Being creative is cool. You know what else is cool?
That’s right, I said it. Money. The stuff that puts gas in my car and keeps my electricity on. The stuff I shell out to Navient every month because I’ve been out of college for seven years and my student loans are still very real. Being serious about your work means being realistic about what your work is worth. What YOU are worth. It means believing it, and not being ashamed to say it out loud without feeling like an asshole. Your job isn’t to protect your clients’ feelings. Your job is to do your job, do it well, and get paid for it.
This blog post isn’t about getting paid for stuff. It’s actually about not getting paid for stuff. But before I dive in, let me say this: Get money.
Because whether you’re dealing with contracts, lawyers, agencies, brands, or one off clients, money conversations can be awkward, tricky, and confusing. Mike Monteiro’s Creative Mornings talk, “Fuck You, Pay Me” is one of my favorite articulations of why not being bashful about getting paid is paramount. My ideas will make you money. So you will pay me for them. Period. That campaign you’re going to use all year? Money. That tagline you’re going to slap on your packaging? Money. Or on a billboard? Money. Or at a subway stop? Money. That hype video script? Money. Those blog posts you want to use to build your brand voice, which is actually my voice, that you’ll “…leverage to connect with your consumers on a personal and emotional level while differentiating your company from all the other like-minded companies in your industry?”
So let me be explicit. I don’t care how much jargon they throw at you to make you feel like you’re not getting the shit end of the stick when they offer you “swag” for your services. Asking for compensation doesn’t make you an asshole. It makes you a professional.
But there’s another side of work that I think is equally important. It’s the side where I do, occasionally, work for free. I know there are people who passionately disagree with me. Business Insider even wrote an article about how annoying it is. While I believe fervently in earning dolla bills for my craft, I also haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be just starting out. To not know where to go. To know I’m worth something, but to not yet have any real proof or credibility. I’d be delusional if I thought I could honestly sit here and say I got where I am without some good ol’ fashioned free help along the way.
There’s the blogger friend who recommended me to the first agency that hired me. She knew I had no formal advertising experience, but also felt I was capable of writing social media content. (Sup, Kate! Forever grateful for you.) There’s my former colleague, Lexie, who spent hours of her time helping me build a deck that reflected my capabilities early in my career. (She also introduced me to Keynote. I was young and naïve.) There’s Roo who gave me free input on rebranding my blog years ago at a café in New York. There have been hundreds of phone calls and lunch chats in between, because being in the presence of people who know their shit is inspiring. While my intention was never to scrounge for free advice, they kindly and willingly gave it.
That’s why, when a friend (or even a random person) asks to chat, I say yes when I can. Sometimes it means saying, “The next few weeks are crazy. Let’s look at next month!” (I did this today.) Sometimes it means utilizing my 45-minute commute. Sometimes it means responding to an email on my lunch break when a friend asks for help. Help within the creative community is one of the many reasons I love being part of it. Giving it helps me stay in touch with the fact that I started somewhere. I want people to believe in their creative magic. To believe their ideas have merit. That they’re capable of succeeding at the thing they love. If that means subjecting myself to an occasional touch base with a creative, passionate person who’s excited about their potential, then so be it.
And look, I’m not condemning people for being busy. Hell, I’m busy. I say no to things because I’m busy all the time. But I don’t want to be remembered for being busy. I want to be remembered for being generous. Note: Not so generous that I’m giving out free ideas. That’s my line in the sand. That’s where we press pause and talk budget. It’s frustrating when people think ideas sprout out of the ground like weeds after the first rainy week in spring. Coming up with ideas, good ideas, takes uninterrupted time. My ideas WILL cost me time, and they WILL cost you money.
What I am condemning is the elitist attitude I come across occasionally in the creative community where we start acting like our time is the only valuable time. We can give once in a while, and our bank accounts (and schedules) won’t crumble. If it helps, set boundaries around the meeting. Ask what the objective is. Have a clear start and a hard stop. End with, “If there’s anything else I can do for you in future, I’d be happy to sit down and talk about a budget.” If you’re so self-important that it feels daunting, imagine that the person you’re rolling your eyes at is the most connected badass on the planet. I’ve lost track of the number of intros, projects, and opportunities that have come my way because I sat down with someone for 15 minutes.
This week, try to take 15 minutes and help someone. For free. I’m not advocating for saying yes all the time, to all the things, especially when you know you logistically can’t. I’m advocating for not being self-aggrandizing about saying it. When you feel that flash of annoyance creeping in, remember that it’s perfectly okay to know what your time is worth. Asking for money doesn’t make you an asshole. Being an asshole makes you an asshole.
Don’t be one.