F#@k you, pay me.
As a craft-led radical Collective Agency of freelancers, we’ve often had a laugh (through gritted teeth) over a glass of wine at stories our members share of being expected to do something for nothing in the name of ‘exposure’ or try before you buy. These chancers are rife, and we’re fighting back.
You only need to spend a few minutes on Twitter or LinkedIn to hear what has sadly had to become a bit of a rally cry. A so-called ‘exposure economy’ has seen brands, clients, agencies and opportunistic individuals all too ready to ask, demand - expect - free work on the premise they’re doing you a favour. I mean, just think of your profile. They’re kind of a big deal. It’s a ‘trial run’, a proofing exercise; a way to pit you off against the competition whilst ending up with all the ideas anyway. They don’t have the budget “right now”. It’s for [insert latest cause they’ve decided to hang their hat on in order to jump in on the conversation - very much for eyeballs over altruism] here.
Underhand, unequal, unethical ‘skills swaps’ piggybacking off an influencer-driven culture that’s made exposure a currency have understandably seen our guards go up against the sharing economy, or at least added a layer of skepticism around opportunities that present a trade - of time, expertise, creative talent, knowledge, network - as compensation. Which is a massive shame, but hardly a surprise: it’s justified. Pretty much all of us have been burned at some point, and in some cases the damage - to businesses, to relationships, to finances, to quality of life and stability of mental health - is irreparable. Because when power play intentionally blurs the line between compromise and coercion and it’s no longer for mutual gain, it’s no longer an exchange: it’s exploitation.
And it’s nothing new. The creative industries have casually been at this for years: increasingly outrageous RFPs initiated purely to pull in a batch of ‘fresh’ (read: free, because the precedent has been set that hours spent on the pitch process aren’t billable) ideas the incumbent will probably be made to rip off at the end anyway, interviewees asked to prepare end-to-end strategy as part of the hiring process, the systemic rhetoric that if you’re lucky enough to make a living doing something you love, you should be prepared to suck it up as part of the deal and freelancers expected to roll over like excited puppies at the prospect of getting to do the first concept, copy or creative as a gesture of goodwill if they want to be considered for the project. If it goes ahead. Which even they suspect it won’t. The difference being that, if it doesn’t, they will still get something out of it.
The sharing economy has been abused by brazen opportunists wanting - in many circumstances, quite unfathomably, believing they deserve - something for nothing. The promise of exposure. The ‘trial run’. The guilt card: a worthy initiative, cause or charity. The ‘lack of budget’. None of which are representative of how valuable the sharing economy, when genuine, can and should be. As freelancer or start up it’s not just helpful but often essential. Maybe you’re making a career pivot. Maybe you’re offering a new proposition or looking to service a new market. Maybe you don’t as yet have an existing client base with testimonials to share or established portfolio tangibly demonstrating your capabilities.
We know that there is a lot of unpaid work going on out there, and we know how much of a difference it can make, and how beneficial, rewarding and professionally game changing it can be in both the short and long term. You’ll note we didn’t say ‘free’. It must be worth something. And worth something to both parties. There’s respect. There’s equity. There’s appreciation and gratitude. It’s a partnership.
For most of us at some point the prospect of the pro bono is inevitable: kind of a rite of passage. There are times when negotiating your rate could be the foot in the door you need to do something far bigger, more exciting, challenging or meaningful. But negotiating is not the same as doing it for less without the monetary deficit being made up by the other side with something that makes it a worthwhile compromise. You should never be asked, be expected or feel obliged to work for free in the literal sense of the word. It must have value. It must be worth something. It must be reciprocal. It must be fair. It must be appreciated. It must be a partnership.
Proof points still matter. Word of mouth carries more weight than ever and the digital version boasts a permanent, searchable record. Profile and exposure are not dangled like charcoal-activated croissant samples at a pop up bakery in Shoreditch for no reason. The ‘six degrees of separation’ days evaporated long ago, and if you think you can abuse trust under the guise of collaboration without being publicly shamed you’ve clearly not spent any time on social media.
