Why so many creatives are ignorant with money and what they can do about it.

January 7, 2011


“Look mom, they gave me money for drawing!”

Like pro athletes, advertising creatives are notoriously bad when it comes to figuring out money, especially when it comes to their employment contracts. Unlike pro athletes, however, we don’t have agents and managers to help us along. Honestly, most creative people never even took a math course in college -if they went to college. Or, like me, they took “dummy math” with the athletes!

In addition, I doubt any so-called ad schools cover the nuts and bolts of employment agreements in their curriculum. Maybe they should. With most ad jobs existing in holding companies these things can get pretty complicated. (They have to in order to be lucrative.) Unfortunately, the typical ad practice isn’t going to provide enlightenment. Why should they? It might cost them money. Frankly, nothing pleases agency bean counters more than an incoming creative who states: “I just want to do good work.”

Given the economy and tough times in Adland, I’m assuming the average creative hire is, indeed, just happy to be there. Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude is a desirable virtue but not when it impedes your ability to garner the best contract possible. With that in mind here are a few tips.

The first thing one needs to be aware of is that salary is just one aspect of your potential contract. Granted, it’s an important aspect but it ain’t what made the fat cats fat. True wealth comes from equity. And while most companies aren’t offering stock or options (particularly to newbies) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ask. Then ask again. If you’re a hot commodity or have other offers you just might score. If you’ve been at a firm some time and are successful then continue to pursue equity. Ask what will it take for you to get equity? Fact: Stock beats a raise in almost every equation. It’s amazing how many creative people (even the great ones) never think about this stuff until late in their careers, if ever. Equally amazing is the star creative who only focuses on salary. It’s a ghetto move. There’s a reason companies are reluctant to give out stock. Cash is far cheaper.

Somewhat easier to negotiate are incentives. Or bonus agreements. Here you’re asking the company to pay only if you achieve certain targets. Said another way, you’re betting on yourself. For example, you could base incentives on awards won or new business. Frame it as a win/win, which it is.

Easiest of all to procure are various perks, like parking, transportation allowances, education stipends, extra vacation days, etc… If you phrase your interrogative properly a prospective employer shouldn’t blanch. Things like Second City (presentation skills) and Hyper Island (digital training) are invaluable and worth every penny. Ask your company to pay those pennies.

Yet, most kids starting out (especially now) are, indeed, just happy to be there. But if you’ve been “there” several years, and are successful, maybe it’s time to ask what’s behind door number two.

Part of the dilemma is deep down we creatives consider contracts and money a “hassle.” Worrying about that stuff gets in the way of “doing good work.” We think, “just pay me a good wage and get out of my way.” With this attitude we are screwing ourselves. And what’s more most of us don’t even know what we’re missing!

16 Responses to “Why so many creatives are ignorant with money and what they can do about it.”

  1. Tad DeWree said

    Great post.

    Many creatives fail to recognize Advertising is an inverse career. You are compensated greatly early on because so few make it past 40 in the business.

    Best advice, live below your means and invest in Real Estate as soon as possible- it’s a great tax deduction and an invisible retirement fund in a business that is often unpredictable.

    Most importantly…just because you stay in Five star hotels and eat in great restaurants on shoots- doesn’t mean you actually live like that in real life.

  2. This is one of the most important posts you’ve made in terms of providing insight and mentorship to younger creatives. There is more to advertising than a paycheck, just don’t forget to get it in writing.

    Steff talks about door #2, but in the end door #2 could be the door that hits you on the way out. I helped start an agency and when the time came for a raise/promotion/etc I was promised but not delivered (e.g. because you can’t be promoted above the person that owns the shop, even if you do more work).

    If you get some umph to your book/experience, make sure that you cash that in on your next gig to define your long term future at said agency.

    I think for younger creatives you have to be smart and not be scared to take a chance on something that they could fail at(which it very well might). I’m a firm believer in career gambling… there’s always a fallback😉

    • SRP said

      Thanks Michael and Tad-
      I did have mentoring in mind when I wrote this. By the way, my mentors helped teach me it…and a good lawyer.

      Of course you need to be good and not unlucky.

  3. Ironic timing on this post… just this evening I was having dinner with my son who recently got accepted into NYU’s MBA program. A former Emerson graduate, his early years were spent on ‘creative’ pursuits but soon enough, he saw that as a path to poverty. Now he can’t wait to sink his teeth into portfolio analysis and hedge fund strategy. Why? because despite the downtown, money is still sexy, the key that unlocks the golden door… winning awards might be cool but it won’t buy you the house on the beach or private school for your kids if and when… it gave me pause…

    your post is a wake up call worth heeding… perhaps you CAN have it all

  4. jim schmidt said

    you can’t ever have it all, but you can make sure you’re paid fairly. and you can make sure you don’t waste the most precious commodity of all–time–working for assholes. life is too short.

  5. Anne Ross said

    And that is why, dear people, you need a good recruiter. Some positions should have a contract piece, some not. But if your buddy recommends you for the job, and you go with that, kiss the negotiating position you should have good bye.

  6. TOM MESSNER said

    Depends on the level, of course, but headhunters are compensated by the corporation hunting for heads. Their utility depends on their ability to fill the position; therefore, their bias has to be closing a deal, even when the recruiter is o…n retainer and not working on commission. It would seem at levels immediately beyond beginner, a copywriter or art director should seek at least a severance agreement that defies the norms of the HR palaver. Beyond that–at so-called executive levels–creative people need Hollywood agents, but failing in that Paul Weiss Rifkind or Frankfurt Kurnit (assuming no conflict)are probably their only protection, save a shotgun.

  7. Anne Ross said

    Don’t forget that recruiters don’t get paid if everyone doesn’t win. Some of us want everyone to win.

  8. TOM MESSNER said

    GOOD POINT, Ms. Ross: the benign meanderings of “Dog-helping-dog capitalism.”
    My comments should not be intended to slight in any way the efforts of such heady headhunters as Barbara Dana, Ron Cooper, Judy Wald, Don Gilbert, Susan Friedman, and Jerry Fields–all of whom at one time or another spent time with me that went uncompensated. Barbara Dana, in fact, told me of a position at BBDO for which they would not pay her a commission, but she said “it was for a very Junior Copywriter and it pays $7,000 a year assuming you last a year.” It took me 11 years to repay that kindness with an exclusive on a Senior-level copywriter when I was doing some hiring at the late Ally and Gargano.

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard DeVeau, Steffan Postaer, peter nicholson, Nic, peter nicholson and others. peter nicholson said: I was a math major until I realized classes started at 8am @Steffan1 Why so many creatives are ignorant with money http://wp.me/pabVP-10E. […]

  10. BK said

    thanks Steffan. sound advice for sure and def worth a RT to my peers! totally something to keep in mind that has really slipped it since I started in the biz..especially the equity and continued ed part!! soo important! knowledge is power!!

  11. Leslie said

    Great post. There’s very little info out there once you get into the industry.

    Creatives are notorious for taking their skills for granted, thinking what comes easier for them must be applicable to everyone and can’t be that valuable. Which is completely off.

    They are the engine and oftentimes, it’s easier to take advantage.

  12. jason said

    thank you so much for this post creative people are one of the most important part of a business and yet they don’t always get the recognition for it

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