The commoditization of creative projects


Commoditization has waged a war on creative work over the past decade. DIY tools have blurred the line between amateur and professional, and gig marketplaces like Fiverr or 99designs have blurred the line between contracting design work and ordering a pizza.

The good news is that the commoditization of creativity is hitting a wall, and on the other side of that wall is a golden opportunity for creative professionals to make themselves more valuable and independent than ever, if they choose to.

I know this because my colleagues and I  spent two years building a creative services marketplace. We built a network of designers, provided project management and standardized process, and set fixed-prices. Ultimately, we failed. There was a fundamental flaw in our business, rooted in a simple misunderstanding:

Creative projects are not the same as gigs.

Gigs are transactions where all of the value is placed on a clearly defined outcome, like hiring someone through Fiverr to photoshop an image a certain way, requesting a driver through Uber to get you from point A to point B, or hiring someone on Handy to clean your apartment. They’re easy to commoditize.

But with creative projects like digital marketing, PR, branding, or web design, the value of projects is in the process, and the outcome is not yet known.

This fact that creative projects are valued based on the process gives creatives an immunity to commoditization. This leaves them with a choice when it comes to building their freelance business:

  1. Commoditization: build your businesses under the umbrella of another entity, such as a service marketplace or an agency that subcontracts work (low ceiling, high floor).

  2. Independence: Build your own brand based on their differentiated process and skills, and have full control over your projects, pricing, and process (high ceiling, low floor).

It’s never been easier to be independent, and creative professionals who invest in their independence can actually build more stable income with higher upside.

We saw this happen with our marketplace.

Some of our best designers outgrew us - they built their own brands, started getting their own customers, and no longer needed to take projects on the marketplace. Some were making 3-5x as much as they had been through us.

Those designers had to take risks to build their own brand, but those risks paid off and they became truly independent. They started working on our marketplace because they wanted more work and were willing to make sacrifices to get it. Now, they have full control over pricing, process, and the clients they work with, and many have more dealflow than they know what to do with.

So while commoditized marketplaces can be a good way to jumpstart your business or make a quick buck, I encourage you to remember that the creative service you offer is unique. You can start building your own brand and deal flow. You might just pick your head up a year from now and be happy you did.

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Mike Wilner