Why creatives shouldn’t work for free

I bet the person who sits here gets paid

Recently I got an email from a media agency asking if I would be interested in writing some content for one of their clients.

Our client […] has tasked [Media Agency] with creating a central online hub for SMEs around Ireland and across industries. The hub will contain useful information that will help SMEs from HR to PR and everything in between.
I am looking to you as a guest blogger to add relevant content, such as changing lanes: It’s never too late to switch careers.

I can see why this agency reached out to me. I started on a path to a career in the media, and then within a period of about a year and a half pivoted to becoming a Software Engineer. Makes sense. In addition, I work at a company who are well known for churning out a huge quantity of high-quality content, I was deeply entrenched in the world of student media in college and I’ve been known to pen the odd post here on Medium.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I have no intention to attempt carving out a career in writing (there are people far better at it than I who’d sweep the floor with my attempts), but I do enjoy it. I began thinking up my thankful response, explaining that while I’d love to write content for this agency’s client, I am pretty busy right now and will have to pass on the opportunity.

Until the next paragraph:

Now, there’s no budget for this, but we are driving significant levels of advertising to the site via paid advertising. This will raise your profile and I do hope it will drive traffic to yourself and your organisation. I will also be forever in your debt!
This guest post is not a soap box for you to shout about irrelevant topics or yourself for that matter. The purpose of the posts should be to educate, stir some debate and most of all, help SMEs in Ireland.

I saw red. This agency wanted top quality content, the type that a staff writer or freelance journalist would usually create, and they wanted it for free. Despite the fact that they were charging their client, and (I would hazard a guess) charging their client a content fee or retainer.

This instantly dragged me back to my days in college — countless companies and individuals reaching out to my classmates and I looking for free work that would frequently rack up fees in the tens of thousands if it were to be given to a freelancer.

Hi there! We’re looking for a top-notch video student to film, direct and edit an advertisement for our brand new startup! Now, there’s no budget for this, but…


Hey there Cian — I need somebody to design some posters for my sale next weekend, and I was wondering if you could do it? Now, there’s no budget for this, but…

or even (and yes, this did actually happen)

Hi Cian! We’re running a huge music festival this summer (It’s going to be great — check out our lineup), and were looking for somebody to build and run our website and social media presence. I see that you are pretty prolific on Twitter, and have some webdev experience. Now, there’s no budget for this, but…

They always dangled the same carrots in front of our faces, and we all know that each one of them was complete crap.

  • It will be a great chance to build some work for your CV!
  • It will really raise your profile in the industry and get you some publicity!
  • The experience you get will be worth way more than money!

Let’s dissect these arguments.

It will be a great chance to build some work for your CV!

You know what else is a great way to build some work for my CV? Just doing things. If you’re interested in a career in writing, start blogging. If you dream of becoming a web designer, start designing things and put them online. If you want to be a developer, GitHub is king. For video production, make stuff that you care about and throw it on Vimeo.

It will really raise your profile in the industry and get you some publicity!

I guarantee you that I’ll get exactly no publicity writing for your blog. Nobody ever reads an article on a website, looks at the author’s name and thinks to themselves “I’d better hire that young man — he seems to be really on top of things!” The only publicity that anybody will get out of it is delicious SEO juice that you’ll gain for your client’s brand.

The experience you get will be worth way more than money!

If you want to get experience, working pro-bono somebody who reaches out to you first is generally not the best way to do it. I know plenty of people who have gotten fantastic experience providing free labour, but in almost every case they reached out to the company first — a company that they respected.

If you want to get fantastic experience, find companies you respect and reach out to them, seeing if there is anything you can help them with. Set yourself challenges and then meet them. But don’t just throw yourself to anybody who comes calling — they’ll just abuse your kindness and talent.

I have plenty of friends who took this route, working primarily for themselves and doing some free work for choice organisations that they respected, and now have inspiring early careers in places that they love. I doubt many of them responded to cold-emails that they got asking them to do things for free. The only thing that will come of doing work for free for companies that you don’t respect is that you have less time to work towards getting a job at a company that you do.

Harlan Ellison says all of this way better than I ever could. He also swears more than I do.

PS, this email thread got worse.

I responded, saying that while I was unwilling to work for free, I have a price-per-word that I charge for professional writing and if they were interested I’d be happy to contribute some content to this agency’s client.

I got this in response:

This offer was a value add that I was attempting to bring to the client, rather than me trying to save money on behalf of my client.

To unpack this — my work was something that this Account Manager was hoping to bring to her client as a way to validate the fees that the agency was charging. It is not an attempt to save the client money. Thus, we can say with relative certainty that the client would be, in some way, paying for this content.

Now we get to where things really get offensive.

I was surprised that you would look to be paid actually. To be honest, we would never pay unqualified writers the costs you are looking for but thank you for the quote.

Seriously? You are surprised that I want to be paid to write for your client’s website? And I’m an unqualified writer? Imagine what your client would think if they knew that you were publishing the work of unqualified writers who aren’t even worth paying on the site you are charging them to build.