“We haven’t got a budget for that” is the freelancers’ curse and one becoming increasingly common in the parasite economy where companies look for freebies to make up for their falling margins.
An email from one event organiser last week illustrated how the parasite economy works, or doesn’t, when companies come to depend upon free advice and labour.
“I was wondering if we could set up a research call at a time convenient for you to help me understand the IoT landscape in Asia,” wrote a London-based events organiser to me last week. “How it is being utilised in your industry, and what topics we should cover on the programme?”
The event Samantha (not her real name) is working on charges between $900 and $2,800 for a conference pass with even greater fees for those exhibiting.
Like most writers and journalists, I’m a sucker for these sort of requests. A sad combination of ego and a willingness to lend a hand means the first reaction is to say, “Sure I can help you.”
However I’d been there before with a Sydney-based event organiser for an almost identical event a few years earlier. That time I gave lots of advice and introductions to speakers and exhibitors. Jeff (again, not his real name) from a different event organiser got lots of value from two cups of coffee.
After half a dozen emails and meetings I asked if there was a prospect of some paid speaking or consulting work out of the event I’d helped him organise. Jeff replied with a genuine air of sadness, “I’m sorry, we don’t have a budget for that.”
With Samantha being based in London, it was unlikely I’d even get a cup of coffee out of her – so with a wry smile I replied.
“Thanks for reaching out to me. For that sort of work I’d be asking for a consulting fee. If you have a budget for that, I’d be delighted to help.”
It was early morning in London so I knew I wouldn’t get a quick reply, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on how the ‘no budget’ and related ‘tap your brains’ syndromes are the bane of the creative industries.
Everyone from journalists and writers through to graphic designers and musicians suffers from the ‘no budget’ syndrome. Regardless of how much an organisation allocates for executive retreats, shiny head offices and nice coffee machines for their hordes of middle managers, there never seems to be much of a budget for those actually creating content.
This is very different from the vision sold to us a generation ago when the belief was the ‘knowledge economy’ would gleefully rain money down on value-adding creatives. We’re seeing a similar lie being sold now with the ‘gig economy’ being pushed as offering work at our convenience when in truth it just means shuffling around a bunch of poorly paid assignments which are little better than Britain’s ‘zero hour contracts.’
While journalism is bad for this, the speaking industry is probably the worst for exploiting talent where companies like Samantha’s gleefully maximise their profits by having no budget for speakers or consultants – instead they coax people into speaking for ‘exposure’.
Another aspect of the parasite economy is the disconnect between salaried employees and freelancers, with the former not understanding the value of time. This manifests itself in many ways, my favourite being ‘advisory panels’ where the government and corporate managers organising them simply don’t comprehend that it costs the self-employed members time and money to attend meetings while the salary drones are paid regardless.
The PR industry is a good case of this disconnect as well given many of today’s managers and leading practitioners came of age in a time when most journalists were staffers and the freelancers were well paid.
As a consequence those PRs are often oblivious to the modern reality of freelancers desperately fighting for the attention of time-poor editors who in turn are trying to get publications out while juggling dwindling contributor budgets and staff cuts.
That disconnect underpins the parasite economy. While the bosses of event organisers, media companies and PR agencies strive to maintain their upper-middle-class incomes, times are only going to get tougher for freelancers and junior staff like Samantha.
So it was with no surprise when Samantha got to work in her West End offices that morning she replied, no doubt with a polite smile: “Thanks for your quick response. Unfortunately we wouldn’t have the budget for consulting fees for this type of thing. But thanks anyway.”
Paul Wallbank is a freelance writer. Mumbrella commissioned and paid for this article.