Open Letter to Creatives About Taking Care of Our Own (Small) Businesses

A couple days ago, I wrote a guest blog post for The Photo Brigade about some considerations creative professionals should mind in taking care of their own small businesses.  This is the article as it appear on the site, with some tumblr-optimized quote captures added.  

Also, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be doing a regular column there.  Stay tuned for that!  Cheers,


Dear Fellow Creative Professionals,

At this point, most of you have probably read designer and photographer Juan Luis Garcia‘s open letter to Spike Lee, in which he pleads with the film director to help resolve a financial and crediting dispute arising from on-spec (essentially) work he did “Oldboy.”  You’ve also likely heard about Lee’s responses, on Twitter and Instagram, that amounted basically to, “Plausible deniability for me, s.o.l. for you. YO.”

You too were probably flooded with, first, incredulity, then indignation, upon reading of it.  One artist taking advantage of another? It’s unbelievable, outrageous, unjust!   Then though, sadly, like so many of us, the incredulity turned to recognition, because we’ve been there too.

I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues because I’ve been wronged by clients, employers and collaborators before too, and also because there is simply very little guidance about good business practices in pursuing commercial art.  With emotions, egos, notions of fairness, compensation, and the power differential inherent to the hiring-hired duo all at play, the considerations provide a lot to ponder–especially when a client starts to strong-arm and abuse.

Over the last few years, I’ve made a very conscious effort to decipher both the cosmic ethical issues and the practical dimensions of mixing art-making and business.  I’ve certainly not figured it out by any stretch, but I’d like to put the following forward as a part of the conversation.  I’ll try to keep it linear.

Lauren Hefez / Sweat with Lauren Hefez / Maggie Agency

-1.  Signing a contract before work begins is rule número minus uno.

We’ve got to get what we’ve agreed to in writing, at the beginning, every single time.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the job is, how little or how much we’re getting paid, even pro-bono jobs.  This is inviolable.

Setting and managing expectations is a huge part of business dealings, and a good contract is the foundation for keeping everyone (including us) realistic, accountable and generally on our best behavior.  It also makes us talk money at the beginning, the only time to set out the minimum we’ll take for a given job.

Wonderful Machine has a great example for seeing what a photo contract can entail here, with more throughout their blog.  In fact, there are a lot of great resources online not only about contracts, but also about all the other aspects of running a small business.

1.  But but but, we’re not small businesses.  We’re artists; can’t we just make art?  Well, no, unfortunately you are a small business, just like the mom-pop shop down the street.

If we’re pursuing them as a profession, we have to treat our creative endeavors as the small businesses they are.  Yes, it sounds hard and potentially impossible.  Maybe even wrong.  Business is not our “thing.”  But: we have to make it our thing, and do it well.

For those who haven’t already, the first step is registering as an LLC or some other formal business structure. Doing so makes us face the realities head-on of starting a business–from acquiring a tax-id number, to ponying up the registration money, to writing an operating agreement.  I’ll bet you discover it’s not as painful as it sounds.  It’s also important we draw up a business plan, be specific about goals and hold ourselves accountable to them.  And speaking of accounting: separating business and personal finances is a must.

We also have to find the pleasure in the being business people.  For example, in writing estimates and contracts, we can find little pleasures in analyzing what works, what turn of phrase or pricing idea is maximal and reasonable, and makes a potential client feel they were priced fairly.  We’re all creative people who get a high from the sense of accomplishment that follows creating something; turn a contract, like a complex lighting setup, into a project that needs creative resolution.  That would have sounded insane to me a couple years ago too, but I’ve genuinely learned to enjoy these things–especially when it’s lead me to land a job.

I know you’re wondering what this has to do with the Juan Luis Garcia story, but the tending to the details is constant reminder that we’re running businesses.  Especially in commercial photography, vying for and getting jobs is entering the lion’s den.  Us included, everyone has a vested interest in maximizing what they get out of a job while minimizing their investments; and because for a client it usually includes paying not-one-penny more than is required, those interests are at odds.  I’m not saying we should treat clients like adversaries.  Good will and a positive attitude are paramount in managing all relationships.  But with less than one handful of exceptions, they’re not our advocates.  It’s not personal; it’s just business.  Ask any number of creative people around you and they’re bound to have horror stories about having been too much of an “artist” and not enough of a businessperson.

Kevan Joyce / Maggie Agency

2.  No matter how fabulous the alternate offerings, there never has been, there is not, and there never will be an alternative to being treated with respect (in anything in life).  In business, respect is measured in dividends.

To be clear, there are many forms of dividends: money, credit, prestige, experience, networking, equity, artistic satisfaction and, yes, exposure. Striking the right balance between all these possible dividends is not always the most straightforward puzzle.   But: at minimum, we should be getting paid in all the same currencies the client or other talent (including creative talent and photo subjects) are getting paid, and at an rate appropriate to the job.  Some examples might include:

a.  A project with professional colleagues or friends where no talent is getting paid (though there might be a budget for shoot expenses and general business expenses, like studio rent).  The intent of a project like this is exposure and prestige for everyone involved, and all creative talent retains complete creative control over what they get out of it.  As long as everyone is meaningfully credited, and provided all the channels of distribution are promotional and not advertorial, this would be an acceptable time to work for non-cash dividends.  (Except maybe if you’re an assistant: more below.)

b.  A project where I’m not getting paid, but there’s a budget for ad placement, or the work will be used for the purposes of selling a third-party good.  This is called working on an ad for free, and unless it’s my company, I’m seriously damaging my own business and undermining my professional peers.  Nope times three.  Ad placements are not general business expenses or shoot expenses, and commercial ads (including look books, catalogs, etc.) are direct revenue-seeking media for a company.  These are supposed to be the jobs that make commercial art viable as a profession.  This, among all the other boondoggles I can commit as an artist + businessperson, is the biggest one.

c.  A project where everyone is getting paid their due fees: absolutely!

d.  Assistants: basically the only dividends assistants will receive are experience, networking and money.  Assistants aren’t considered a creative talent and will never get credited for their work.  In other words, be even more discerning about when you’ll work unpaid.  As a photographer, I consider assistant fees “shoot expenses” and would be willing to work on a project where only the assistants are getting paid.

