Photographer looking out over a lake

What’s the value of creative work?

By Erle Lamothe

The name Wil Wheaton usually congers memories of Hollywood hits like Stand by Me, Star Trek the Next Generation or The Big Bang Theory. Recently, Wheaton has garnered attention for rather different reasons.

In a nutshell, Wheaton published a blog post called “Seven Things I did to Reboot My Life” that sparked a fury of interest, including from the Huffington Post. The media publisher asked if they could re-publish the post on its website. When Wheaton inquired how much the publisher would pay, the response was that they do not pay for blog content. Wheaton’s retort was launched via Twitter in a stream of tweets that pointed out the absurdity of not paying for written content which took time to develop. He also summarized the entire experienced in a subsequent blog post.

Farmers do not give food away just to build experience and an accountant will not do a company’s year-end figures merely for “exposure.” Yet people in creative industries are often expected to accept exposure in lieu of actual pay for their work. Wheaton, being part of the creative industry, personifies the plight of many contemporary people in creative industries but his position as a celebrity and the reach afforded by social media give him a platform few have access to.

YouTube is awash with clips and rants associated with artists being asked to work pro bono. As one YouTube contributor points out, working for free for a high profile client, regardless of the incentive, translates to the notion that the client does not take the project in question seriously, otherwise they would be willing to invest in the true value of the project.

The creative industry has responded with some interesting satirical media illustrating this conundrum. From Wheaton’s witty blog rant to Toronto advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo’s take on providing free spec creative work in pitches work to The Beaverton’s infamous pseudo-article, “Local artist paid with, dies from, exposure,” these critiques go to the heart of the paradox and question why those in creative industries are put in situations that few other professionals ever encounter.


So why do professionals in creative industries face this challenge?

The problem is perpetuated by both clients and the industries themselves. There are always newly emerging creative workers looking to grow experience, clients and exposure. A client may explain that by providing a creative service for free the individual will receive portfolio material, exposure and possibly a reference for future work. The challenge is that some clients (certainly not all) may come adopt the perception that creative services should always be inexpensive or even voluntary. A serious implication of this cycle is that it deflates the overall value of the industry. This is the genius of Zulu Alpha Kilo’s poignant video, because it points out very clearly, and in a humourous way, the logical fallacy of creative industries working for free. Creative work is work and creative industries are significant contributors to local and national economies.