Work for Exposure

Here’s the deal


Okay, so you’re 17 and know some Photoshop. “Make a poster, and I’ll hang it on our wall!” the band promoter said, asking you to work for free.

Wait, not free. “Exposure”

Which is another way of saying “no money”

And this is widely regarded and often talked about as a bad deal. Don’t do it. It’s an insult to yourself and you apparently somehow devalue the entire industry? (the other designers never explained that one very well)

But! I do have a few exceptions. Here’s my theory:

Exposure is a real currency

That’s it. It’s true. You can buy and sell goods and services for exposure.

…but usually with exposure you’re getting underpaid

Is the thing we’re actually after here.

If I told you to make a poster for $1000 or $10, which would you take?

So why are you accepting the $10 worth of exposure? This is where most people tell you to not do it. It’s not that exposure is truly worthless, it’s that you’re typically doing too much work for how much it is worth.

And honestly — if you make some poster, who’s actually going to see it and then hire you? The conversion rate on that sort of thing is tiny, so this really is the $10 equivalent. Except actually maybe it’s a $0 equivalent.

But, like money, we can also hack it to our advantage:

  1. If you can gain exposure with little to no effort, do it. This is essentially free currency: if someone else is going to promote your crap, awesome!
  2. If you can gain a lot of exposure for a small bit of work, do it. I’ve been in 3D Artist magazine twice now, and it took me like 2 hours at most to write some tiny articles / interviews for them. That means my name is in a multi-national print magazine + internet advertising for basically no effort and I can add credibility to my portfolio + exposure + they shipped me a copy, so that’s like a free $10 right there.
  3. If you can allow other people to gain you exposure in a way that you’re hands off from, do it (if you’re comfortable letting others shape your image). The internet (and print before it) has this weird relationship with content where they need you so they can have something to write about, but you need them for exposure — who pays who? Exactly. So sometimes you can let other people just do their own thing and they can write whatever they want and you get free exposure. This might be on the verge of comfort for the more control-freaky types who really want tight personal brands, but I’m personally pretty loose with it. Trump is the ultimate example of looseness here: even all the hate he gets everywhere is advertising for him. It’s reinforcing his domination of attention. Exposure is perhaps his currency more than money even is.

And naturally the corollary here is “if you’re doing a lot of work for a small amount of exposure, don’t — demand payment in more than one currency (read: money) or change the scope vs. exposure deal back to your favour.”

This is the thing most people are saying when they write off the exposure currency wholesale, a move that I personally can’t agree with. You’ll starve from obscurity far worse than you’ll starve from taking jobs that are only slightly profitable in the end. Suck it up, do the work.

Again, in the end, this comes down to playing a smart game just like there’s people who are better and worse with negotiating money for gigs.

But make no mistake: exposure is a valuable thing. Spread and reach is what allows people to go from making tiny things in their bedroom to commanding small armies as a creative director, or getting budgets to go and make awesome things for companies. You know, the dream goal.

Just, learn to make better deals.

Use it to work for you instead of for whoever is wielding it in place of cash.


Addendum point: sometimes you can gain exposure in an infinite supply economy, like we see with digital distribution. “Make it once, sell it a bunch” can apply to the sales of digital products for several types of currency.

For example if you have photography and it’s already shot and edited and everything, allowing it to live in galleries is basically zero effort for a recursive amount of exposure loops — people who see it and spread it around, ultimately increasing the exposure of the product.

That I’m cool with.

“Oh, but Brennan, it’s your photo! You should get paid to let people see it!”

I am. I’m being paid because those people will hire me eventually OR even if no one does, it cost me basically nothing to get it out there. So I’ve not lost money (maybe a few minutes of time — I’m sure much less than just now writing this for free). Even if that photo made someone smile or think, it’s worth it to share. It’s nearly a moral prerogative to not hide things that can positively impact the world if you have the capacity to do so.

So, that’s exposure. Cost and value analysis as always.