First Hand — Illustration ain’t no hobby: Handsome Frank on saying no to unpaid work

Posted 17 April 2018 Written by Jon Cockley

Last month we read a poignant tweet that got us thinking more seriously about a recurring theme for emerging creatives: unpaid work. The tweeter was illustration agency Handsome Frank’s co-founder Jon Cockley, and the topic is one he is fiercely passionate about. Having imposed a ban on all unpaid commissions and pitches a few years ago, this wasn’t the first time he’s spoken publicly about it. In January, a separate tweet of his clocked just under 200 reposts – highlighting the need to open up more of these conversations. Here, Jon tells us what inspired their zero-tolerance position, and how we might best move forward from a culture of offering “exposure” over due payment.

Although opinions can differ on the matter, historians generally agree that money is approximately 3,000 years old. Of course what preceded the ‘monetary system’ was the ‘barter system’, so it’s fair to say that the concept of payment for goods or services is a well-established one. 

So fast-forward to 2018, and it seems we have a problem. The creative industry is one that relies heavily on freelance illustrators. But somewhere along the way, it seems to have become an acceptable notion that you don’t have to pay them for their time and work. In fact, for some illustrators, especially younger ones, it is almost expected that they do work for free.

As an illustration agency founded seven years ago, we represent 37 illustrators across six continents. We promote them, find them work and manage their projects and careers. All of our illustrators are full-time and fully committed to what they do. They are not just exceptionally talented, they are exceptionally professional. They’ve studied their field and most have a degree in illustration, or a related subject. Illustration is not something that just happens, it’s not a skill you’re just born with. Problems have to be solved, compromises have to be made, deadlines have to be hit. In short, this ain’t no hobby – another problematic misconception. 

“Exposure has become a bit of a byword in our industry for ‘there’s no money’.”

Since starting our agency from our bedrooms, one of the things that has always delighted us is the breadth and size of our clients, and on the whole, they are great. They make us and our artists work hard and fast, the remuneration for those services is fair and, in some instances, generous. I want to be very clear about this – a top illustrator can earn a very good living from what they do, and deservedly so.

Yet, despite all of this, we still get those emails. Perhaps not on a weekly basis, but definitely on a monthly basis. There are many different ways to say it – sometimes they ask the artist for “an initial unpaid draft” or “work for consideration”, others are more brazen and just come out and say it: “Unfortunately we don’t have a budget in place.” Followed, predictably, by the wonderful ‘e’ word…Exposure. 

Exposure has become a bit of a byword in our industry for “there’s no money”. The slightly deluded and comical argument goes something like this: We’re a big company with lots of (followers/ fans/ customers), and although we don’t have a budget for this project, just think of all the people who will see your work, and the other amazing projects it might lead to. It will be great exposure for you. 

Now let’s just apply that argument to a different industry for a moment. I hired a plumber recently; but can you imagine the response if I had said, “I need a new bathroom fitting, and while I don’t have a budget, I’ve got 324 friends on Facebook and some of them might need a plumber too.” It’s laughable, but it’s the exact same situation. For the purposes of this article I decided to look up that lovely ‘e’ word, and according to the dictionary, exposure is “the state of having no protection from something harmful”. Sounds about right. 

For all of these reasons, we decided to take a zero-tolerance stance on unpaid work a couple of years ago. But we still sometimes receive these requests, and in January this year, we got one from a client who will remain unnamed. As usual, I sent back a polite reply, explaining our position and the wider implications for the industry. I decided to tweet about it with a section of my email, and received a bigger response from it than anything else this year, with over 650 likes and almost 200 retweets. It told me that this is a conversation we need to be having. 

Full disclosure time: Handsome Frank and many of our illustrators have worked on unpaid projects in the past. We understand what it’s like to start something from scratch, and completely empathise with the need to build a name and reputation for yourself. The temptation to accept a project because it may lead to something bigger and better is huge – especially if you don’t have any alternative offers.

Our argument lies very much with the companies and individuals asking illustrators to work for free. We must educate clients, open their eyes to the harm they’re doing and show them how unfair these requests are. We need to let them know that illustration is not a resource they can take advantage of; it needs to be nurtured and respected. 

So, what can you do as an emerging illustrator? Well firstly, don’t be scared of asking. If you receive an enquiry with no budget, point out the fact that this is how you earn a living. We must shatter the illusion that illustration is a hobby or something we do for fun. Whenever we’ve sent a strong reply to one of these requests, we’ve nearly always received an apologetic response, and we’ve even been thanked for pointing out the issue. 

“We must educate clients, open their eyes to the harm they’re doing.”

What if the project is just too good to turn down? Well, going back to my very first point, the act of exchange outdates the monetary system, so how about some good old fashioned bartering? If the client doesn’t have budget, what do they have? If it’s a restaurant, then how about some free meals? If it’s a new fashion label, everyone likes free clothes. Ultimately it’s about respect; respect for your time, talent and hard work.

As an agency, we’ll continue to say no to all requests for unpaid work – whether it’s for a pitch, initial sketch, or quick idea – and explain our stance in the process. Our hope is that all agencies and illustrators do the same, and that the message will become loud and clear for clients. By educating them, hopefully we can eradicate these requests once and for all… And the plumber said no, by the way.

Posted 17 April 2018 Written by Jon Cockley
Illustration: Jiro Bevis
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Illustration
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