No logo. Why giving creative time away won’t work

Heated responses to the West of England Combined Authority’s call for ideas for its London Underground-style regional transport brand were timely for me.

They came as I set out priorities for the year ahead. Who do we want to work with? How can we build on last year’s success? What can we stop spending time on to focus more on what we need to do?

Then WECA’s call to residents to submit brand ideas for the region’s public transport network drew a sharp response. It also highlighted issues that comms professionals grapple with every day.

The response undoutedly amplfied the story, which I’ll explain briefly. WECA is inviting anyone local – from ‘budding artistic amateurs to seasoned graphic designers’ – to enter a design competition that will inform its new transport brand. The winning entry will become the logo adorning the region’s trains, buses and scooters. WECA will pay a creative professional to design the final artwork, which will be seen by millions of people. Terms and conditions state that the combined authority will also own rights to submitted content.

This sparked claims that the contest exploits creatives by sourcing their ideas for free. The Bristol Post, B247 and the BBC covered these concerns.

I’m absolutely against creatives or anyone seeking paid work giving away their time or ideas for free.

But I don’t feel that WECA’s competition is exploitative, especially when compared to what happens elsewhere. Before I explain why, I will disclose that WECA paid Social for two small pieces of work a few years ago. It is not a client today, and I have no financial interest in making these points.

Community involvement is key

Firstly, organisations ask communities for ideas in this way all the time. Competitions to create names and brands for housing developments, schools and roads are commonplace. Done well, this inspires feedback and generates ideas that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.

I can understand why WECA’s request for ideas from ‘seasoned graphic designers’ sparked negative responses. But it can hardly exclude local designers from an open contest. How would that be fair? Some creatives may wish to put their ideas against the public’s. Good luck to them if they do.

I also think the criticism misses a wider point around how our sector’s ideas are under-valued every-day. Organisations with much deeper pockets than the public sector do it because they can. Too often, for too long, we fail to challenge it, making us complicit in this practice.

Creative exploitation  

A personal example sticks with me from not long after establishing Social in Bristol. We presented cracking campaign ideas in a pitch to support a high-profile project. Our ideas helped the project progress, without earning us a penny or shred of recognition.

Then there are offers (rather than asks) to ‘trial’ a relationship for free or at a discount, for vague promises of more profitable future work. This is what ‘jam tomorrow’ looks like.  

And I’ve heard too many stories of contacts submitting detailed proposals for ‘big’ opportunities with no clear budgets or briefs which go to the in-house team.

None of this is billable work, yet it’s accepted unquestionably that this is the game we’re in. Does it have to be this way?

My resolution for 2022: no budget, no work

I work for a values-driven business that does the right thing by the people we work with and the communities we live in. We offer everyone a Living Wage or better, including interns. Everyone who works for us has five days volunteering leave each year, to devote to causes dear to their hearts. We give a proportion of our profits to charities in our areas.

We can’t do this if we’re giving our time and ideas away. But it feels like we are locked in a race to the bottom. It goes way beyond a single logo competition.

That’s why this year, I’m saying ‘no’ to briefs with no clear and fair budget or a sense of what’s needed. It will probably mean we miss out on some ‘opportunities’, which others go for. But if everyone in our sector took the same approach, those issuing briefs would have a problem. Their work would still need doing. Things would have to change, for the benefit of everyone in a sector that does amazing work and deserves respect.

The West of England has a hugely successful creative industry which I am proud to be part of. Its agencies deliver national campaigns as part of a sector employing tens of thousands of people and generating billions of pounds for the region’s economy.

And let’s remember that the last two years have seen good comms people consistently prove their worth by helping clients and employers respond to the challenges of COVID-19.

That should give us the confidence to pass on the bad briefs and offers of ‘jam tomorrow’. And if we’re not going to do it now, when will we ever?

WECA announces the transport logo competition winner on 25 February. I wish entrants the best of luck and look forward to seeing the results. Whatever happens, I hope someone local delivers the final work.

If the brief is clear, the budget is reasonable and we have capacity to do the work, we may even bid for it.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.