Exploitation is exploitation. And if you back someone into a corner that sees them pressured or bullied into overriding their ethics, underselling their talent, undermining their creative value or diminishing their self worth they will come away feeling extorted, bitter and disempowered.
Compromise is only compromise to a point, and in a sharing economy, ‘sharing’ is the operative word. The fundamental foundations of society were built - continue to be built - on a sharing economy with three core components: Principles, Partnership and Purpose.
Principles: A sharing economy relies on respect. And if something doesn’t feel fair, or right, or if it’s simply not a fit, you have every right to walk away. Know your value. You don’t need to do something you don’t feel comfortable with, or capable of, or for someone who won’t reciprocate with equity or appreciate your efforts. Nor should you be expected to. Contributing to a sharing economy should not deplete your self worth or emotional reserves. It should not make you feel obligated, pressured or used. It should feel right. It should not take away the love of what you do or go against your moral, ethical, professional or personal code. It should not challenge why you it in the first place.
Partnership: A sharing economy relies on the understanding that you give what you can, when you can, however you can. If you can’t cook for shit, or work a 14 hour day shift you can’t be expected to spend the day slow-roasting lamb for a mid-week dinner party. But perhaps you have a couple of chairs you can stick in your car before work to make sure everyone can fit round the table and stay after to help with the clean up or make a damn fine margarita and can be there a couple of hours before to make sure guests are greeted on arrival with something just about tequila-laden enough take the edge off a brutal day in the office. No one is expected to give to every charity, support every cause or march for every injustice. Because we’re only one person, and that one person has commitments, limitations and finite resources of emotion, creativity, money and time. All things may not have been created equal, but in a sharing economy, paying forward one can be enough.
Purpose: A sharing economy relies on that one thing you give (and those you receive in return) serving to fuel your passions, rewarding you, teach you stuff, give you the chance to do what you love and might not otherwise have been able to. On it supporting initiatives you care about, helping fight for causes you believe in or establishing a partnership with the potential to drive change. On it allowing you to collaborate with people who inspire and encourage and champion you and do incredible things. Things where, by pooling together those things you paid forward, you can really make a difference. Things with meaning.
When underpinned by those three things, a sharing economy not only works, but it thrives. It takes on a life of its own beyond the original vision: a living, breathing ecosystem that evolves instinctively by connecting people, leveraging their skills, circulating their knowledge, expanding their opportunities; paying it forward over and over and over to create a collective bound together by trust and reciprocity. A self-energising network united by its common goals and fundamental beliefs. Everyone contributes what they can, when they can, however they can. Everyone has their role, and it’s the role they chose. Everyone is there with their one thing because they want to be. Because they know that one thing is appreciated. Because they know that one thing will compliment everyone else’s and result in something awesome; something they’ll all get something out of. Much like at a dinner party.
And when a sharing economy thrives, the ‘profit’- monetary or otherwise - is organic. It’s not about getting stuff for free. It’s about collaboration. It’s about working as a collective. It’s about bringing people together to leverage their complementary skills and working towards a shared goals that speak both to their individual and mutual passion points. It’s about building amazing things with purpose and heart and soul that benefit everyone involved and the greater good. It’s about creating magic and having a great fucking time doing it.
It’s why the FSC exists and what it stands for. Meaningful, collaborative work rooted in principles, partnerships and purpose. Core values that underpin a new co-agency model. Craft, quality and care. Partnerships based on trust and mutual success. A transparent for purpose, not profit collective. An ecosystem of incredible talent working together to create and build and innovate and make a difference. A collective enhanced, elevated and empowered by a thriving sharing economy: a network of members who contribute that extra one thing. Paying it forward for the right reasons. Working towards a better world. Having a fucking great time doing it.
The FSC is a radical Collective Agency of craft-led freelancers. We pay all our members a market indexed date rate for FSC work. Unlike other agencies, we also pay our members to work on social impact projects and ideas born in the FSC Incubator. We won’t ask you to work for free. If we sound like what you’ve been missing, check out our member benefits and join up information here.