These are only a few examples and there are, of course, exceptions: volunteer work with small non-profits that legitimately can’t afford to pay me but might have just-enough for an ad, reasonable favors for friends (ie. ones that take only a few hours; I’m looking at you too with this definition of “reasonable,” friends.), and so on.  But generally speaking, it can be broken down like this: if anyone else who constitutes my professional peer–creative director, account manager, art buyer, makeup artist, editor, etc.–is getting paid to do the job, so should I.  I abide these rules steadfastly because they are what make sense for my business, and also because they are what I need to contribute in protecting my profession.

Kevan Joyce / Maggie Agency

3.  On-spec work violates all the rules of running a business.  Someone who’s asking me to work on-spec is telling me they don’t intend to pay me fairly, precisely at the moment when we should be discussing fair compensation.  It is an attempt to weaken my position.  These strategies are systemic, not accidental.

Being asked to work on-spec is a huge racket.  It’s a practice of which companies and especially their talent-buying employees–often artists themselves–should be deeply ashamed.  Working on-spec is essentially an unpaid internship (same racket, different name).  Are we professional artists or unpaid interns?

I know it can seem like a good idea:  it’s only fair that we have to compete with some relevant work product, right?  But here’s the thing: we’ve likely already put in lots and lots of work.  All of us have put in $10,000s if not $100,000s into our educations, portfolios, into equipment, into honing our skills, developing an eye, marketing our work.  An art buyer should judge my portfolio to determine whether I’m the right person for the job.  That is the entire point of a portfolio.  The entire point.

Make no mistake: being asked to work on-spec is usually a tactic to break down my negotiating power later; in my experience, At the point at which I’m being asked to produce something, I’m usually the only one being considered.  It isn’t an accident or coincidence when things go off the rails.  It is a strategy to make me say, when the time finally comes to discuss money, “Well, I take this or nothing for all the work I’ve already done.”  Yes, it sounds nefarious. It is.

Companies regularly build into their business practices unethical strategies for “saving” money.  Having worked as a consultant in the past, I was regularly advised about clients who made a habit of not making their last payments–the ones due after the final work had been delivered–because they know we were left with little leverage.  Big companies are the worst, because they know taking them on will entail a lot of sacrifice, and little solidarity.

Worse, we’re in effect letting clients keep money that belongs in our pockets.  Who pays our rents and puts food on our tables, pays the electricity to run our computers, is responsible for the wear on our equipment, when we’re “trying out” for a job?  We forgo due pay so someone else can “save.”

It’s abusive professionally and financially, and it certainly doesn’t not meet the criteria for work that respects my craft and pays in the appropriate ways.

Slava Kolpakov

4.   In fact, those in positions to hire creative work “save” an untold amount of money every year, by taking advantage of our business ignorance and our silence about how creatives should be, but are not, compensated.

A huge part of the problem is that we barely talk about these issues.  We barely know how to.

Ever sit down to devise an estimate for a client and have no idea where to start?  Yeah, me too.  The truth is that we, as a creative community, talk very little about what falls in the range of acceptable and standard compensation.  In turn, we relinquish a lot of money and negotiating power.  We’re in constant fear that we’re overshooting, or undershooting, or that someone will undercut us.  Will we be taken seriously?  Will we get the job?  Will someone else, someone possibly with lesser talent and skill but also fewer demands?  We don’t know how much to get paid, how much to assert ourselves in negotiation and when to say, “nope, not worth my time.”  We agree to work on-spec because it seems like an opportunity, when in reality many of us have learned it’s an abuse.  It’s important to be more open about what the landscape looks like.

Luckily, because: internet, this is changing somewhat.  For a fee, anyone can get access to quoting services sold by Getty and Fotoquote.  But there are more-accessible resources out there too.  Every creative person, especially photographers doing editorial and commercial work, should read and follow every. single. column. and its accompanying comments of APhotoEditor‘s pricing and negotiating articles (done in collaboration with Wonderful Machine).  We can also talk openly about money and share knowledge about business practices with other creative people in our industries.  If we ever hope to stop letting clients take advantage of how fragmented freelances can be, these conversations are important in strengthening our businesses and holding clients, and each other, to a standard; they’re essential for understanding what respect looks like in business.

In no way do I mean to imply that Juan Luis Garcia is undeserving of due compensation for his work on the Oldboy posters; quite the contrary.  In addition to being unusually talented and having done a knockout job, it would be what’s right.  But his story illustrates pretty much all the pitfalls of forgetting to treat our professions like what they are: businesses, and many of the hurdles we face in getting to that point individually and collectively.

We have to remember those challenges and work through them, every day.  That requires taking on the responsibilities of running those businesses, from the technical and legal requirements to the hard work of making rules for ourselves and learning how to be businesspeople.  It also entails finding solidarity with other creatives so that, hopefully, we can start to even out the power dynamics that so often make us vulnerable and scared in our negotiations with clients.

Kara Crow / Trainer / Maggie Agency

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