In college, one of my close friends was constantly winning contests, awards, and scholarships. At one point he told me that the secret to his success was to enter every contest possible. Often, he found, only two or three people (on a campus of 30,000 students) would enter into a given short story contest, so his odds were incredible. He would often win some cash prize, usually between $50 and $500, and got his stories published in all sorts of collections, which later helped his graduate school applications.
Let me tell you about another type of contest. I got an email this morning that basically said this:
Make a commercial for our company and you could win $1000 and have your commercial shown all over the internet!
From the point of view of an up-and-coming media developer or advertising student, $1000 could seem like a huge cash prize. The contest holder hopes to get hundreds of submissions from young “undiscovered” talent and they just pick their favorite one and pay them for the commercial.
If you’re considering such a contest, let me help you understand the point of view of the contest-holder. They need a commercial and the ad agency just quoted them somewhere between $5,000 – $25,000. Finances are tight and there isn’t cashflow right now, so what to do? They decide to crowd-source. Hundreds of innocent and talented young kids spend huge amounts of time and effort, trading in favors, borrowing equipment and putting their all into a commercial for the company. One of those kids gets paid far below market value and has the great prestige of having worked for cheap to make a non-professional ad for a cheapskate company. The rest go home empty-handed.
Sure, everyone else gained experience, but I hope that the main lesson they learn is this: don’t work for free, don’t work for cheaper than you can afford, and don’t enter so-called contests for companies that don’t value your time or talent. One of the worst things that can happen is that the terms of the contest often state that all submissions become the property of the contest holder. In other words, they may have gotten 50 great ads and only paid for one. Regardless of whether they have a rights-grab clause in the contest terms, you’re making a commercial that will likely be entered through YouTube, which means that their brand is still getting out there and flooding social media channels. And it didn’t cost them a dime for you to make it.
In the case of my college friend, the contests he entered often called for work that had already been made (which certainly isn’t the case for any company asking for amateurs to make commercials for them). His rewards included respectable cash prizes and real publication opportunities. In the case of these corporate work-for-me-for-free-or-cheap “contests” the winner doesn’t even get much to show for it.
Imagine applying for a job with this on your resume: “I made a commercial for Brand X Toothpaste and got drastically underpaid for it.” The only thing that tells your employers (or potential media clients) is that you are foolish and can likely be taken advantage of.
I echo my friend’s wisdom: apply to contests! Apply for scholarships! You never know who else will apply, and you may win! But be cautious of so-called contests that are dishonorable tools for shady organizations to get commercial content for free or cheap.