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Assume for a moment that you're an artist. You get a call one day from somebody at Google. Good news: Google wants you to create a skin for its Chrome browser.

You ask, "What's the fee?" The response: "There's no money but you'll get lots of exposure". Deal or no deal?

This isn't a hypothetical scenario for some artists. As The New York Times reports, artists approached by Google have been asked to create custom skins for Chrome for no pay; what Google does offer is 'exposure'.

For freelancers and consultants, such a proposition is not unheard of. There are plenty of prospective 'clients' who need services and offer everything but cash as compensation for them. Especially in these tough times, something for nothing has obvious appeal.

The difference here, of course, is that Google is a healthy company that pulls in billions in profit every year. So it has little excuse for trying to save a few pennies. That has some of the artists it has approached upset about its offer. One, Gary Taxali, responded to Google with a drawing of another kind: the one-fingered salute.

Google's efforts to recruit artists with the promise of exposure and not pay struck a chord in the artist community. That's not surprising given the economic circumstances and the fact that, as the NYT points out, many artists have found themselves hurt by the decline of print media, which once supplied a steady stream of work.

For its part Google doesn't see anything wrong with its proposition. It issued a statement:

While we don’t typically offer monetary compensation for these projects through the positive feedback that we have heard thus far we believe these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to display their work in front of millions of people.

Is exposure an acceptable form of compensation? One illustrator the NYT interviewed, Melinda Beck, noted that gift cards she designed for Target and animations she developed for Nickelodeon are seen by millions of people. And yet Target and Nickelodeon paid for her services.

Google certainly has the money to pay artists a fair rate for their services. And in the case of the skins Google wants developed for its browser, it should probably realize that the odds that the exposure an artist receives for producing a Chrome skin is not going to directly translate into lots of business. It seems pretty unlikely that somebody will see a skin they like and say to themselves "I really like this. Let me find out who made it and hire them to do something for me". If a company like Google won't pay you, what exactly are you working for?

To be fair to Google, it isn't alone in employing an exposure-as-compensation model. The Huffington Post, for instance, uses this model. And has taken a lot of flack for it.

Personally, I find the exposure-as-compensation argument lacking in most cases. While exposure can have value, it's hard to figure out and it certainly doesn't pay the bills. For an artist trying to make a living, the satisfaction of knowing that your work is being seen by millions doesn't mean much when you are trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage or feed your family. A company that strives to 'do no evil' should know that.

What do you think: is exposure acceptable compensation or are companies that offer exposure without cash exploiting workers?

Photo credit: Wrote via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 June, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2405 more posts from this author

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Pauly Singh

Pauly Singh, Founder at Marketing Method

I think there's no such thing as "acceptable compensation". If such a thing existed, doctors could ask for $10,000 per visit because it was "acceptable", and we'd all be in a lot of trouble. There's only what a market is willing to pay for a service at a given moment in time.

Also, if someone doesn't like what the market is willing to offer them, then they need to brand themselves as someone that deserves to be paid more. If you can brand yourself to prevent your service from being seen as a commodity, then you can stand apart from others in your industry and command your own price. And ironically, coming back in full circle, a great way to brand yourself would be to highlight the fact that you did some creative work for Google which has been seen by millions of people...

over 7 years ago

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Stephen Palmer

I'm with Pauly. It's ridiculous to have this conversation in an abstract vacuum. The only way it makes sense is when it concerns those involved in the transaction making the decision. Only individual artists can make the choice whether or not it's worth it to them or not.

In the free market, each individual makes his or her own value judgments. "How much is your home worth?" is an unanswerable question, until you add, "To whom?" I may be willing to pay $500,000 for a home that you wouldn't pay $100 for. The value isn't in the home -- it's in the minds of individuals.

over 7 years ago

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Stephen Palmer

Quick clarification on Pauly's statement: It's also abstract and meaningles to refer to what the "market" will pay. The market doesn't make decisions; individuals do. Items do tend toward a general market price, but I think it's more useful to the conversation to use the concreteness of individuals, rather than the abstraction of the "market."

over 7 years ago

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greg

It's clear from looking at Google's products that they care not a whit about graphics and design. That's why Google will NEVER generate the brand loyalty that a company like Apple does.

over 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Pauly,

At the risk of being rude, I suspect you've been reading too many 'personal branding' books. 'Branding' doesn't pay the bills.

