I'm Sorry, We Do Not Accept Exposure
Picture this: you walk into Barney’s, you grab a $7000 bag, and proceed to find a clerk that will ring you up. I’ve only been in Barney’s once and the experience was too surreal to remember how it actually works, but I’m sure it’s much fancier. The associate tells you that your total is $7,315.00 (because NY State tax and stuff). You confidently proceed to tell the associate that you only have $1,000, but the rest of the balance you will cover in exposure. The associate looks at you like you’re on all kinds of drugs. So you begin to explain that what you mean by exposure is that you will tell all of your friends and everyone you know to come shop at Barney’s. The associate calls security and you’re banned from Barney’s for a year (I don't know if that actually happens but if I was Barney this would be my rule).
Okay, so now that we have established the idea that offering exposure as a form of currency is often times ludicrous, let’s continue. Wait, what? You’re not into handbags? You’d never pay that much for a purse? Okay, let’s find something you can relate to.
You walk into the supermarket and fill your cart with all of your necessities. You’ve got some toilet paper, shampoo, soap, bread, milk, eggs. You’ve even got some cookies because you were feeling extra wild, After you’re done shopping, you go to check out. Your total is, I don’t know, $25.67. You tell the check out clerk that you’re not actually interested in paying with REAL money, but rather you’d like to post a photo of the belt with all of your groceries on there and shout them out on Instagram. They tell you you’re out of line and you’re escorted out of the supermarket (I don't know, I must have a thing for being escorted out of stores).
The idea that you’d like a quality product, or a product in general, but are not actually going to pay for it makes no sense when we talk about it in reference to everyday items or luxury items. You wouldn’t go into Barney’s and ask to barter, just like you wouldn’t go into a car dealership and trade a selfie for a car.
So what makes it okay for the creative industry? What compels people to feel that they can request the services of creatives, business owners, etc., in exchange for nothing? That’s a rhetorical question. But if we were going to answer it, here are a few reasons as to why people, companies, sharks, beasts and other creatures think it’s okay to suck the talent out of you for free.
WE HAVE GIVEN THEM PERMISSION.
I’ve bartered a million times in my career. Just this past weekend I participated in a huge barter that saved my butt. I’ve put in my hours of work in exchange for ‘exposure.’ I’ve done that in situations where I had no business selling myself short. I’ve done things for FREE ($0.00) for people and companies who have enough money to provide food for a year to several third world countries. I have made that mistake, I have learned from that mistake, and I have kept moving.
I’ve exchanged photos for services like makeup artistry (they get to add the photos to their portfolio), tools, equipment etc. Those instances have been so important to my career because they helped me create things that have elevated the game for me. The only time bartering is worth it is when the exchange is equal. If I am taking your photo, going home and spending hours editing, to then be paid in the form of a shout out on social media, that does not equate. And now here lies the problem: we’ve made these companies, people, clients, etc., believe that it is some sort of honor to work for free.
You’re a farmer, right? You have about 3,000 acres of land. You have all these crops and livestock. Some well known guy from down the road is like “Hey, I’d love to take all of your corn, potatoes, carrots, and 5 of your goats so that I can host a dinner for my friends.” You’re all like, “Yeah of course, it’s going to cost you X amount of money.” (you own 3,000 acres of land with animals that are alive and crops that haven’t died proving you are about that life and did not pick up this trade yesterday). The guy is like, “Well I was thinking that maybe I can just make an announcement right before dinner and tell the people that the vegetables and meats came from your farm.” You’re just standing there feeling all sorts of disrespected because you worked hard for months to make sure those were the best crops ever. Of course, they’re the best, they’re coming to you asking for them. Your goats are the best damn goats out in these fields and you’ve raised them for years. What do you do? Do you give away your hard work in hopes that one or two of the guy's friends come buy 3 ears of corn and a potato from you? Or do you politely decline because you worked way too hard to give it all away?
Here’s the thing friends, when you accept these ludicrous exchanges, and you do it for the followers, the shout outs, the so-called opportunities, you’re not only devaluing yourself, but you’re devaluing the work of other people in your industry. There are times when bartering makes sense, and the exposure is so real you’ll need to do it. We need to learn to pick and choose where we decide to invest those very valuable parts of ourselves. You wouldn’t donate a bag of clothing to a king, just like you wouldn’t charge a homeless person for a bottle of water if you had one to spare.
