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Working for free: the counterargument

3 minute read

Shutterstock.comPreparing for a long day on set

We have been quite strident on these pages that working for free is a Very Bad Thing indeed. Simon Wyndham, however, argues that in some circumstances it can be worthwhile.

Most of us in the video sector have fallen foul of requests to work for free before. It is a request that almost seems par for the course from people who have no concept of the time or skill involved. It is such a problem that many of us will put a block up to the idea of working for free completely.

I would like to offer a counterpoint, brought about from an online discussion with a couple of highly successful video production companies in the US. The summary was that it is possible that having such a blanket negative response to the idea of working for free may be counter productive. And in fact working for free really can open new doors, when the conditions are right.

To my mind there are two types of “client” who may be after free work. The first is the freeloader. This is the one we are all familiar with. They promise the world or try to convince you that they are doing you a favour by asking you to do some work for them but give nothing in return.

This is the sort of person we wish to avoid at all costs. The second is someone who genuinely cannot afford to have a video done or the figures do not add up. It might be a small charity or foundation for instance, or even a promising inventor who wishes to promote something through crowdfunding. Or it could be an activity provider. Think of paint balling, off road buggy racing, kayaking, surf schools etc. These sorts of companies often have no money since they work to very thin profit margins, but the potential for a really cool video is pretty big.

Clearly we run businesses and therefore do not want to put much of our energy into finding projects to work on for free. However there can still be some compelling reasons to work for nothing, when the conditions are right.

Day to day video work is not glamorous, and quite often there is very little in the way of creativity in the corporate & industrial world. Videos are produced by committee, and often the way in which we would prefer to produce a video is stifled by the opinions of the client and the committee who commissioned it. Don’t get me wrong, the client is king or queen, and they need to be happy. But many a time what could be an awesome video is made to be very run of the mill because nobody wants to take a risk, or the budget simply isn’t there to carry an ideal concept through.

Working for free can therefore be very good for your professional development because as the people doing the favour we can impose the conditions. We can have total creative freedom to produce the video in the way that we want, and we can be much more free with deadlines and schedules.

There will be limitations in terms of budget and crew, but stylistically a free project can give us the opportunity to show what we can really do when we are off the leash so to speak.

The problem with only ever working for the paying clients is that we can lose sight of the fact that many of us are involved with video production because it is a passion. We love producing visuals, and by rigidly sticking to the restrictive world of client focussed work we can end up restricting our ability to progress and try out new things. We end up turning our passion into a chore and forget why we got into this business in the first place.

That is not to say that I am suggesting working for free for any old person. But when the project is interesting enough and you can lay down the rules then the door is open for you to create the sort of video that you’ve always had inside you. It is an opportunity to place something different on your website too.

Witness how Canadian company Stillmotion forever changed the idea of what wedding videos could be. They started off by producing wedding videos like everybody else, but decided that there was another way. So they started taking their own footage and creating their own edits to show what could really be done. There was the client edit, and then the edits they started showing prospective clients. They did this so that they could create the wedding videos in the way they wanted to, rather than the stale old way they always had been.

Contrary to some experiences, it appears that working for free can in fact open the doors to decent new opportunities, and in fact some companies have gained decent long term clients through producing such work.

If you want a certain type of client then you will need to appeal to them. If your current style of work is all pretty similar and you want to break into new ground then working for free on a few interesting projects could be your way in to produce video that appeals to your preferred type of client. But the caveat is that such projects need to be for the right person/client and you must be the one calling the shots.


Film crew pic from shutterstock.com

Tags: Business