When you write, "There's only what a market is willing to pay for a service at a given moment in time", that is exactly what "acceptable compensation" represents. The reason a doctor doesn't charge $10,000/visit is because a price range has been set by the market.

The fact that some people will want to pay the doctor $0 for a visit has absolutely nothing to do with the price the market has set.

In this case, we're not even talking about pricing. Google's decision not to offer payment has absolutely nothing to with artists not doing enough to justify that they deserve to be paid; it has everything to do with Google's policy that it not pay artists in the first place.

Stephen,

I noticed on your website that you do speaking engagements for $3,500 plus travel expenses. I'm thinking about putting on a massive internet conference here in Chile and would love for you to speak. I can't pay you $3,500 since it's going to be my policy not to pay speakers but there'd be some huge Chilean companies there so it'd be a great way for you to promote yourself to new potential clients in a new market.

Would you consider attending? Thought so. :)

over 7 years ago

Pauly Singh

Pauly Singh, Founder at Marketing Method

Don't worry Patricio, I understand this is a dialogue with opinions so I don't take any personal offense. In fact, I think a lot of branding books are full of ideological fluff, but I also have studied some of the most successful marketing consultants like Dan Kennedy and Jay Abraham and their methods of getting clients heavily focuses on creating an image of themselves as a maven or brand.

Also, I understand that branding itself may not pay the bills, but it's not someone else's fault that the bills aren't being paid.

That's why I'm confused about this part of the post:

The difference here, of course, is that Google is a healthy company that pulls in billions in profit every year. So it has little excuse for trying to save a few pennies

It seems like you're implying that Google should feel responsible to pay people whatever the "market standard" is, simply because of their favorable financial situation. Google already employs many people, compensating them at or above market standards, so I don't see how the blame falls on them for whatever method of compensation they choose for this type of project.

What if it were Wikipedia asking designers to create a new logo for them, in return for exposure? Who wouldn't want the opportunity to be known as the designer that created the logo for Wikipedia. That designer would get so many new clients, they would be forced to charge higher rates to meet the demand.

Regarding your invitation for a speaking engagement, if I offered consulting services for your target market, I would gladly make the trip out there on the basis that the ROI from one consulting client may be 100 times the cost of the time/money I had to invest. In fact, a lot of internet marketing conferences geared towards small businesses are based on the model of speakers paying their own expenses (and splitting the profits with the conference organizer) from any products/consulting sold to the audience at the end of their presentation.

over 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Pauly,

Glad we agree that many branding books are full of fluff. :)

To clarify the section of the post you refer to: it's not uncommon for entrepreneurs and startups to seek out consultants/freelancers who are willing to work for no up-front payment. As a consultant, I personally don't look favorably on entrepreneurs and startups looking for free services either (just not something I'm generally interested in) but at least there's some justification. In the case of Google, outside of a philosophical position, the company really has no excuse not to pay consultants/contractors, which is why I wrote what you quoted.

At the end of the day, providing services for free in exchange for exposure in the hope that you'll get business from that exposure is a form of spec work. I'm not a fan of spec work but plenty of people do it.

I would make the final point: I'm sure that there are people who provide services for free and do quite well. A big part of the decision comes down to where you are in life (your overhead, your family situation, etc.) and your risk tolerance. I would note that out of all the people I know who are willing to provide services for free, very few of them are any more successful for it.

over 7 years ago

Pauly Singh

Pauly Singh, Founder at Marketing Method

Patricio, you also have to keep in mind that the value you provide as a consultant in your field of expertise is likely 100 times the value that other consultants provide in their fields (design, programming, etc.), so I obviously agree that spec work just isn't worth it in your situation. Your marketing input can drive recurring profit and new profit streams for a client. So spec work for you would be like asking you to do $10,000 worth of work for free as opposed to spec work for a designer who may be doing $100 worth of work for free.

