Monday, April 20, 2015

The creative economy of today: Is the (3rd) party over?

Who doesn’t want the freedom of working for themselves? Of not having to endure bumper to bumper rush hour commutes, getting sardine canned on the subway, of sitting through marathon meetings, of dealing with dress codes (except for those crazy casual Fridays), and, well, all the rest that goes with office politics?

But what’s really involved in the life of being a freelancer -- or free agent --in today’s creative industries? To get some perspectives on this question while in Austin for SXSW 2015 few weeks back I hotfooted it over to a panel discussion on the realities of today’s creative economy. Moderating the proceedings was Scott Belsky, founder of the online portfolio site Behance (which I must admit has alway made me think of Beyonce), and now VP of  Mobile Products & Community at Adobe, which acquired Behance at the end of 2012.

Belsky got the discussion going with a compare and contrast of then and now for creative workers such as photographers, graphic artists, designers, and writers. In the creative economy of the past, he pointed out, creators were generally represented by agents or middlemen, or were employed by a company. There was not much in the middle. In the case of the former, creators were not infrequently taken advantage of, and often felt like they were unable to make a solid living as total freelancers, because, in part, of the cut taken by agents or middlemen, and because the same entities were not highly incented to send a living’s worth of work to individual creators. 

As most people had to rely on 3rd party representatives and static representations of their work (vs. dynamic, current portfolios), it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve scale as an individual. And on top of that, the tools that provided the capacity to scale, or manage work at a higher volume, simply weren’t there. Well...that was then, and this is the now.

"Sharing is the new networking. That is what builds reputation."

                                                                                   - Scott Belsky, Adobe

According to the panelists, today more creatives than ever are able to work as independents. Many represent themselves, using a combination of word-of-mouth/referrals, augmented by digital networking capabilities and the high quality options for posting and updating portfolios online. Software-as-a-service business tools -- e.g. FreshbooksMailchimpCashMusic, Harvest -- have made it easy for independent contractors to do everything from track billable hours to sell their wares direct to fans.

As a result, there’s a new middle ground emerging. In addition to the rugged individualism of the 1-person DIY operation, we’re seeing the emergence of the DIWO (do it with others) model, in which people are creating small teams of their own, sometimes ramping up and down for particular projects, sometimes starting boutique agencies of their own.

Opportunities are now coming from a new source: Exposure.

And exposure and discovery trump referrals when it comes to new business for creative talents, said Belsky. He cited things like the ability to follow photographers and designers on Instagram as an example of work finding you, vs. you having to find work.

There are also new types of intermediaries, such as WorkingNotWorking, which provides access to some of the best work out there for some of the best people out there. . It’s described as: “an invite-only, real-time network of the busiest, most talented and most sought after creatives in the business.”  Among the companies to which WorkingNotWorking dispatches its creative work force are Apple, Google, IDEO, Wieden+Kennedy, and The New York Times. In other words, the top tier of the top tier. does this by seeking out, and vetting, the top 10% in the creative community. This way people know they’re going to find someone not just good, but great. And creatives don't pay, companies seeking creatives do, via a flat fee subscription, not a commission. Justin Gignac founded WorkingNotWorking and he possesses several accolades in the design world, but is probably best known for being part of the creative team that created ElfYourself, the application that has given birth to almost a billion selfie elves.

Another way to gain exposure, and with any luck paying gigs, is through mashing and (re)mixing existing work. Since 2001 this has been enabled by Creative Commons. Creative Commons licenses are the global standard for sharing, with over 1 billion licensed works made available online. Its CEO Ryan Merkley was also on the SXSW panel and he pointed out that we used to think about publishing and sharing separately. Publishing was governed by rules and laws, whereas sharing forgave most of those.  Now we can think in terms of enabling things for distribution, as well as in terms of remixing.

And while some argue that technology has become commoditized and has therefore devalued the works of creators, Emily Heyward, a partner in the Brooklyn and San Francisco-based branding firm Red Antler remarked that in all corners of the creative industries -- music, newspapers, book publishing, advertising -- the old systems are crumbling. As a result, it's hard to justify paying tens or hundreds of of thousands for logos when you can get one for $99 online. Or even $5.

Merkley of Creative Commons chimed in at this point: "Nothing replaces a professional", and reminding us that all know how good a 99 cent anything. "This is why crowdsourcing is never going to compete with professional work. Professional work includes professional briefs, professional delivery, and professional revisions."

Hayward added: "It’s the difference between thinking about design as a cost vs. an investment. If you’re doing it twice it’s going to cost you more. And give you more grief." Despite all the cost-cutting and attempted commoditization of skills she insisted “it’s the most exciting time to be in a creative field."  Why? "Because creators are able to build their own brand, largely independently, and to use it, and digital marketing and networking, as differentiators." Her list of common mistakes for creators to avoid: 
  • Have a multi-disciplinary skill set
  • If you don’t have those skills yourself, then team up with someone else who does
  • UX (User experience), graphic design, web design are often desired together, so you can optimize by offering a small bundle
Gignac of WorkingNotWorking pointed out that it’s now also easy to make your portfolio look like a million bucks online, using tools that are readily available. “Having an outdated portfolio is not acceptable.  Also,  so much…looks like shit online”, he said. “Show off your stuff online like Barton Smith did”, who did a “Facebook facelift”, just for fun, and now has a job at Facebook. “You are your brand. And ironically, people good at selling other people’s products often terrible at selling themselves.”

So does this mean the traditional advertising agency model is dead? That independents and ad hoc creative teams will be the ones holding all the power? As is the case with so many reports of death, this one is overstated. Which is not to say that a game of fat margins and opacity between client and service provider is a game you want to bet on; just that being the David in a land of Goliaths no longer means relying on a biblical grade miracle in order to have a fighting chance.

Related Post: Platform Capitalism, or Why Your Parents Don't Understand the Internet

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