From the Bunker: The Commodification of Creative Talent


Professional services is a tricky game. You’re converting the creative ability of your talented team of young/digital phenoms, strategic marketing brain-power, and the thin-sliced specific needs of the client’s executive team – dropping it into a blender and hitting puree.

Man, does it get shredded! That creative smoothie should be delicious in its final form, and the client’s eyebrows should shoot to the sky in delight. But that process is intense, and you better keep your fingers away from those spinning blades. Today, we want to pull apart that first ingredient: the talented team of young digital phenoms. I mean graphic designers, web designers, media, and social media minds.


Here’s the key point: these creative folks- they are easily commodified. I mean to say that these skilled pros are at risk of their ability being downplayed and undervalued. Young talent is often treated like a lawn-care crew. You charge $45 a week for my yard! The guy yesterday said he would do it for $40. When you can hire ‘do me a logo’ talent from Fiverr or hear ‘I could just build it myself on Wixx’ – you know you are dealing with someone who commodifies creative talent. AND they also see their own creative needs as barely significant or they’d be prepared to invest in what will make them serious returns.

These kinds of clients think they are hiring based on hourly labor – a few click clacks on a keyboard. Because the end product looks so good – so ‘of course!’ – they misinterpret that as easy – so easy anyone could do it.

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE BUYING – Vision and Expertise

Every time this happens I have to put my right hand in my right pocket. If I don’t, that right hand might just shoot out a sharpie pen and I might just say, ‘Here you go, hotshot, do yourself a logo. It’s easy.’ What these clients accidentally denigrate (most folks don’t know they’re being insulting – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt) – is the years of practice, wide exposure, technical know-how, training, and thousands of hours of previous work that go into that final product. Bringing a 10% off coupon to the deal is to misunderstand the professional offering.

I might also take that sharpie and scribble something on a paper and say, ‘here’s your logo – imagine it is the best logo you’ve ever seen. face-melting great logo right here. now what? what are you going to do with it? That logo is just a shape – do you know how it fits into a fully-developed brand? Do you know why it had to look like that and how it will communicate across applications, platforms, and campaigns? So -I mean, it’s a great little shape – is that all you needed a shape?!

Creative talent should be offering much more to the market than a final design or media file – we should be offering understanding to the market; otherwise, Fiverr is a great option or your cousin or craigslist or maybe even Tyler, our 14-year-old listener from Miami – hello, Tyler.


See – it’s one thing to look at a piece of media or design and see that ‘yeah, that thing is cool’ but it is an entirely different thing to know WHY that thing works – why it is cool. Since this is an Inside the Agency week of the Bunker – let me also be candid about creative agencies; see – agencies can commodify their workers as well as the general public. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard some version of this statement:

‘Smart! You guys use young talent from the university – you can pay them nothing, work them hard – even on weekends – and then cut them or see them self-exit when they graduate. No wonder you guys stay in a college town with young people.’

When I hear this kind of remark, I have to put my hand in my pocket for a different reason: because I am tempted to take a swing. Business coaches and clients and distant family members – we’ve heard this kind of remark from all kinds of people. I consider this sentiment one of the most offensive things and worst ways of thinking that I can imagine. This is an extraction model – a wring ’em out and throw ’em away. This is not an investment model which honors labor and works to see people developed into better versions of their younger selves. It’s disgusting.

When you see talent and skill as a commodity only – you will get what you pay for – a digital file without any understanding. A business transaction without a relationship? No thanks. You will short-change yourself in the long run.


An agency that burns through talent like this – they’ll get what they pay for, as well. They won’t build anything special. They won’t see fruitful and invigorated talent in their shop – they’ll see automatons stamping out sub-par work on a conveyor belt. These creatives will express nothing – they will be as lifeless as the young person booking poorly paid hours. That’s what they are!

 Here’s your file – where’s my money? -the abused creative will say.

Here’s money, where is my file? – the short-sighted client will say.

No vision exists here – no vision for what matters, how we are going to delight, how we will exceed what we ever thought possible, how we will push the edges of our own ability and break open new insights into how we will win the horizon. A wise agency will see that creative insights, deep understanding, and phenomenal communication are the ingredients that make professional services productive and profitable, but if you build a culture that commodifies your own talented team – you’re in for a bumpy ride. It happens too often and it is one of the reasons young talent will shy away from agency life in favor of ‘freelance’ work.


We love the folks who have signed on with our agency and we wish we could pay them double what we do. We would all like a little more ‘bump and jive’ on paydays – believe me. In the meantime, they know they’re growing something the slow/hard way – all the really valuable, important, lasting things are slow growth. In summation: don’t commodify creative talent and don’t let yourself be commodified – bring more value, bring more to the table than just a finalized, package file

We fight on!