Spec work: the perils of taking the bait

December 6, 2013

Last week a feud between Spike Lee and a graphic artist erupted in the media. In short it’s a story about a creative professional who says he wasn’t compensated for his work, which caught our attention because anyone who provides a service, and that includes all creative professionals, should be paid fairly for their work.

First, let’s take a closer look at the story according to the graphic designer. An agency asked him to design some posters for a Spike Lee film for a nominal fee, with the promise that if the posters were chosen, the designer would be compensated fairly. After the artist spent considerable time on the project, the agency informed him that his work was chosen and made an offer. The artist felt the offer was insultingly low and turned it down, despite the agency’s plea that what really mattered was the exposure the artist would get.

The film company eventually published posters that looked a lot like the graphic designer’s original work, for which he was never paid. The designer then published an angst-filled open letter asking for help from Spike Lee, who responded by posting this and other tweets—“I Never Heard Of This Guy Juan Luis Garcia, If He Has A Beef It’s Not With Me. I Did Not Hire Him, Do Not Know Him. Cheap Trick Writing To Me. YO.” If you want, you can read the open letter and more details on the story.

While we don’t know all the facts of this story, and the agency in question has yet to comment, from the artist’s perspective the outcome was obviously tragic, and our hearts go out to him. As it turns out, it’s all too common for professionals to be constantly asked to work on spec or for free or nominal fees, often in exchange for promises of “exposure,” or something that you “can include in your portfolio,” or “add to your resume,” or “that will lead to other business.”

These kinds of bait are tempting, especially for someone starting out who doesn’t have a track record. But the bargain is rarely worth it and often leads to soul-sucking experiences like the one this graphic artist has had to endure. Here are six reasons you should say “No” to spec work.

We believe that anyone who provides a valuable service should get paid for the value they deliver. It’s why we wrote Breaking the Time Barrier, a free-to-read book showing people how to charge what they’re really worth. Over a hundred thousand people downloaded it this past summer. Many have written back to us telling us how it has transformed the way they work—increasing their revenue and profits and leading to more fulfilling relationships with their clients. That’s promising news for every creative professional. Our hope is that as more and more people refuse spec work and instead charge fees based on the value they deliver, we’ll hear fewer tragic stories like this one.

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about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.