people who know me will hopefully back me up that I am far from an unreasonable person, I normally wouldn't say boo to a goose, and I am happy to accommodate clients where I can, but the way I was being spoken to made me a little cross. I wasn't even charging him what I should be charging – I had already knocked my prices down for him in the hope of getting the job, and for a sizeable company it was a tiny amount to pay. After all, this is how I make a living, and although most people think that illustrators are sat drawing pretty pictures all day, the hours we spend dealing with clients, making new contacts, going to meetings, managing accounts, marketing ourselves, let alone the hours it takes to think about our work before we've even set pencil to paper, make it bloody hard work. And then there's the expense we have to pay on software updates and equipment, travel expenses and phone bills... The list goes on. I have children to feed and a mortgage to pay, do I not deserve to make a living too?
I could have easily said "okay", as I probably would have done a few years before, as I naively gave my work to anyone who promised to get me exposure - with little reward. But I was at a point in my career where I knew that if I wanted to be truly respected for what I did I had to charge fairly and not continually offer discounts. If I genuinely believe my work is worth more than a snapshot, or a stock illustration (which of course I do!) then I need to charge accordingly. So, I said thank you for the offer of working with them but no thanks, I would have loved to - genuinely (though now I was having my doubts!). I see so many talented artists give their work away for peanuts and if they continue to do so people will never think they have to pay a fair price for it. The following Monday I had somewhat of a grovelling email saying he would still like to use my work.
Another few months went by and I dropped them an email to see how their project was going and what their plan was on using my work. The art director got back in touch to say that the MD had decided to 'support other artists' instead. I wonder if those artists are truly getting 'supported' (aka paid!). It saddens me that artists still fall for the promise of free advertising. Unfortunately the ones who offer it are those that cut too many corners. If they're not prepared to pay for good advertising what else aren't they prepared to pay for? I'm not sure I want my work associated with companies that do not value quality.
Another few weeks went by and I had another phone call from someone else who worked at the company saying that they were now setting up an online shop to sell products that advertised their brand. She asked me if she could use one of my existing designs on bags and tea towels but that they couldn't give me any money for it. "Okay," I said "then what percentage will I get on sales?" "Nothing." She said. I actually laughed because I thought she was joking (she wasn't).
I politely told her I was at a stage in my career where I didn't appreciate free advertising and she told me how lucky I must be to have reached that stage in my career. Actually, this isn't about reaching a point where I don't need exposure, or thinking that I have 'made it'. I have much more I want to do in my career but I do not think that free advertising will get me there - at least not without collaboration or mutual respect. She quoted Bet Midler to me: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life", and she said it was nice I'd found something I loved doing for a career (how does she know I love it, because it's ART?!) and that she had had to work very hard all her life instead. I have no doubt her comments were not meant to come across as disrespectful - I'm sure she was appreciating that doing something you love is a good thing and had little understanding of where I was coming from, but that doesn't mean I don't work hard. Around 50% of my time is doing actual design and illustration work, 50% is a very hard slog. It's more than worth it for me to do something I am passionate about, but we need to be real about just how hard creative people work in order to have a successful career doing what they love.
So, if you're reading this as a creative I would urge you to charge your work fairly - this is still a learning curve for me too - if we don't, we will continue to have people thinking it's okay not to pay us a fair wage. This doesn't mean I won't ever do free work - I donate my work for causes that are important to me - but this is on my terms and never, ever, for highly successful companies who can afford to pay me fairly.
What do you think? Do you think I was wise to say no despite the publicity? Are you a creative who has done work for free or reduced rates? Did it pay off?
I'd love to know your thoughts!