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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

Proven Ways to Get Advertising Creatives to Work for Free


I like to think the best about people. Until they punish me for it.

I hung up the phone and grinned ear to ear. I just finished the call every creative waits for. Out of the blue, an old client I hadn’t work with in years, rings me up. He has a fun project with a solid budget for a recognizable brand. I was ready to dance.

The only catch? We had to put together a budget, timeline and sample script addressing the creative brief – by tomorrow. I rallied the troops. And after 20 straight hours of toil, we had a surefire proposal. Then came the hard part. Waiting for a response.

After days passed, I emailed my old client and asked if he needed anything else before we get started. His response floored me. They decided to stay with the team they’d been using for the last couple of years. I picked up the phone.

Our conversation went something like this…

He loved what we propose, even laughed out loud at the humorous script we sent. But the other agency was going to get the work all along. He just needed a third bid. I had been bamboozled.

I didn’t say anything for what felt like an eternity as I processed my next words. Calmly, I told him if he ever needs a third bid I have templates that I could give to the interns. I went on to explain they could crank something out in a couple of hours – as a favor. He thanked me and said he’ll call back when he has a legitimate job he could steer my way. That was over five years ago. Never heard from him again.

This industry is rife with abhorrent behavior: slow payment, non-payment, plagiarism, offensive or tone-deaf advertising and marketing. But what I’m talking about is out-and-out theft or (just as criminal) duping people into working for free. And I’m seeing it a lot more frequently.

Fake Requests for Proposals

This particular incident happened to me more than once, but I imagine a lot of others have experienced it too.

A company invites you to respond to their request for proposals. Initially, you’re exuberant. Then you throw your back into it. And finally, sad trombone. No one ever wins the job. But lo and behold, weeks later your ideas show up in a television commercial – produced by the company’s internal content studio.

Fake Job Postings

Here’s another scam unscrupulous agencies have discovered. They post a job for a temporary writing assignment, explaining the candidate they hire will work on a (let’s say) national cosmetics brand. First you submit your credentials and sign away any ownership to your work. Then you’re asked to forward marketing ideas or stories based on images they provide. The agency explains the exercise helps them evaluate how candidates think. Of course, no one is ever hired.

After a brief directing gig at one such agency, I discovered it’s how they troll for “fresh” ideas to put into their upcoming pitch or RFP.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

A little while back, I was working at an agency where the owner asked if I’d introduce him to a friend of mine, a well-respected strategist. I was told to keep it under my hat, but he thought they might benefit from bringing a strategist in-house. I set up drinks and the owner came out firing questions about dog food of all things.

I never heard another word about hiring a full-time strategist for the agency. But the following week, we were pitching a local dog food brand. And you guessed it, the owner recited my buddy’s ideas – almost word for word – including co-opting his personal anecdotes. In the television comedy Silicon Valley, Erlich Bachman refers to this as a brain rape.

Only Suckers Pay Markup

A few years ago, a global telecom got tired of paying the agency markup on my production work. So they contact me directly to see what rate they could get on a marketing video. One 90-second video. Versus the years of work the agency steered me to the tune of about six projects a year. Yeah, that was a short conversation.

Cream and Bastards Rise*

Look, if you work in advertising or production, you know – hell, you expect a fair amount of this to happen. Don’t be naive. It’s been happening as long as this industry has existed. But does anyone else feel like it’s happening more often?

  • Have we crossed some ethical Rubicon?

  • Has the transactional gig economy encouraged this behavior?

  • Does an inexhaustible reservoir of brainpower make it a target for abuse?

Unfortunately, unless people are punished for this behavior versus promoted for saving the company a buck, we’re going to see a lot more of it.

There’s always another fresh-faced creative waiting in the wings to do your job for half your pay. There’s a growing number of business owner struggling to make payroll – a byproduct of contracting opportunities. But what really frustrates me is when we eat our own.

*A phrase taken from a Harvey Danger song Cream and Bastards Rise

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.


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