Contests for Artists?

May 20, 2009 at 3:36 pm 3 comments

Recently, YouTube and the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival ran a video contest asking participants to submit a commercial for a shot at going to Cannes.

These kinds of competitions are interesting animals… While exciting, I am of two minds about the concept, alternating between feeling that they are fun and can be useful, and thinking that there are somewhat exploitative – a great way for a company to get a polished product for way less than they would if they hired someone.

In my experience, it can sometimes be a creative jolt to have some sort of theme and deadline to work with (whether my video on Twitter was creative or jolting, remains to be decided, but it got me doing something actory that day).

It's A Gamble

Photo Credit: "It's a Gamble" by MarkyBon

Of course, quality submissions require effort – along with an idea that the odds often against you (depending on the number of submissions).  It is a gamble.  Whether it is worth it, in my opinion, depends on level of exposure and whether you can truly learn from it, have fun and/or make valuable for your portfolio even if you don’t “win”.

A great example of someone making a contest work for them was Jaemin (aka Chris) Yi who filmed three very cool commercials for a Doritos contest.  My favorite is below:

His excellent post about what he learned from the process is on his blog.

On the artists survey I ran, I asked the (admittedly unclear) question:

“What are your thoughts on spec work/contests for artists? (e.g. a design contest where you create a poster for a film, but may/may not have your submission selected in the end) Feel free to rant or praise:”

I received a variety of excellent responses – here are just a few:

“Like the idea, especially if the selectors come from the public or readership, rather than a closed secret panel of jurors” – Mitchell Teplitsky, Filmmaker

“I like it so long as the people running the contest are honest and the winner gets some real exposure and the collectors of the data share it with the participants” – Scilla Andreen, Filmmaker & CEO of

“Spec is always out of bounds. Don’t do it! It’s the bane of all writers, no matter what kind of work they do. Contests, on the other hand, open doors. I signed with an agent after receiving a national award for my first book. Never would have gotten his attention without it.” – Laine Cunningham, Writer

“They’re good for exposure. They’re good for creating portfolio pieces. They’re good for expressive fun works– for those who do not get to be as creative as they’d like on client work.” – Ori Bengal, Photographer, Photoshop artist, full-time couchsurfer, web designer, marketer

“Oy -don’t get me started. Artists are too often exploited when they are trying to make a name for themselves. … I did enter and win the 2006 Applied Arts Magazine Awards Annual and it did lead to some new contacts and one job. There needs to be a prestige factor. There are enough competitions and awards handed out for even the very least talented people out there. I am the best photographer my living room -right now. I think the competition for the 2010 Olympic logo and the mascot design was unethical. Imagine if I could get thousands of people to do work for me for free and only pay one of them. It was cleverly packaged as a “feel good” inclusive kind of friendly competition but the Olympic Committee received a lot of highly skilled and valuable labour for free. They wouldn’t try that with any other profession but the creative arts.” – Dan Jackson, Photographer

“I both rant and praise. Philosophically, I think it really degrades the industry regardless of if it’s for graphic design or photography or whatever, and that at the end of the day you can get better work if you hire someone directly – most of the spec work type sites attract a mid-range level entrant. On the other side, I’ve used sites like this in the past because I love what they offer. It’s a catch 22.” – Miranda Lievers, Photographer

“Opportunities are always great. But preparing for contests, design work, writing pitches all take time and it is disappointing not to be selected. I’ve had the best luck with entering photo contests. Just won an honorable mention in American Photo – Images of the Year.” – Kim Campbell, Photographer

“This is one of the worst things to ever come about, and it disgusts me. No one would think of doing this to a plumber, but artists are constantly expected to give it away for free. No artist should participate. It weakens the entire profession, and more often than not the “contest” portion is just a scam, or is less money than a freelancer would charge for the work anyway. There are a lot of good rants out there about this subject!” – Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Visual Artist

“I think the internet has created many opportunities for artists to give away their product in the hopes of being recognized. So we have created a nation of “amateurs” in the best sense of the word (the root of amateur is amare, past participle of “to love” in French). Unfortunately, all those people are no longer buying art; instead, they’re creating their own, which is wreaking havoc in the artistic marketplace. I don’t know if it’s good or bad; I just know that it’s what is.” – Marc Acito, Writer

37.They have value, depending on what the outcome is. Using the example, if it’s something that’s going to give an artist a great deal of exposure, it’s a valid time investment (as long as the selection remains in your control if it doesn’t win). At the same time, a documentary or independent film that has a great moral or societal aim would also merit the investment. I just don’t like situations where the outcome doesn’t match the value of the work and time, and/or implies a monetary devaluation by treating professional artists as hobbyists. – Dana Detrick, Musician, Voice Artist and Audio Producer

“I don’t mind spec work/contests but I absolutely detest any contests that require entry fees. They are asking us to pay them for the opportunity to create work for them? Give me a break.” – Bob Johnson, Photographer

Want more articles about artists? I have a whole series here.

Entry filed under: artist series, social media. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ed Araquel  |  May 20, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I think Harlan Ellison says it best on the topic of giving away work for free:

  • 2. Jordan Behan  |  May 20, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I’d like to field the “contest” side of the question. Okay fine, both.

    As for the spec side, creators should always make sure that their work can be “re-purposed” for their future use, and that they maintain the rights to it. See:

    Where contests are concerned, it all comes down to the incentive. If the incentive is enough (for you) then go all out and enter your finest work. If it isn’t, you need not enter. And that’s that.

    Lots of great comments above (Marco and Dana nail it), but I think Lauri doth protest too much. Like it or not, it’s a great marketing tactic. I don’t believe it’s fair to say that it’s “expected” of you to give anything away for free. Reading the comments, it seems many of your peers do see the value, under the right circumstances.

  • 3. Exposure or Exploitation? « Me Like The Interweb  |  January 11, 2011 at 9:18 am

    […] initial reaction is “probably not”, because I have concerns when it comes to artists and contests. And because my antennae prick up when I hear the word […]


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