Clients That Pay You With “Exposure”?

Trying to land clients for creative jobs is already tough, but securing a client that pays you with “exposure”?… Those of you in the retail business probably wouldn’t understand this. But it’s actually a pretty frequent occurrence in the creative industry.

Text logo crossing out "No Work For Free" to show support that creative people don't sell services for payment with exposure.
Paying a designer with “exposure” or promise of future jobs is as good as asking them to work for FREE!… Just say “No”.

How Did Payment With Exposure Start?

In the consumer business, customers pay for the purchase of products or services. No ifs and no buts. You want something, you simply pay the asking price. If you think it’s too expensive, then that’s just too bad. Either you forget about buying it, or find another seller selling it at a cheaper price. Perhaps at some tourist destinations, there’s this unwritten rule that allows one to bargain. When the haggling has stopped, and the price has been agreed upon, then the transaction can proceed. The buyer buys the product at the agreed price, and everybody goes home happy.

But the creative industry is a totally different animal altogether. Here, creative professionals sell their services to agencies, or sometimes directly to the end clients themselves. Let’s take a commercial photographer as an example. Unlike a retail photographer, there’s no such thing as a “standard” shoot. No standard baby photos, standard family portraits, and definitely no standard ID mugshots. One day he can be shooting for a fashion designer’s magazine spread, and the next day for a restaurant’s menu. He probably doesn’t do the same type of shoot for at least a couple of months, if ever…

There’s No Such Thing As A Standard Job

Since there’s no such thing as a standard job, hence there’s also no such thing as a standard price either. So how does one decide what’s a fair price for any transaction at all? Every job requires different plannings, subjects, talents, locations, hardware, props, assistants, hence, different operating costs. And with that, the asking price also varies too. Then throw some competitors into the mix, each quoting a different price, and we’ll have a price range that’s unbelievably wide.

Image showing photo finishing jobs, holding up a printed image, against a monitor showing more images.
Designers, photographers, and all other creative professionals come in varying degrees of experience and talent. It’s next to impossible to gauge one’s value, and especially compare them against a “market rate”… A “market rate” simply doesn’t exist. – Image source Pixabay.

It’s A Buyer’s Market, Hence Being Cheeky To Offer Payment Via Exposure In Lieu Of Money

It’s a common occurrence. Agencies will have plenty of service providers to choose from. A more experienced and commercially successful photographer would ask for a higher price. He can, since he’s pretty confident that he’ll be able to deliver the job successfully. The less experienced one, however, would ask for a lower price, just to shove his foot into the door. After all, securing this job alone is already bragging rights on its own.

It’s basically a buyer’s market at this juncture. The buyer has plenty of bargaining advantage. Of course, their priority is to get the job done properly, and at one go. They want as few reshoots as possible (each reshoot will cost extra money), preferably none. And they know they can only achieve that with a professional photographer.

But then again, they also have a budget to work around. The more money they spend on the photography work, the less profit they’ll earn at the end of the day. It’s in their interest to secure a job as cheap as possible. So what do they do?… They pitch the photographers against one another, and get them to underbid each other… Pretty sneaky, huh?…

Cheap Things Not Good, Good Things Not Cheap, But Offering To Pay With Exposure Is Downright Deplorable

Experienced photographers are expensive, but less likely to incur the additional cost of reshoot. Inexperienced photographers are cheaper, but have a higher probability of failure, hence reshoot. And there’s also the possibility that they’re not able to deliver the job at all. This amounts to a whole lot of uncertainty, something that they can certainly do without. So how do they choose?…

Young buy shooting a young girl model, out in the field. Will he work for exposure in lieu of payment?
Amateur photographer, working for amateur price. – Image source Pixabay.

Ideally, they’d want to work with a professional, but at the inexperienced photographer’s asking price. So logically, you’d think that they’d settle for a semi-experienced photographer, and at a mid-point price, right? Except that most agencies (or end clients) would prefer to pay nothing at all, if the can get away with it… And if they don’t pay anything for the shoot, any additional reshoot will also cost them nothing. So there’s literally zero financial risk to them… Pretty sneaky of them, huh?…

The Sneaky Gets Even Sneakier

These sneaky agencies (or end clients) would normally choose to approach retail photographers or budding commercial photographers. The ones who’re hungry for exposure that they can leverage on for future sales.

These agencies (or clients) offer relatively unknown photographers a “promise” of exposure if they take on the job for free. “We’ll promote your works to our contacts, and you can then sell to them in the future”. But the problem with that is that there’s no guarantee of a future sale.

Promises Of “Future” Sales

An alternative to offering “exposure” is the “promise” of future sales. Their quip normally goes like this, “If you do this job for free, we’ll engage you for all our future work.” It could also be something like “We intend to engage you long-term, but we need to see how good you are first.” In any case, they simply want you to work for them for free!

The more gullible ones would probably take up the offer. They’ll put in all their effort to excel in that first job to impress the client. But when it comes to repeat sales, or referrals to other clients… All quiet on the western front!… And that’s before you find out that they’re offering the same deal to other similar photographers like you too…

Once Bitten Twice Shy

While it’s very unethical, it’s not exactly illegal. So clients can, and they often do, get away with unscrupulous business deals like this. So what you can do is to learn from your mistake. Be wary the next time somebody offers “exposure” or “promise of future paid jobs” in exchange for jobs delivered today. These people literally wants to take you for a ride, and get you to work for free.

Every product or service has its own value. Hence, to exchange the said product or service, a buyer has to offer a payment of equivalent value. As a service provider, a photographer’s work has its own value too. Know your own value, and never let anybody short-change you. Every business transaction is an exchange in the present, not future. Hence, you should never accept any “promise” of payment in the future. Not unless clearly stated on the invoice the exact amount to be paid, and the due date of the payment. “Promises” for future payments are literally empty promises that carry no weight.

As for payment in “exposure”, well, just don’t… You can’t pay your rental with “exposure”, nor can you buy groceries with “exposure” either. So why should you accept payment for your services with “exposure”?

Creative man wearing black turtleneck and beret, shaking his index finger, showing that he refuses to receive payment in exposure.
When faced with unfair deals, just say “No”. If you can’t put food on the table with “exposure” or “promise” of future jobs, then you shouldn’t sell your services for that either. – Image designed by Kues1 /

Life’s Too Short To Learn From Your Own Mistakes

While many advocates the learning from one’s mistakes, our lives are simply too short. Instead, learn from others’ mistakes. You’ll learn a whole lot faster that way. Why fall for the same ploy when you already know of somebody else who had already fallen for it?

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