Freelance State of Mind: Fighting back against “corporate bullies”

Freelance illustrator Ben Tallon wants designers to stand up for themselves when being asked to work for free, particularly when companies which should know better are involved.

DW Column 9 illo 2

I’ve not yet thought to ask my girlfriend why Channel 5 was on the TV as I came home from the studio last night, but it was. On the screen was the truly abominable car-crash show, Can’t Pay, We’ll Take It Away. The premise is quite simple. Blokes in intimidating security-style outfits evict unfortunate tenants and repossess their property.

The unease it left me feeling for the rest of the evening and this morning was not entirely brought about by the callous act of sending in a film crew to document someone’s lowest ebb for a show that represents no more than ‘background noise.’ It had more to do with the less obvious, but equally ruthless corporate bullies flexing their muscles in the creative industries.

“Companies I had naively trusted”

When I started out in business seven years ago, I would receive queries for illustration work, largely from local people, smaller entities with small budgets. Sometimes they were simply too small to entertain, but when I did take on work, I would eye them suspiciously, identifying these fellow start-ups as the ones to watch, who I feared might run for the hills without so much as asking for your bank sort-code as soon as I sent them the artwork. I had enough self-respect to know that seven years of education should not amount to voluntary employment of my skills. However, to the contrary, I would be blindsided on numerous occasions by the much bigger companies I had naively trusted, simply because I recognised their name.

Don’t get me wrong, many of my clients these days are giants, but only the ones who pay properly and on fair terms.  We’re living in times when we as creative professionals have to understand that we are all a part of the same pile in the eyes of too many arrogant businesses who are unaccustomed to being challenged by the individual. It’s time we started to respect ourselves while we still have an industry to work in.DW column 9 illo 1

Historically, artists have always struggled to attain the respect shown to other trades, but if we all respected ourselves, it would help to create a tougher industry where more of us would not hesitate to respond the way any electrician listed in your local directory would if you called them up and asked them to rewire your home for free.

All but the most stupid individuals can see the key role the arts and innovators play in the technologically advanced-world in which we live, but that is not being reflected in the way those in the industry are being treated.

“He was told they could get ‘a bigger name'”

Two weeks ago a close friend received a query from a video-game industry giant, wishing to license his original music composition for a globally recognised driving game series. After a lengthy discussion, the elephant in the room was addressed and it turned out that the offer on the table extended only as far as a magazine subscription and a free console. He was told, rather bluntly that they could get a ‘bigger name’ to do it if he chose to decline their ridiculous offer.  What could have been a career defining moment was nothing more than the new boy in the playground being dangled by his underpants.

We all saw supermarket giant Sainsbury’s make the news after advertising for an artist to voluntarily decorate their canteen walls. These are just two of many assaults on our livelihoods.

The slower cancer spreading throughout the London creative scene will require another fight-back altogether. Crucial studio space disappears at a scary pace as greedy property-developers chase us into the suburbs and other UK cities. As long as we sit idly by and hope that someone else turns the tide, it will only get worse and the London so globally respected for its cultural prowess will be no more.

New London Mayor, Sadiq Khan has made promising initial comments about his wish to address the situation, but until we come together and unite in demanding fair payment and respect for our crucial role in the UK economy, society and education system, we cannot expect those with the power and money to take us seriously. It’s time to get armed with knowledge, start respecting yourself and educating those who would see our industry run into the ground for a quick financial fix. Too many of us in this business are quiet, mild mannered people, scared to upset those who routinely do just that to us. We need to get out-raged, feel disrespected and let people know we won’t stand for it.

Ben Tallon is an illustrator, art-director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries. He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns at

Hide Comments (10)Show Comments (10)
  • Shelley June 1, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Sadly, this story is true everywhere. I got it in Denver, Knoxville, and Orlando. As an independent artist, I just, eventually, had to toughen up, put my empathy aside (for the poorer startups), and think of myself, and my bank account. A union of freelance artists and designers may be the only way to get any respect. Maybe there is one, but even when I see the prices in the Graphic Artists Guild Guide, and quote a higher logo price, people look at me like I am crazy, and say they’ll get a friend of their brother’s to do it. As long as we have weekend artists and high school artists willing to do the work for nothing, they will be there. The trick is to individually stand up against it, and “school” them a bit. Maybe the idea of “starving artists” can be replaced by Abundant Artists, when artists start to push back! Thanks for the article.
    Shelley Overton

  • L. Grey June 1, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Brilliantly put. And perfect timing for me to read your article. I have literally just squared up to sending an email stating my free-lance hourly rate, fully aware that the recipient may be a little shocked and a little bewildered that I won’t produce professional artwork for ‘a few quid’. Or ‘freely given’ out of the goodness of my heart, and with the expectation that I will be paid by the Universe at some point, for being so nice. I intend to stand my ground. Wish me luck!

