Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 22, 2013 4:32 PM

You Should Work For Free. You Should Not Work For Free.

It is the constant debate of the marketing industry: should you do spec work?

There is a phase in the acquisition of a new client that usually requires a marketing agency to spend a lot of time pitching. This pitch work often consists of both strategic and creative spec work (for free - in the hopes that you win the big account). This work is masked as an exercise to see how well the agency understands the brand's positioning and how well they can execute on work specific to the client. It's a game that all agencies take play in, and it's one that we all, constantly, complain about. There are a myriad of reasons (the work isn't truly indicative of the experience that you get when a brand collaborates with an agency. That the work isn't always being done by the actual team that the brand will ultimately work with. The fact that none of this work is ever used for an actual campaign. And the list goes on and on). Brands claim that this spec work gives them a much better perspective on what they can expect from the agency, but many would argue that there is nothing truly gained that couldn't  be done through deep interviews with current and past clients and reviews of the agency's portfolio through case studies.

The debate rages on.

It's not just agencies that deal in the business of working for free. In the past little while, there were two divergent pieces published on the notion of working for free. The New York Times put out the article, Unpaid Interns: Silent No More, on July 20th, 2013, while Fast Company published, How To Write A Follow-Up Email That Will Land You The Job. It's a sticky and contentious topic, to be sure. The New York Times piece: "What interns are demanding is hardly a mystery: respect for their work. In short, it's time to start envisioning and putting into practice a healthy, effective internship culture. For better or worse, pay is the fundamental currency of respect in every modern economy. Unless it's a bona fide training or volunteer position, an internship should be paid, open to all and transparently advertised -- and should never result in the displacement of other employees." From the Fast Company piece: "The psychology underlying this practice of unstoppability: By showing what you're capable of and why the organization needs it in their life, you reduce the cognitive load of whether-or-nots for the hiring manager. In other words, we can make ourselves obvious hires." Two very different scenarios. In one scenario, the individuals have accepted to be interns. In the other scenario, the individual is applying for a job. Still, do you think the individual applying for the job was then paid for her work, or was the "pay" the fact that she made herself the obvious hire?

Defining economics.

I often joke to my peers that since I started writing for free (on this blog and in other places that seemed good for me to bulk up my resume and visibility), that it has afforded me more paid writing opportunities that I ever encountered when I was a full-time freelance journalist many moons ago. The real joke comes in that I no longer even consider myself much of a journalist at all. What I do know is this: over the decades I have done a ton of free work. I've worked for others, consulted individuals, offered to be an intern, been writing this unpaid blog for close to a decade, and more in the hopes of not being paid or eventually getting full-time employment from these companies, but as a way to increase my experience and make me more valuable in the marketplace. Abuse of an intern (paid or otherwise) or any individual doesn't add any true value to a company. Furthermore, in many of these instances, I think the abuse is a two-way street. If there is an agreement in place that the person helping out will not be paid and then accept this agreement, it should stand. Most companies are not going to meet the federal law's requirement that "internships at profit-making companies are to be unpaid, they must foster an educational environment. (The rules are different for nonprofit and governmental agencies)," simply because it is increasingly difficult to define what an educational environment is. Personally, my best "job training" was happening not by doing anything, but by simply being a fly-on-the-wall and observing those who were being paid in action. I've also had instances when I was doing the physical work and wondering why an unpaid individual would do this. Those moments were often more illuminating to me than the observing ones. I was truly learning more that I ever could from some HR-guided presentation on what the company does in a classroom setting.

Bad bosses.

I was once fired. I didn't like it. But, to this day, it was the most powerful business lesson that I have ever learned. It forced me to do a lot of self-reflection and it taught me about what I truly wanted (and didn't want) in my life. There is no doubt that abuse of this system exists. There is also no doubt that the smartest individuals take these opportunities to work for free and convert it into something worth so much more than the minimum wage. We need rules to protect those that try to abuse the system in as much as we need rules to protect the individuals who don't realize that they're being taken advantage of. Beyond that, sometimes the best experiences are not the ones that you're immediately paid for, but the ones that pay off - in dividends - for the years that follow. Work is sometimes not about the money that you make for a specific task, but much more about:

  • Learning a new skill.
  • Networking with interesting people.
  • The dynamics of teamwork.
  • Fighting towards a common goal.
  • Understanding how an industry operates.
  • Expanding your horizons.
  • Forcing you to think through a problem in a way that you never had.
  • Teaching you what you don't want out of life.
  • ...and so much more.

I don't believe in working for free, but I sometimes do.

By Mitch Joel