Worried you’ve sold out creatively? At least you haven’t sold in.
This episode talks about the ways different artists, and generations of artists, have walked the commercial tightrope—from Salvador Dali, a notorious “sell-out” who tanked out* as the voice for Alka Seltzer in 1974 and Iggy Pop (remember Swift Cover Car Insurance?), to various creatives working today, like Carly Ayres, co-founder of design and development studio HAWRAF. Ayres actually used a “moral flowchart” to help her make decisions about what projects to take. (They eventually couldn’t take the pressure and shut their doors.)
I won’t even mention the millennials, who all seem to be running to monetize their hobbies like lemmings off the side of a cliff.
WePresent is always very well-written, informative and, above all, gorgeously designed. (It’s officially in my Chrome “Websites I’m Jealous of” bookmark folder.) WeTransfer has invested so much in the quality of its content, in fact, that it’s a shining example of a content strategy executed to perfection. WeTransfer, a Dutch cloud-based file downloading service, has turned itself into a compelling voice for the creative industry.
According to WeTransfer’s Wikipedia page, 75% of WeTransfer’s users are creatives, so it makes sense that they’d align themselves with the community they serve.
The page also claims that the company gives away a third of the banner images on its website to showcase the work of “artists, designers, musicians, illustrators, photographers and creative organizations”, the equivalent of a billion free page impressions in 2016 alone.
This is all amazing and admirable and, like I said, really clever as a content strategy.
Not to get too meta, or crass, here, but WeTransfer has successfully sold in, and I’d argue that “selling in”—or aligning your brand with a social cause as a branding strategy—is even creepier than selling out, however you define selling out. Because, while creatives who “sell out” may be sacrificing some artistic freedom to work with brands, they remain artists. Companies that “sell in”, no matter how woke their brand says they are, are coopting identities to drive growth.
This is true whether it’s Porn Hub making beach cleaning porn to shine a light on the plight of our oceans, WeTransfer cashing in on creativity, or AT&T milking road safety with a series of high-budget short films created by leading filmmakers. Companies that sell in are always using issues they may or may not care about to gain something for their brand.
Getting back to selling out, as a fiction writer working commercially in the world of digital advertising, I believe that most of WePresent’s conversation is missing the point. WeTransfer, a sell-in, is just rehashing a platitude that serious artists like Iggy Pop and even Salvador Dali couldn’t, and shouldn’t, care less about: that creative people can turn their authenticity on and off like a switch.
Just like the myth that writing is anything but varying degrees of talent and a shitload of dedication and backbreaking hard work (and not James Franco in his bathrobe hunched over a typewriter with a cup of coffee), the myth that you can break creative output down into art and non-art, or should be troubled by the distinction, doesn’t hold water.
Unless you’re part of the creative team masterminding Kim Jong Un’s “Visit North Korea” nation rebranding campaign, most of what you write won’t be toxic.
It might not be challenging or a crusade for the environment. It might not put you in contact with the most creative people in the world, but it’s mostly always creative in some way.
So, worrying about whether you’re an artist or not if you write a real estate website, or appear in a crappy television ad, as WeTransfer wants us to, is just dumb.
Salvador Dali and Iggy Pop obviously understood this distinction. If you’re a writer or artist dayjobbing your way back to your desk to write your next novel or design your next illustration, you should too, especially if the people making an issue of your integrity are the ones whose integrity is really at stake.
Writing copy pays the bills. (I may actually need to fact-check that—I haven’t actually seen my bank statement this month). And paying the bills is never bad. Paying the bills doing something that you’re good and talented at is even better.
* Arguably, the nadir might actually have been Dali’s 1969 Chupa Chups logo rebrand.
When Max Sheridan isn't selling out, he creates comeback campaigns for Nicolas Cage. (What, you don't think he needs a comeback campaign?) His second novel Hubble is coming fall 2020 from Run Amok Books. Talk to Max at your own risk here.