  • leonardo Acero June 1, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Oh my dear camden!0
    Best hood in the world!

  • For what its worth... June 1, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Hurrah someone with some gumption who is willing to make an honest contribution about exactly what is going on out there. I could think of some rude words that would fit too, but I’m not going to, as this will just make me look like a bitter and twisted designer who doesn’t fit into the mould anymore. The industry has been shafted since the crisis, giving clients a god like quality. They ask us to jump and we ask ‘how high’. They call the shots and think working for them gives us ‘kudos’. What happened to collaborating with clients? The industry has lost its way and now we are just ‘producing’ stuff for marketeers and brand managers that think cutting your budget in half is going to get them a pay rise. What happened to the industries soul? I love my job, its a craft, an art form, its not a commodity to make others rich and us exhausted, demotivated and quite frankly financially worse off. Ohhhhhhh, you see, I might have just missed the point and I’m too old to know better…

  • Arvin Budhu June 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    I’ve been a Freelance Graphic Designer for almost 20 years and if anyone tells you working for free is an ‘opportunity’ is a bullshitter whose only agenda is to promote themselves not you. Your skills, time, experience and knowledge are worth something and can be defined in monetary terms. DO NOT let your worth be determined by anyone who is not qualified to do so, no matter what title they give themselves.

  • Shan Preddy June 1, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Bravo, Ben! Very well said. Giving creative work away without full payment (whether it’s a freelancer like yourself or a large design firm that agrees to work for free in a pitch) is a poison that is damaging our industry. And guess what? The poison is self-administered. I’m sure clients don’t want to ‘see our industry run into the ground’, but none of them is ever going to refuse a gift or pay for something they’ve got used to having for free. Who would? No, the only people who can stop the poison are creative people themselves, and it needs to be done by each person and each firm acting professionally and, as you say, respecting themselves. ‘The industry’ can’t do it; only the individuals who make up the industry can do that. No snowflake ever thinks it’s responsible for an avalanche, as the saying goes. And there’s a nice quote from Mother Teresa that you might like: “Don’t wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” I think that about sums it up.
    ps There will always be a new fool on the block who’ll be happy to work for nothing, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to.

  • Just another June 2, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Turns out that, perhaps somewhat unreasonably, my landlord, utility companies, HMRC et al do not consider goodwill and reputation legal currency. This came as quite a shock given that so many companies feel assured I can live on it.

    • Ben Tallon June 9, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Excellent response

  • Michael Speke June 8, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    When I read the word ‘cancer’, I thought it was a bit harsh but I’ve absorbed it now and have to agree. And it’s global issue, not just a London problem.

  • Mark McConnell January 30, 2018 at 12:12 am

    I’m as passionate as you in demanding creatives insist on payment for anything they produce. The creative industry in Australia is tough as well, and we don’t have media like Design Week to express our issues so much. Work should be won on merit and portfolio, not freebies and free pitches. It can be done, and having run my own small business for nearly 20 years I have never entertained a free pitch. If you are being asked for free work, they are not a client worth chasing in my opinion. Move on, no matter how desperate you may be, because there is always another opportunity around the corner, but you have to be proactive in finding it, don’t be lazy. If you are a designer and working for yourself or run a studio, you have to talk money before pen hits the paper. And don’t be afraid to negotiate terms with the big boys who often get you to sign their contract and agree to ridiculous payment timeframes. Get your own terms prepared by your lawyer. Negotiate, because if you don’t ask, you won’t get. Your success depends on it, and peers and clients will respect to you all the more for it. If we all followed this approach our industry would attract more talent, which in turn creates stunning results for clients and their customers, making our world a better place to live. Win-Win for everyone…..but only if we take our business of creativity seriously.

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