And I also agree with your last point that long-term spec work depends on your situation but is usually not a sustainable way to make a living.

over 7 years ago

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Eli Harris

   It's clear that the outside community has no respect for commercial artists, but as an internal busines practice this is just absurdism at its best. The Google proposition is like a Craigslist ad. These are smart people and they know exactly what they're doing. The problem is that they are setting a president that trancends artists. Exploitation is a serious offense in must circles and this is no exception. It's more the principle of the matter. It's unethical and poor practice. Illustrators don't have high prices so for Google to sidestep payment is really just silly.

   This practice is something illustrators have had to deal with for a long time and it demands serious contemplation by the illustration community but I'm sure most people can understand that spec work doesn't pay the bills. Marketing for illustrators is a tricky business, it doesn't have the same rules as conventional practices. Look at any of the graphics you see on a daily basis in all facets of your daily life, books, magazines, signage, adverts, all created by commercial artists.  We make a difference and should be compensated properly. Remember the Barry Blitt illustration for the New Yorker of the Obama's, that got huge play and was worth every penny they paid for it.

over 7 years ago

Pauly Singh

Pauly Singh, Founder at Marketing Method

Eli, you are correct about the perception being the reality, which is that many people don't recognize the larger implications of good design. This is definitely something the illustration/design community should constantly be marketing around. It is the responsibility of the community to constantly show examples explaining how design has positively impacted brand recognition and even actual sales for many companies. 

But I don't know if I would say that exploiting is what's happening here. If I was asked by Google to work on spec for them to make YouTube profitable, the opportunity could increase demand for my consulting services ten-fold for the rest of my life, so I would probably accept the opportunity. One person's exploitation in this case can be another's opportunity.

over 7 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

Hello Patricio,

If Google won't pay, who will is the key question.

Google deserves to be boycotted by the entire artistic community for this particular gesture in our direction.

Pauly is full of marketing fluff. I could see he's been reading Dan Kennedy and Jay Abraham. Sad, he appears not to even have properly digested what's he's read.

Particularly loathsome is when he went down on both knees for your approval:

Patricio, you also have to keep in mind that the value you provide as a consultant in your field of expertise is likely 100 times the value that other consultants provide in their fields (design, programming, etc.), so I obviously agree that spec work just isn't worth it in your situation. Your marketing input can drive recurring profit and new profit streams for a client. So spec work for you would be like asking you to do $10,000 worth of work for free as opposed to spec work for a designer who may be doing $100 worth of work for free.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I think Pauly is vastly overestimating the day rate of a marketing journalist (however good or not).

I wish we had the chance to vote on other contributors comments at Econsultancy (remember the Slashdot days) so we could collectively knock Pauly's karma well below zero and never see his posts again.

Artists of the world, there is someone out there who is willing to stand up and tell you you don't deserve to be paid for working. You're just basket cases. Your agent is the only one who deserves any part of your fee. There are millions of others like you. Your art is worthless unless there is a bidding frenzy around it.

Clearly Pauly doesn't have the slightest notion of the rich history of patronage nor did anybody speak to him about Van Gogh's life (i.e. in his lifetime he could hardly sell a thing but then the rest of the world caught up with his innovation and his worthless paintings sell for millions.

over 7 years ago

Pauly Singh

Pauly Singh, Founder at Marketing Method

Alec, I didn't realize expression of one's opinion would justify a flaming from those with a differing opinion. 

Regarding my last comment to Patricio, I assumed his consulting role would be that of a "marketing consultant", not journalist.

Also, you may have skipped my comment to Eli about the perception unfortunately being reality regarding the value of design, even though I can personally reference several instances where design has improved brand recognition and bottom line sales for several companies (Apple, Logitech, and SlingMedia being just a few examples).

It's cumbersome to have an objective discussion when other people put words in your mouth, so (unless my name is brought up in contempt) I'm done with commenting on this particular post.

Thanks for the provocative article Patricio, haha!

over 7 years ago

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