When a good friend of mine, an established photographer, was approached by a recently founded accessories brand for a ‘collaboration’ in which they would pay him in ‘exposure’ it got me thinking. Why are smaller brands reluctant to pay for creative services?
There is plenty of readings out there that state a good way to grow your business is by collaborations, by tapping into each other’s platforms to grow your own. A lot of the time this is done through a successful mixture of both planning and mutual respect for the heart of each business.
Take for example Balmain and H&M, Burberry and Line, Spotify and Starbucks and even Ikea and Target. All these collaborations struck gold by finding a perfect balance between catering to existing consumers while reaching out to new ones. These examples of collaborations benefitted both parties in different ways but ultimately helped build both brands.
Brand partnerships, such as GoPro and Redbull or BMW and Louis Vuitton, share values and audience numbers across the platforms. Yet with both collaborations and brand partnerships, a key point is that although one partner wants what the other can offer, in the scope of things they are on equal playing felids.
These names are big, they’re successful, and they can almost guarantee the partnership will benefit both sides past just exposure.
Exposure has long been a bargaining tool for the creatives, working for little or no money is no anomaly amongst the creative and media industries, where it’s accepted that relevant experience and a portfolio increase your chances of being able to make a living from your craft.
It presents something of a Catch-22: no paid work without a portfolio, no portfolio without unpaid work. For smaller brands starting out, exposure is necessary, and sometimes it comes at the cost of no cost. Yet established brands, professionals and companies are usually above having to swap product for ‘exposure’ – they have the exposure that they worked very hard to get - what they need now is to be paid.
If you are a smaller brand, approaching a brand or professional with a wider audience and more successful output, you can bet they’re not going to do anything for free – because the exposure you think you can supply in no way makes up for the money they lose doing your ‘collaboration’ for free, sorry - for exposure.
What struck me as interesting, was in the case of my friend, the brand who had offered him ‘exposure’ deals in luxury goods, where selling one item would have paid for his entire days work. Yet they claimed because they were a start-up business, “we are not in the market to pay someone.”
When I first started in my current job, I offered to write a test story I had been assigned for free. My current boss at the time said something that stuck and helped shape my view around creatives.
“I’d like to encourage you to take the money we’re offering. The industry you’re about to enter has big, systemic problems with expectations around payment and unpaid work – by working for free, you’re helping to devalue the work of others and yourself.”
And that sums up the issue very well. By withholding payment, or declining payment when you don’t have to, you are devaluing your work and the work of others.
We have all done the hard yards prepping for the big time by doing things for free, we’ve done the boring and the degrading jobs. Yet to request it of someone who has worked hard past that can be seen as misguided.
Although collaborations are a great way to increase brand awareness, you must be on the same playing field, or you must be prepared to pay for it. But brands need to invest in some things, invest in a good photographer, invest in web development, invest in logo design and business mentors; these are working creative professionals who are there to help you, but they don’t owe you anything.
There are many ways in which partnerships with brands, even smaller ones, work out well. Take for example Moustache Milk and Cookie Bar and Garage Project Beer. The two New Zealand brands created a wonderfully weird product which reflected both businesses perfectly and got communicated across beer lovers and cookie lovers alike.
Or, Allbirds and Coco’s Cantina. The shoe brand used Coco’s to present its products as it related to Coco’s importance of mutual recognition for quality, craft, imagination, and sustainability. Targeting a wide audience and creating an uncopiable experience.
Or even Bambi Boutique, the online clothing store often collaborates with brands similar to itself for giveaways, which helps grow social media presence and is a fun thing for audiences to be involved with.
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But all these examples have one thing in common: both parties are benefitting.
There’s a sassy response some freelancers use when asked to work for exposure only: “People die of exposure.” It’s true- the drain on your business and creative juices can definitely be a net negative.
Getting paid in exposure is not worth it if:
- It creates more stress for you
- It’s work that doesn’t move you forward
- You don’t absolutely love the client
- You can make money on the same project elsewhere
- It doesn’t align with your company values
Ultimately, getting paid in exposure should only be something people do if it leads to paying work, or amplifies their career in a way that nothing else will. For any other projects, working for exposure instead of actual pay is not worth it.
You wouldn’t suggest your dental work come free, so you’ll tag them in your next Instagram post. You wouldn’t walk out of the store without paying for your groceries because you’ll write about the experience. Nor should you expect creatives to work without a proper incentive; promoting their hard work to your social media followers is seldom good enough.