You Should Work For Free. You Should Not Work For Free.

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It is the constant debate of the marketing industry: should you do spec work?

There is a phase in the acquisition of a new client that usually requires a marketing agency to spend a lot of time pitching. This pitch work often consists of both strategic and creative spec work (for free – in the hopes that you win the big account). This work is masked as an exercise to see how well the agency understands the brand’s positioning and how well they can execute on work specific to the client. It’s a game that all agencies take play in, and it’s one that we all, constantly, complain about. There are a myriad of reasons (the work isn’t truly indicative of the experience that you get when a brand collaborates with an agency. That the work isn’t always being done by the actual team that the brand will ultimately work with. The fact that none of this work is ever used for an actual campaign. And the list goes on and on). Brands claim that this spec work gives them a much better perspective on what they can expect from the agency, but many would argue that there is nothing truly gained that couldn’t  be done through deep interviews with current and past clients and reviews of the agency’s portfolio through case studies.

The debate rages on.

It’s not just agencies that deal in the business of working for free. In the past little while, there were two divergent pieces published on the notion of working for free. The New York Times put out the article, Unpaid Interns: Silent No More, on July 20th, 2013, while Fast Company published, How To Write A Follow-Up Email That Will Land You The Job. It’s a sticky and contentious topic, to be sure. The New York Times piece: "What interns are demanding is hardly a mystery: respect for their work. In short, it’s time to start envisioning and putting into practice a healthy, effective internship culture. For better or worse, pay is the fundamental currency of respect in every modern economy. Unless it’s a bona fide training or volunteer position, an internship should be paid, open to all and transparently advertised — and should never result in the displacement of other employees." From the Fast Company piece: "The psychology underlying this practice of unstoppability: By showing what you’re capable of and why the organization needs it in their life, you reduce the cognitive load of whether-or-nots for the hiring manager. In other words, we can make ourselves obvious hires." Two very different scenarios. In one scenario, the individuals have accepted to be interns. In the other scenario, the individual is applying for a job. Still, do you think the individual applying for the job was then paid for her work, or was the "pay" the fact that she made herself the obvious hire?

Defining economics.

I often joke to my peers that since I started writing for free (on this blog and in other places that seemed good for me to bulk up my resume and visibility), that it has afforded me more paid writing opportunities that I ever encountered when I was a full-time freelance journalist many moons ago. The real joke comes in that I no longer even consider myself much of a journalist at all. What I do know is this: over the decades I have done a ton of free work. I’ve worked for others, consulted individuals, offered to be an intern, been writing this unpaid blog for close to a decade, and more in the hopes of not being paid or eventually getting full-time employment from these companies, but as a way to increase my experience and make me more valuable in the marketplace. Abuse of an intern (paid or otherwise) or any individual doesn’t add any true value to a company. Furthermore, in many of these instances, I think the abuse is a two-way street. If there is an agreement in place that the person helping out will not be paid and then accept this agreement, it should stand. Most companies are not going to meet the federal law’s requirement that "internships at profit-making companies are to be unpaid, they must foster an educational environment. (The rules are different for nonprofit and governmental agencies)," simply because it is increasingly difficult to define what an educational environment is. Personally, my best "job training" was happening not by doing anything, but by simply being a fly-on-the-wall and observing those who were being paid in action. I’ve also had instances when I was doing the physical work and wondering why an unpaid individual would do this. Those moments were often more illuminating to me than the observing ones. I was truly learning more that I ever could from some HR-guided presentation on what the company does in a classroom setting.

Bad bosses.

I was once fired. I didn’t like it. But, to this day, it was the most powerful business lesson that I have ever learned. It forced me to do a lot of self-reflection and it taught me about what I truly wanted (and didn’t want) in my life. There is no doubt that abuse of this system exists. There is also no doubt that the smartest individuals take these opportunities to work for free and convert it into something worth so much more than the minimum wage. We need rules to protect those that try to abuse the system in as much as we need rules to protect the individuals who don’t realize that they’re being taken advantage of. Beyond that, sometimes the best experiences are not the ones that you’re immediately paid for, but the ones that pay off – in dividends – for the years that follow. Work is sometimes not about the money that you make for a specific task, but much more about:

  • Learning a new skill.
  • Networking with interesting people.
  • The dynamics of teamwork.
  • Fighting towards a common goal.
  • Understanding how an industry operates.
  • Expanding your horizons.
  • Forcing you to think through a problem in a way that you never had.
  • Teaching you what you don’t want out of life.
  • …and so much more.

I don’t believe in working for free, but I sometimes do.


  1. I was asked to write a new blog post and how I would promote it socially when applying for the project I am working on now. It got me the gig!