THEY SELL US DREAMS, AND WE BUY THEM.
I am the queen of meetings. Four out of the seven days of the week I’m in a meeting with some pretend high powered hyper intern who’s selling me dreams. Those dreams usually consist of exposure, product, opportunity, famous people, etc. The first few times this happened to me, I bought those dreams and their accessories. Some of those dreams were actually nightmares. Other dreams have still not been fulfilled even years later. One or two of those dreams turned into dreams I’ve been able to cash out constantly. That has come from learning to discern when I’m being sold dreams and when I’m being brought into a smart investment. I don’t have it down to a science, but I’m getting there.
The dream is that the situation or opportunity that they are proposing is going to make your career. Like this will be the Beyonce of my career sort of dream. The reality is that you have bills to pay and more than likely other projects to attend to. So when your bills come in the mail at the end of the month, you cannot call your cell phone company and say, “Hey man, I’m going to need an extension on my bill this month, just waiting on my dreams to pay out.”
WE DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER (UNTIL NOW).
I didn’t really have people telling me I had to stop doing things for free when I was doing them. I didn’t think it was a big deal, and a lot of the creatives that I knew in the industry were doing things for free as well. There were a few select ones who learned this whole scam early on in their careers. You saw the shift in their work, their attitude, even their life when they began to say no to exposure. Those people inspire me on the daily to turn down the big names, the selling of dreams and to reject the flattery. "I know I’m good, and you know I’m good or else we wouldn’t be sitting here. Does your finance department know how good I am?” That is the attitude that has gotten me some of the biggest opportunities and pay days in my career.
In light of these frustrations (and to prove a point), a few months ago I took it upon myself to contact some of my service providers and ask the following:
Dear COMPANY NAME,
I have an account with your company (ACCOUNT NUMBER). I am writing because unfortunately, this month I will not be able to apply a monetary payment to my balance. Instead, I would like to cover my bill by paying with exposure. My income as of late has been exposure based and so my clients have only been able to pay me using that method of payment, therefore that’s all I have.
Please let me know what we can do in order to make this payment in a timely and convenient fashion.
I sent this to my gas & electric company along with my cable / internet provider, my cell phone provider, and I tried to buy something online with said exposure.
I won’t exhaust you with all of the responses that I received (which weren’t many because I’m assuming they read it and thought it was a joke). However to give you a general idea as to what the response were like, I will share the shortest and best response I received.
Dear Miss Benitez,
I’m sorry, we do not accept exposure.
What you read above is pretty self explanatory, but I’ll leave you with this tiny series of events that recently changed me.
A few weeks ago, I broke night working on a media kit/pitch for a company who needed it the next morning by 8 AM EST. Fun fact: Said company is one of the wealthiest companies in the world. Two days later, after sending the media kit, the company responded with so much flattery, if I had let it go to my head I’d have floated away into another universe. They also responded with the following:
“Unfortunately, we do not feel that you are experienced enough to consider a budget for this project. However, we feel that this will benefit us both tremendously. We would love to have you on board."
Needless to say, I was hurt, and that response broke me in ways I didn’t know I could break. For the first few seconds, I considered the opportunity for exposure. The honor it would be to work with such a well-known company. Then I realized how dishonorable it would be to my gift, to myself and to my time to be openly taken advantage of by opportunists who are looking for ways to take young, hungry creatives and turn them into one-way forms of profit.
I questioned my talents and my abilities to deliver anything anymore. I APPLIED FOR AN OFFICE JOB that night. I felt like I never wanted to touch my camera again. Then I got all of my feels out, I listened to an incredible bit by Ari Shaffir that a friend shared, and I remembered a conversation I had with someone that forever changed me.
I was asked by someone in a meeting what I felt I brought to the table, and why I felt like their project should consider a budget for me. I recalled reading something silly on Tumblr about bringing the table to the table, and I looked that man in the eye and I said, “What are you asking me? I am the table.” That to date has been the most rewarding deal of my career.
We have to stop believing that we are merely a leg on the table where people sit to discuss how they’re going to get over while leaving us under. I bring the table to the table, therefore I am the table. No one has a place to sit or feast or discuss without what I bring.
I have had to learn my worth. I’m constantly discovering and growing my worth.
I know my worth and you better believe I’m adding tax.