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Jun 12, 2024 by Gordy Megroz
Photo Illustration Dave Cox. (No AI was harmed or even employed in this illustration. Stock images purchased.)

Longer Reads: Don’t Let Them Shake You Down

In his last Hence story, "Stop Underselling Yourself," Gordy Megroz asked why creatives don't own their expertise. Now he's following up with a look at the business practices that exacerbate the fee crunch.

In September 2022, Adam Barker, a 15-year adventure photographer based in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, posted a stunning picture of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park on Instagram.

Not long after, he received a message on the app from somebody using the official Instagram account of The Wort, a luxury hotel in downtown Jackson, Wyoming. “Can we repost this photo and give you photo credit?” the message read. Barker responded, saying that he’d be happy to allow them to repost the photo in exchange for two nights of lodging at the hotel.

The response from the person operating The Wort’s Instagram account was curt: “No thanks.”

Normally, Barker would’ve let it go, but the interaction touched a nerve. For years, Barker has held the notion that companies, large and small, devalue the work of creatives. “They think, ‘it’s just a picture, what’s the big deal if we use it?’” says Barker. “They don’t see all the work that went into taking that picture. And they don’t think about the fact that this is my job; this is how I feed my family.”

He responded in the message thread: “Licensing imagery for social media usage constitutes a significant chunk of my income… It’s a slap in the face to those of us who have spent countless hours and dollars creating something that obviously has value—or else you wouldn’t want it. If you can’t wrap your head around trading value for value, then please don’t ask me to give you my work for free.”

The Wort’s response was rude. “Don’t have time to read this,” the person operating the account wrote.

Adam Barker's Teton shot. Clearly worth paying for. Photo: Adam Barker

The obvious question is this: How did the hard work of creatives become perceived as such a cheap commodity?

The answer is complicated. “I think we got here because everybody is a freelancer and everybody can set their own rates and some people can charge less than others,” says Scott Markewitz, a Utah-based photographer with 30 years of experience. “There’s no collective bargaining. There are no standards.”

Because of that, clients take advantage of freelance creatives when they can. “There’s always a freelancer that’s going to jump on that low-ball offer,” says Markewitz. “A lot of creatives are unsure of the value of their work, and less-experienced creatives are often willing to provide photos or content for free to get the exposure.”

Further diluting the market is the rise of social media influencers, who generally create lesser-quality content than professional creatives but bring value in another way: by drawing direct engagement thanks to their large following.
At least that’s been the prevailing hypothesis. But it might not hold true in the outdoor space.

During the past 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado, the PR, media buying, and social media coordinating firm Backbone Media held a panel discussion in which the host, Backbone’s Social Media Director Jason Smith, did some impromptu crowd sourcing. First, he asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d ever made a purchase because a professional athlete endorsed a product. Roughly 80 percent of the audience waved. Then he asked who in the crowd had made a purchase because an influencer had endorsed a product. Less than 5 percent of the hands went up. [Editor’s note: percentages are estimates from Hence staffers in attendance.] The show of hands would seem to indicate that, in the outdoor space at least, influencers are putting out a lot of cheap content that’s not moving the needle for brands. That dynamic might be devaluing all content. If cheap content isn’t working, the poor logic might go, why should I pay for quality storytelling?

“It’s not complicated,” says Markewitz. “The more content that’s out there, the cheaper it becomes.”

Every image Scott Markewitz captures is the result of days, weeks, and years of work. There is value in work. Photo: Bailey Speed

The publishing industry, much of which has struggled to create a sustainable business model since 2005, continues to devalue creatives, too. In the late 1980s, now defunct Skiing magazine was paying writers $1 per word. By the early 1990s, the top Skiing contributors were getting $2 a word. Recently, I wrote a story for The New York Times. The pay? One dollar per word. Extraordinarily slow payment by media companies also hurts freelancers. For writers, fees for stories are now paid upon publication when they used to be paid upon acceptance of the work. Even then, it can sometimes take media companies up to a year to pay up. That money should be in the writers’ accounts collecting interest.

The Adventure Journal recently reported that photographer Stuart Palley wrote a post about a “clients’ hall of shame,” calling out publications for taking up to six months to pay. The Adventure Journal also reported that, because of several bad experiences, Palley has effectively stopped working with the media. “The juice is no longer worth the squeeze,” is the frequent refrain.

Creatives, though, are not without blame. New players have always taken low paying work to build portfolios, and it’s hard to blame anyone for that. We all grow out of that phase. But endemically poor business practices by creatives also contribute to lower fees for all. A practice called “trade in kind,” in which creatives trade work for goods or services, also damages the overall market. In theory, if a creative is trading for something of equal value, making trades isn’t terrible (Adam Barker says that the value of licensing a photo for one-time use on Instagram is approximately worth the cost of two nights at The Wort). But it almost never works out that way.

I hate to admit that I’ve engaged in trade in kind—and that it most definitely did not work out well for me. A few years ago, I agreed to write for Aspen Skiing Company in exchange for a season’s pass (a value of about $3,000). After I’d done all the writing, I tallied up how much I would’ve earned had I charged them a fair rate. Over $6,000.

I wrote to tell the content director that I’d be happy to continue writing for the company, but that I wouldn’t be able to do a pass trade again—I’d need to be paid. I never heard from them again.

What irks me, is that these companies have plenty of money to pay creatives what they’re worth. But they’ve become so accustomed to essentially getting a lot for nothing, that it seems increasingly difficult to demand fair pay for fair work.

I wrote to tell the content director that I’d be happy to continue writing for the company, but that I wouldn’t be able to do a pass trade again—I’d need to be paid. I never heard from them again.  —Gordy Megroz

So what can be done? As hard as it sounds, creatives need to turn down work if they’re not being fairly compensated. “Don’t ever work for free,” says Markewitz. It’s been a mantra of his for his entire career.

It also helps to work for other creatives. One of the best companies that I work for is Flatbed Creative, an agency that builds creative campaigns for companies like Webex, Toyota, and AWS. The company is owned by former magazine editors who, simply put, get it. “Since we’re creatives, we know what a pain it is to not get paid well and on time,” says Ryan Krogh, one of Flatbed’s founders. “And we also know that creatives work harder and better if they’re getting paid well and on time.”

But getting that message across to bigger companies can sometimes be harder. Bodie Johnson, who owns Big Drop Music, a company that helps companies like Yeti and The North Face license music for movies and advertisements, finds that companies typically come to him for help in the eleventh hour. That mentality by companies, the idea that they know better and can execute tasks best left to experts in the creative community, also drives down costs. But as strategies go it’s fraught.

When they realize that they can’t do it themselves, they call me. At that point, they’re usually losing money over the deal. So they learn the hard way that it’s better to hire somebody like me early on, somebody who knows what they’re doing, so that they don’t get in trouble again.

Bodie Johnson Big Drop Music

Adam Barker took a different tact. He posted his interaction with The Wort on Instagram. After hundreds of people called out The Wort for their bad practices, the person manning the Instagram account eventually wrote a long apology to Barker. “It’s not the way I’d prefer to educate companies about valuing the work of creatives,” he says. “But I guarantee they never did anything like that again.”