It’s time to stop asking “creatives” to work for free

Pay up.
Pay up.
Image: Zulu Alpha Kilo
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When Steve Jobs was shopping around for a logo designer for his post-Apple venture, NeXT, he asked graphic designer Paul Rand to come up with some sample ideas before formally hiring him. But instead of getting free designs, Jobs was served a sobering lesson on business ethics from the legendary designer.

Jobs recalled Rand’s response in an 1993 interview :

No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you.

You’re the client. But you pay me.

What Jobs asked for is not unusual. In fact, it’s an insidiously common practice to ask creative professionals to spend hours creating original custom work for free (called “spec work”), before they’re actually hired.

Speculative work, also referred to as ”sample creative” is part of the bidding process for many projects. It’s often formally stipulated in the open calls issued by governments and big multilateral organizations, and casually brought up in prospective client meetings. But doing spec work is enormously expensive for creative agencies and artists, who must divert resources from existing clients in the hopes of winning new business.

A new short film by Canadian advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo hilariously captures how absurd a spec work request sounds in other contexts.

The 2:33 minute spot is cobbled from unscripted interviews with various businesses around Toronto, where Zulu Alpha Kilo is based. “It was quite eye opening,” says chief creative officer and founder Zak Mroueh to Quartz.

With almost a million views on YouTube, Zulu Alpha Kilo’s funny-but-true anti-spec clip has gone viral since it debuted at a local industry awards gala—hitting a collective pain point throughout the creative industry around the world.

“We’re really doing this to help the entire industry and help educate our clients on how to choose the right [creative] partner,” says Mroueh.

But without spec work, how can clients choose the best agency to work with?

“Here’s my advice: Take the creative work off the table. Who do you have the most chemistry with? Who do you really want to work with,” says Mroueh. “Then look at their portfolio work and look who has consistently done brilliant work.”

Zulu Alpha Kilo has made it policy not to do spec work. And just as Jobs found Rand’s directness “refreshing” and eventually hired him for the NeXT logo commission (and loved the result), Zulu Alpha Kilo’s business has grown despite (or perhaps because of) drawing the line from doing free creative work. In five years, the award-winning agency has grown from a staff of 25 to 75.

Professional creative organizations such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Association of Registered Graphic Designers in Canada and the No!Spec initiative have also taken positions against unpaid work. They also advise creatives to be judicious about when to engage in pro bono projects, unpaid internships, open call competitions—and even crowd-sourced creative work.