  2. When you write your Blog posts (which are excellent), are you not working for free?

  3. No disrespect to anyone who works for free but you have to be really closed minded to work for free. There are literally tons of companies out there to choose from and wouldn’t get hung up on one particular company.
    Working for free is just abuse in my opinion, look at Bell Canada and Rogers, making tons of money each quarter yet hire interns that have to work for free. I’m sure they got bills to pay regardless if you’re living at home. Companies should be ashamed of themselves taking advantage of people and especially in the times we are in. The government should outlaw this practice altogether.
    Another point to consider is that while you are working for free the company you are working for is making money with your labour and personally would not wont to work for any company who has no respect to my time and talent.
    I think when you’re blogging you’re trying to build up your audience not to mention you already have a day job so putting yourself in the category with an interns is ……….I’ll stop here before I get even more irritated.
    Anyways, I would not recommend working for free, there is always something that comes along.

  4. Would love to hear your thoughts on the working for free during spec pitches specifically. You touched on it…but wonder what your final decision (if there is one) on the topic is? Personally, I don’t enjoy spec creative (does anyone?) but it is a reality of this business. However, think the size and scope of the potential account is what really determines the ‘fairness’ of an ask to provide a free communication plan and creative. We have turned pitches down when the ask exceeded the payout. Think this happens all too often. My 2 cents. Thanks for another great post Mitch.

  5. Not only am I working for free, but it’s costing because time spent on blogging is time spent to being billable to clients. That being said, the blog has brought with it untold fortunes… ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Same for us. We evaluate the ask against the outcome. I wish it were more scientific, but it is a case-by-case scenario that we closely monitor. On top of that, we put a budget against the spec creative as well to keep the rails on it.

  7. Looking at the other end of this article, it would be great to hear about how Twist Image looks at interns. Are there certain aspects that are more likely to be compensated for? Creative vs Technical or University vs Relevant skills?

  8. We don’t have any “formal” process on this, currently. It is a case-by-case basis at this point. The reason? We have been very busy and grown at a quick pace. This makes it hard to truly focus on the potential of interns and formalize a mutually beneficial and official program around it.

  9. You know… way back in the times when “women knew there place” there was a big part of what you could perhaps call the economy… where everyone worked for free. There are these free market fundamentalist folks whom talk about market motives and Jesus were one in the same.. but there are some things markets aren’t good at… and I think if we are interested in the wholeness of our humanity… I think the idea of working for free, at least where it makes sense for me, is in this sense.
    Do you remember those boring conversations about “how to monetize your blog?” I always felt like.. that was kinda missing the point. We’ve spent so much time talking about the business applications of social media….
    I run into people now who think social media is marketing and communications… as if social media were a business discipline..
    And I want to say “ok, what is the value of you network?” Like because of social media I’ve built this monster of a network.. a kind of network you couldn’t build pre social media.. it’s not people I’m networked with because I’m interested in how they might potentially help my career so much as… all the conversations I’ve had with them, often over beers, and how much I enjoyed them and those conversations.
    There’s a level of love there… You watch the movie wall street and you might wonder how Love could could help your bottom line.. but when life has pushed me to the limits.. there’s been people there in my network to help me move forward.
    so I guess I just feel like we should think about doing things for free when we are interested in getting outside the prison of needing to quantify ROI…
    OH.. and I guess I mostly don’t believe in spec work… but in the words of a great PR podcast “It depends.”

  10. You touched on a couple of great points in this post – pitching and the time spent on strategy and creative and the concept of working for free.
    I think that the lengthy and costly pitch process is, more often than not, a waste of resources. I would much rather spend my time understanding the unique variables and challenges that the brand is facing and then work with them on coming up with a strategy and implementing it. In my opinion, why waste not only your own time and money but the brand’s time and money on throw-away effort when you can immediately get to work on implementation? Brands can tell way more about whether a particular agency would be a good fit by their approach and their past accomplishments.
    With regards to working for free… taking the intern out of the equation (I think interns shouldn’t be afraid of some healthy negotiation when accepting a position – whether they be paid in monetary terms or otherwise). For everyone else, I strongly believe that you need, at some point, to work for free and that rule of thumb has served me well throughout my career. That could mean putting in longer hours to learn something new or to invest time others might not be willing to, in order to do something that’s “not in your job description”. To think outside the box and challenge yourself to do what others shy away from. You might not be getting paid to do that but in the long run, you end up better off for it. What do you have to lose? The free time you spent could end up in getting a raise or a new position. At the bare minimum, you’ve learned something new, a new approach, a new skill set etc.

  11. I was recently let go from my job working for a website for almost 15 years! I can see that there have been so many changes in the digital landscape that unfortunately my skills and knowledge has not kept up. I’m trying not to get discouraged but its tough knowing that so many jobs are being outsourced to individuals in countries that there is just no way that I could take on work for $2-$5 p/hr.So I’ve decided to take an entry level position that I hope will give me some knowledge in an area that I am interested in but only have basic knowledge. Until you are unemployed it’s very hard to understand the tremendous challenge that job seekers face.

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