“I find it really insulting when people expect me to work for free” – Otegha Uwagba lays bare the inequities of the creative industry
In her latest book, We Need To Talk About Money, the author explores how her life and career has been shaped by money-motivated privilege, classism, racism, misogyny, and more.
- Jenny Brewer
- 8 July 2021
Otegha Uwagba is a bestselling author, successful podcast host and the founder of creative platform Women Who, and yet she still regularly gets asked to work for nothing. “I find it really insulting,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Actually the more I achieve, the more insulted I become because trust me when I say unpaid requests still come rolling in.” Even last summer when debates over pay and inequity along racial lines were at the forefront of international discussion, clients still asked her to do free work. “I exploded. I said to them you either haven’t been listening or you don’t care.” Her attitude – one she encourages others to take – is: “This is my job, and if I do it for free for everyone, I will starve to death.”
Uwagba’s latest book We Need To Talk About Money dives into the issue of unpaid work among many other financially driven systemic problems within the creative industry. It is part personal memoir, covering the author’s experiences as a working class scholarship kid at a posh private school and her time at Oxford, through to her jobs at major advertising and media agencies, and beyond; and part cultural commentary, analysing how her experiences were all affected by money – by way of privilege, classism, racism, misogyny, and much more. Candid and deeply relatable for many who’ve carved their own path in this tough industry, the book doesn’t hold any punches, particularly when it comes to divulging the truths of toxic workplace culture. “I thought it was a necessary thing to do,” she says, when asked if she worried about calling out said employers. “I wanted people to understand the full weight and horror and impact it had on me, and likely other people.” There are stories about everything from negotiating pay rises to dealing with archaic stereotypes in job roles; in our interview, she scathes about agencies who tell their staff “we’re all a family here” and yet, she says, “families don’t generally treat each other like shit, and we can’t fire each other!” Many people publicly call out similar situations, she says, but often anonymously because “there is this perceived wisdom that you shouldn’t burn bridges,” and hence the companies just carry on the same way. “I’m not looking for another ad agency job so I have the freedom to be open.”
The author says she first got into advertising because she wanted to do something creative, but “this industry is notoriously poorly paid,” and therefore saw advertising as “a stable career that would allow me some creativity.” Doing a free internship was simply not an option financially, and while Uwagba says things have changed for the better in the ten years since she was first starting out, getting a foot in the door of the creative industry remains reserved for the privileged. “If you have to work a full-time job and do graphic design on the side, it’s going to take you a lot longer to build up a portfolio than someone who’s been able to live for free with their parents, for example. As a result, the progress you make is going to be wildly different. Then if you look like you’re in demand, that will attract more work; so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where people get a head start because they’ve had advantages at the beginning, they keep racking up work. It’s exponential.”
She also believes the pandemic and its effects will set the industry back years in terms of diversity. “A lot of companies have withdrawn their grad schemes and internships, and it means that the people entering that world tend to be the ones who have contacts and connections. They can wangle themselves a bit of work experience. We won’t see it for years to come, but I do worry that the midterm and longterm effects of the pandemic are the retrenching of inequality and class privilege within the creative industry.”
One of the most “insidious” things she sees in the creative industry comes back to free work, and the rhetoric that people should be “grateful” to be able to do it, because of some sense of vocation, and the fact that it’s an in-demand career choice. “I just don’t buy it,” she says. “No matter how good a working relationship is, it’s important to remember it is a job, it’s a transaction, you are being paid for a service or product.” If everyone said no, then companies would simply have to start paying. “But they can usually find someone who will do it for free,” Uwagba says, and so the culture continues. Though sometimes she could probably afford to, she concludes, “I see it as a solidarity thing… because then that becomes the expectation.” As such, this refreshingly honest book about the taboo and yet universal subject of money is in some ways her manifesto for a better future.
We Need To Talk About Money is out today, published by 4th Estate.
Otegha Uwagba: We Need To Talk About Money (Copyright © 4th Estate, 2021)