On working for ‘exposure’ (and why I won’t)

There are many places where exposure is not welcomed, you know.

Hello. Dean here. Makes sense, it’s my site after all. Be weird if it wasn’t me, if anything.

Since I’ve set up this site, I’ve had numerous messages from people from all walks of life. Students, journalists, podcasters, fans and definitely-not-fans of my writing and book, event organisers, and, recently, a particularly angry clown. Literally, a clown. I’m enjoying it, if I’m honest.

Many of these messages have been requests for me to be involved with or take part in their radio show/publication/podcast/event etc. I’ve no issue with such requests, although am extremely short on time for such things at present. However, a few things have popped up, both here and with discussion (online and in the physical world) with colleagues in similar lines of work, about the constant problem of people asking you to work for free, or ‘for exposure‘, as it’s normally phrased. It varies between industries, admittedly; in stand-up comedy it’s ‘stage time’, in academia it’s ‘good for your CV’.

The argument of people asking you to work for exposure, in my understanding, works like this; “You are a someone who has a creative/performance-based skill that you want to make a living from, and for that you need people to be aware of your work, so that they may employ you to do it for them. If you contribute your work to my event/publication/thing, more people will be aware of it, thus increasing your chances of making money from your work eventually. This is a valid form of reward so should be appropriate compensation for the work you’re doing for me, rather than me reimbursing you financially”.

If we’re being very generous, that’s possibly how many people who offer to pay you with exposure see the situation. However, for those of us on the other side, it seems more like “Hello, you have a skill I clearly need to utilise but even though I could pay for it, I’d prefer not to if I could avoid it, so I’m going to argue that I’m providing you with increased odds of being paid more by other people at later dates, a claim that is largely impossible to disprove, but I’m not the one who has to debate it with your landlord at the end of the month so I don’t really give a damn”.

There’s obviously a range of possibilities between these two extremes, but the latter example seems to be depressingly common. Many times I and my public-engagement comrades have had ‘invitations to contribute’ or ‘requests to speak’ from people who are clearly making money (charging tickets, posting ads etc.) from the thing we’re being asked to donate our efforts to, but they’re still unwilling to consider paying the people who actually create the essential material that other people are paying to experience. Worse, they often imply they are doing you a favour! “Tell you what, I’ll let you build my new garage, it’ll help you get in shape”

But it’s really persistent and ingrained, and often times the people offering ‘exposure’ have no means or intention of even delivering that. Case in point, and this is something I tweeted a few weeks back, but felt it should be in a more permanent form so am repeating it here.

Several years back, I got contacted by a former associate who works in the media. We’d worked together on a few things in the past, nothing major, we were never close per se, but never had a cross word or anything. I hadn’t seen him for years, but then I started writing for the Guardian, and got several “Hey, remember me?” messages, as you can imagine. One was from this guy.

Turns out he was currently working on a new project, a website of some sort, can’t remember details but he was keen to make it a success, as you’d expect. So, what he wanted was for me to write an article for it, because someone with ‘my profile’ involved would help it get off the ground. I wasn’t as busy or ‘in demand’ then, so I said fine, why not. His reply was “Thanks. There’s no money sorry, but it’ll be great exposure for you”.

This left me baffled for several minutes. He wanted me to write something for him, for free, so his site would gain exposure via me, and he was offering to pay ME with exposure? Just the sheer front of it left me agape. “You know those carrots you grow yourself? Can I have 50? I’ll pay you 20 carrots once I’ve got them”.

My theory is, he’d been in ‘the media’ for years. The “for exposure” tactic was clearly so ingrained he deployed it even when it made no logical sense. This more than anything convinced me that offers to pay in ‘exposure’ are far more likely to be self-serving than anything of mutual benefit.

I’m lucky, I realise that. I’m at a point now where I get plenty of invites so can be choosy, I have my own platforms and profile so ‘exposure’ from others is of little use even if the offer were genuine. I am also short on time, so need to be thoughtful about what I agree to. I also have an agent, who is more than willing to take on anyone who tries to bamboozle me into free labour with claims of their clout and influence, and regularly does so.

For the record, I’m not at all averse to helping people out for free if they need it. Charities, struggling start-ups, enthusiastic projects done for the love and not for the profit margin, small independent businesses, time and practicality allowing I’ll contribute my efforts to all of these things, and happily so. I’ve worked hard to get to this point, but have also been very lucky too, least I can do is try and share that around.

But, if you make money from something and are trying to weasel out of paying the very people you require to do so, you won’t be getting anything from me. And that includes any incredibly-well-known organisations dedicated to showing slick, cool and inspiring presentations that can be and often are easily shared online, that make ridiculous sums of money but refuse to pay any speakers and won’t even allow them to promote or sell their own work to make up for it. You can ‘invite me to participate’ all you want guys (always via unofficial, personal channels and never my publishers or agent, weirdly enough), I’m not doing it! So you ‘do one’ instead.