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Respect for Creatives

Understanding Your Value to the Bottom Line

At Nike, we would sometimes compare our small world of footwear design to the League — the National Basketball Association. This description fit because most designers in footwear wanted to play in the League. Not all designers, but most. During the 1990’s and 2000’s the competition in the footwear design world was Nike vs Everybody Else. If you were a top talent in the industry and you didn’t work in Beaverton, Nike would find you and make you an offer. You would either join the League or you would find a nice bonus in your future paychecks for turning down the league.

This morning I realized why working in the League became important in my livelihood as a creative.

A large company recently approached me to explore work with them. Their opportunity and business approach were beyond impressive. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities that they were creating.

But I also noticed that there was little to no effort with respect to creative direction. At every point of my day’s tour I questioned the creative direction. As it turns out, this large entity within a much larger entity had no Creative Director. I watched a meeting where creative decisions were being made by the least creative people in the building.

I saw this as either a red flag or an opportunity.

As talks continued, I realized the red flag was growing.

My proposal focused on every aspect of their creative needs, but was happy to focus on the one project they contacted me for.

That’s when I was told that they could easily find another designer for half of the cost. For many non-creatives, if you can open Adobe Illustrator and create a squiggly line, that will do. There are mountains of sketches online from footwear designers that would love the opportunity that I was frowning on.

That’s not the League talking. That’s not the Logo. That’s the Shield.

While the actually League is the National Football League, the sneaker world doesn’t spend a great deal of time borrowing vocabulary or building businesses for cleated athletes. The Chuck Taylor and the Air Jordan played in the League — even though it was technically the Association.

The NBA’s logo, the Logo — a silhouette of play Jerry West designed by the amazingly talented Alan Seigel — signifies a league defined by the respect for the individual’s contribution to each team and thus the entire league. The profit sharing — 50% — negotiated by the player’s representatives is a prime example of the respect given to each of the 450 participants in the League.

Conversely, the Shield represents the team first mentality of the NFL. “Next Man Up” defines the nature of a sport where injury is an expectation for every player on the field. The violence of the sport rarely hurts a player in a single play, but the grind and punishment take their toll on the body, limiting the potential years of play for most players. With the idea of shortened careers, the leverage of an individual player and their union is limited. Non-guaranteed contracts are the norm in a league where the average career is 3.3 years — compared to almost 5 years for NBA players with guaranteed contracts.

Small note: if you google ‘average NFL career’ you get 3.3 years. If you google ‘average NBA career’ you get $24.7M.

The way Nike treated their collective designers was notably better than collective designers at other companies. The stars were treated better and the players at the end of the bunch were certainly disgruntled, but that will happen in most leagues. And now I know that other footwear companies have a much better appreciation and support system for their footwear designers.

Fortunately for me, my first job in design was in the League. Like most athletes, I didn’t play the game for the check, but you have to weigh your worth against the value you provide to the business you’re supporting. When I found myself freelancing outside of the League, I discovered three types of successful companies.

Other Leagues

Nike isn’t the only company to respect their creatives. Apple and now Adidas have shown that they respect the process and mindset that talented creatives bring to the table. Their appreciation comes from the understanding that the job of marketing and engineering and sales is much easier when there’s a hot product sitting on the table or on the screen. Most sneaker companies have raised their level of respect for their creative talent given the size and scope of the opportunity. I’m encouraged to see creatives leading at brands like Frame Denim and Everlane — two companies I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

NCAA

While professional Leagues pay their players professional salaries and treat them as partners, some organizations are happy to make money on the product they showcase without the equivalent pay structure. You’ll notice that creatives have a high turnover rate at those companies, because their businesses are not built on amazing design. They are usually built on the strength of amazing marketing, sales, engineering or whatever other competitive advantage they offer. These companies aren’t necessarily bad companies to work for or with, but creatives often realize that their careers have ceilings that aren’t as high as their business counterparts.

Boxing

While the world of boxing lists some of the most financially successful athletes the sports business has ever seen, Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya are anomalies. The whole of the business lives on individual that live fight to fight with no overarching body to financially protect the collective of fighters. While the bottom line of the Shield is leaps and bounds beyond Boxing, this lack of financial oversight combined with a violent sport is somewhat comparable in how the athletes are treated.

Next man up.

Again, the success of the NFL is a testament to the business practice that promotes team over individual. This is a very noble argument and a reason for their connection with their fans. So if you want to own a team, I’d suggest you own an NFL franchise.

However, you’re going to play for a team, you might want to give yourself a few other options. Companies that outsource most of their design talent without a royalty sharing component describe the creative work they need to be profitable as interchangeable.

While we shouldn’t judge any creative for choosing to work in or with a company that doesn’t treat designers like they Nike and Apple do, we should be sure to understand how your worth will be measured within the confines of each company.

As I walked down the hallways of the company that prompted these thoughts, a hand rested on my shoulder while I listened to how great of an opportunity this would be for everyone involved. I felt like I was being courted to play NCAA football for a $40,000 per year scholarship by a coach that was making $1M annually.

That experience will be priceless for someone else.

Just not for me.

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