Posted 09 July 2019

When do competitions become free labour? Five creatives on their enticing and exploitative nature

There can be a fine line between beneficial and questionable when it comes to competitions, especially when they’re used as a marketing tool. Sure, the promise of prizes and exposure are enticing, but what about those who don’t win? At what point does this become a conversation about free labour? Of course, these activations are nothing new, but perceptions around them are shifting. To get a more in-depth view of how this culture is regarded by industry, we spoke to a range of practitioners on the topic.

Exposure is overrated

In the eyes of illustrator Sarah Maycock, competitions can be hotbeds of exploitation.

“‘It’s great exposure’ (yuck) and having to hand over copyright is not good. It seems to perpetuate the idea that illustration is a hobby and undercuts professional fees. Perhaps companies feel like it’s a way to engage with fans and but it depends how the company will be using it. Are you creating advertising for them, masked as ‘content’?

“I can see how it’s good for students in that it gets them thinking about the industry; I entered the Penguin Student Design Awards at university (most of us did) and I do remember something clicking when I had to work with the template, using the barcode and logo for a book cover. That was really helpful in giving me a taste for what it feels like seeing your work being used. But did it need to be a competition for me to learn those things? No.”

They can be a shortcut to greatness

Illustrator Matt Saunders speaks about his peers entering competitions as a quick fix.

“After graduating, like everyone, I think I saw competitions as a potential shortcut… This is a big pitfall. In the longterm shortcuts won’t solidify a career.

“Losing can be a good thing… Your chances of winning are very low, and building a thick skin for rejection is essential in a creative career. Winning has a downside as well – I know people that have won competitions and they were on cloud nine, ready to conquer the creative world. Then they didn’t get any work and it crushed their confidence.

“The best competition I ever entered was when I was eight and I won a dancing Pritt Stick. To this day that is still the only competition I have ever won. I think inspiring children to be creative is a positive thing. Although there are some pitfalls... I never got my drawing back from the TV show I sent it to (I’m looking at you Tony Hart!)”

Read the small print

“Most competitions are not very transparent on the rules they set out,” says animator Lana Simanenkova.

“For example, they almost always want to be able to add revisions (which is flattering if you win but not if you’re not paid for those ‘revisions’). Or if the small print says that the work on completion will exclusively belong to them to do whatever they want with, even if you haven’t won and just submitted a piece, that's it’s theirs. I find that insane.

“If the competition description sounds like work to you it is work: I feel like competitions should be for the fun of it. Make better use of your time, competitions can put you in the spotlight but very rarely, so use that time more productively and reach out to people and companies you’d like to work with or just make art for yourself that can get you noticed. Avoid sites like where you submit work for the client only to pay after they choose the winning pitch, which might not be yours. They have taken the competition mentality to the extreme in my opinion.

“I like competitions where you can submit an existing piece of work you have, or make sure to work with non-profits and good causes rather than entertainment corporations.”

Consider the brand’s perspective

Creative Adam Morton-Delaney urges us to put ourselves in the company’s shoes to understand if it’s truly worth it.

“If there’s a big brand inviting you to submit work for a competition, and thousands of others are joining you in doing so, you should carefully consider whether you want to take part. Even if there’s a prize at the end, think about it from the brand’s point of view: thousands of enthusiastic young people sending in ideas for only the cost of the prize money. It’s far cheaper than employing someone to come up with the ideas, and often young people’s ideas are better anyway. Brands sometimes abuse their position as icons to exploit young people, which is totally wrong.

“A good competition is one that has a great network of people around it, and acts as a springboard. They help you to set up conversations with the right people, which are very useful as you leave university and enter industry. In hindsight, having won one competition and lost many, I think the most valuable thing about a competition is actually the process of the project, rather than the outcome. Regardless of whether you win, I think it’s worth putting a competition project in your portfolio to show employers how you respond to a real-world brief.”

The ‘try before you buy’ mentality is problematic

As a creative director of design agency Green Chameleon, Tom Anderson has seen how much competition culture has shaped the agency world on a professional level.

“A ‘try before you buy’ mentality plagues the agency world too, and it comes in the form of a pitch! This is something we try not to do as an agency, but when that dream client dangles the carrot, sometimes it’s hard not to bite. The sad fact is that if your competitors are doing it then you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t.

“I think professional competitions that revolve around client work submissions are a healthy way to recognise amazing work within our industry,” he continues. “Website award sites such as Awwwards or the FWA have not only been amazing sources of inspiration for me, but they have also proven to be an effective inbound marketing tool for our agency. They have helped our business to thrive over the last seven years.

“My advice to a client would be: only request a proposal after looking at the agencies’ previous work and outlined approach and process. Look at the visual execution and success of their previous projects, and then trust that they will deliver the same for you. Make your decision based on that. Simple.”

Written by Creative Lives in Progress
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Illustration by Jiro Bevis