Is creativity just a commodity? (And why I don't sell tomatoes).
“You’re just a commodity,” he said to me. “We all are.” I didn’t expect to hear that from another creative professional, not least one who seemed extremely knowledgable and passionate in his field of work. But it got me thinking, perhaps we are. Perhaps creativity is just that - a means to an end. After all, we all want to earn a living out of our services, are we overcomplicating things by trying to make our roles anything more? Has our desire to create beautiful things become elitist? Have we lost the mentality of a bit of hard graft? In producing craft with usefulness? Or do we want big fees because we’ve worked on international advertising campaigns? Because we’ve won awards?
Perhaps it makes sense to view creative professionals as a simple transaction – a bit like selling a tomato. The tomato has a price and you exchange cash for a tomato. A designer perhaps has a ‘price tag’ or a ‘day rate’ or a 'fee' and you exchange cash for the work. A tomato has a fairly standard price across the board, depending on weight or size, and a designer has a standard rate depending on experience. A freelance designer with five year’s experience is just the same as the next freelance designer with the same amount of experience and so on. Creativity is a transaction; an exchange of a service for money. Job done. Go home. Put your feet up.
For me, the last couple of years has been a real eye opener. Switching from a design agency role to becoming a full time freelance illustrator has not come without challenges. Amongst them has been the challenge of working out what I stand for – what is my business about? Perhaps to everyone else I draw things in exchange for cash, but when you set out to draw things in exchange for cash you quickly realise that you have in fact opened a rather large can of worms (or tinned tomatoes, whichever you like best. They’ll both fill you up the same). How much are your drawings worth? How quickly can you do them? How unique is the work? How many alternative ideas can you come up with? Could you include design and art direction? How many amendments will I get? What if we use your work on an international advertising campaign? What if we want to own all the rights to your work? Suddenly the simple transaction just got a whole load more complicated. It turns out that selling drawings to people is not the same thing as selling tomatoes.
So, I started to think about my work processes in order to come up with the most effective way of making transactions. But, as I have been used to for the past twelve years, all clients are different to deal with: some have very specific briefs, others want to leave everything in your hands; some are happy at the first draft, others require multiple amendments. There are those that rarely contact me, and others that want a day to day synopsis of what I will be doing for them, despite it being 2pm on a Sunday afternoon (you think I’m joking). The same transaction or ‘end result’ for one client will take me ten times longer than one for another. On top of this, ideas pop into my head when I’m supposedly off duty - I find myself writing things down at two o'clock in the morning or making notes on the back of my son’s school letters. I sometimes have to read through pages of client's legal documents and contracts, and negotiate back and forth, despite my lack of law training. There is not just one transaction I am earning money for - not just one service. Unlike selling tomatoes, I can’t just base my sale on the freshness of the product or the size. I cannot base it on a specific mark up. This is not a simple transaction.
And the fact is that I’d like it to be. I’d like it to be as simple as possible wherever possible. As someone who comes from a working class background I have been brought up with a work ethic that is about hard graft. Not only hard graft but cheap labour. I have ultimate respect for the hard working professions that are so often overlooked, ultimately resulting in amazing skills and creativity being watered down to a commodity – real thinkers and inventors who add value, many not paid their true worth. And there’s the magic word – value. Do you want a reduced price or increased value? Because things that are commodities are all about the low prices, and those that are not are all about the high value - the value they add to the businesses they work with.
So, then. Is being a commodity a choice or something we’re made into? Is being a commodity necessarily negative? Because the fact is that I like tomatoes. I will exchange money for them. And whether or not you want to argue with me about whether they are actually a commodity, the fact is that they involve a simple transaction in order to own one. I’m happy to do so. It’s a good thing. But it doesn’t add monetary value to me in purchasing one. It may be an investment for my health if that's important to me, but it is not for my business. If, however, I owned a baked bean factory, it might be. I might be swayed by a tomato seller who grows all his own tomatoes organically, who is pleasant to deal with, who thinks a little creatively about how he grows them, who delivers on time. Suddenly he is no longer a commodity, he is an asset and he is set apart from all the other tomato sellers out there. If, however, all I’m bothered about are cheap tins of beans, I am likely to view him as a commodity and therefore I will opt for the lowest price possible in order to churn out as many beans as I can to sell in a bargain supermarket store. But I won’t be making it into Harrods anytime soon, my beans don’t have the added value.
This is all great if both parties recognise - let’s call it - their ‘commodity status’. The problem arises when the tomato grower sees himself as a value-adder and the purchaser does not, or vice versa. There have been occasions when I have tried to be a commodity (assuming clients wanted low prices) when they actually wanted value. There have also been occasions where I have wanted to provide beautifully unique work only to be assumed I’m a commodity (“if you can’t work for such and such a price we’ll find another *generic* illustrator who can”). Some people get in touch with me for my work and my processes, others because they just wanted anyone who can draw well for as quickly and as little as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s clear, but once you start classing every freelance creative as a commodity, you lose out on highly thoughtful and creative work. You don’t take into account the years of developing work, the thousands of pounds spent on courses or the hours spent learning how to Photoshop a frigging tin of beans. You assume everyone with an Apple Mac computer and a Wacom tablet can create an illustration.
The industry is getting as such, where creatives are seen as a commodity - they are replaceable. The motion designer who has the jaw dropping ideas is lost on someone who favours a designer that simply churns out 'okay' work like a conveyor belt. It takes insight to perceive the difference in value. Or the photographer who provides unique and beautifully composed photographs is lost on someone who favours stock images because he wants to use the work on whatever the hell he wants for very little. But he perhaps doesn’t question the lack of originality or how the imagery reflects on his company image. We all want extra work for free. We all like a bargain. Of course we do. We just don’t like it when someone asks us for the same. We all want a tradesman - an honest worker - but what we really mean is cheap labour - a commodity - when we ourselves would prefer better working terms.
So are we all commodities? Are we all just like generic supermarket tomatoes, (just some plumper or wrinklier than others). Come on, don’t be an arse by thinking you can add value to everyday products and services, now, will you? I mean, should Mr Dyson have any rights to his vacuum cleaners? Isn’t it a bit cocky of him to expect any commission or profit? Shouldn’t he just have been paid for his time engineering? Transaction done. Isn’t it a bit pedantic of Coldplay to get paid every time someone downloads the same track? They spend the same amount of time recording it regardless, shouldn’t they just be paid for their time? After all, creativity is just a commodity, right?
Nope. Creativity adds value. I’m not just talking about within the ‘arts’ community or in typically ‘creative’ industries, I’m talking about creative problem solving. There are plenty of designers who work under ‘commodity status’ and there are certainly green grocers who do not. There are people turning ‘commodities’ into genius business ventures. There are tradesmen who are thinking a little differently about how they approach their services - thinking creatively. A commodity is not a negative, it’s just different. Who knows, in ten years time I may be solely earning a living creating illustrations by copying from photographs, or working in nine hundred different illustrative styles to meet demand. I hope not, but if it were the only way to make money I would do it. But then my mentality would change to commodity status and I would perhaps be a little gutted at the lack of added value I would bring through my work. A true creative challenges thought. They want to produce better products and services. They add value. A commodity does not. Which are you?
Who’s up for beans on toast?
Or worms. Either, or.