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Giving Away the Secret Sauce for Free

When a creative project is done, who owns the art?

This is a question that has caused tension between artists and patrons since art patronage began. In today’s world of contracts and SOWs, arrangements are typically spelled out well in advance of the creative part of any endeavor, and they generally occupy one of two categories:

  1. The client (patron) owns everything when the project is finished, and they are free to use it in any manner they see fit
  2. The patron and the artist agree that the patron owns the idea of the art, but the artist owns the finished work. (or vice-versa)

So the question that we ask ourselves at the outset of a project is: which one do you want? Do we fight to keep the secret sauce private? Or, do we give it away?

We often find that the answer surprises us.

We recently worked with Berlin-based company, AirHelp on a set of commercial spots for various European markets. We were engaged to work with the firm’s in-house creative director to develop a unique and ownable look to match a concept that had recently been approved.

We brought on Alejadro Grima, a supremely talented illustrator based in Madrid, to help us work up the initial concepts. Once we had client approval, our next task was to design several vector characters and scenes. The concept involved adding texture to the vector scenes, thus creating a unique look that was owned by AirHelp.

As the project wound down, we realized we had a treasure trove of vectors, textures, and other materials. We had also developed a method for assembling the content. We decided to package it all up and write a fun how-to guide.

AirHelp European Creative

Of course, every artist is better served by an agreement that gives them the most IP possible, but we also consider the scarcity of time. Our time is a finite resource, thus every hour spent reviewing a contract, or negotiating terms, is an hour that could be spent creating something new. Every project and every agreement has a different approach, and occasionally we find greater value, for ourselves and our clients, in simply giving away the secret sauce for free.

This means that on some projects the client receives a library of assets and a user guide telling them how to use them. And yes, it means that they are free to take these materials and hire someone else–potentially someone cheaper–to create the next round of work.

And we decided that we’re fine with that.

Our objective is to do our best work and set our clients up for success.  If we are competing heavily on price, we are not setting ourselves up to do our best work. In addition, if a client can not afford to hire us for subsequent projects, then our involvement comes at a price for them and they are not setting themselves up for their greatest success.

AirHelp European Creative

Finally, we are confident in our ability to create new and exciting work on a regular basis without forcing agreements that are restrictive.

Perhaps giving away the secret sauce for free is not a good strategy for a company like McDonald’s. But we are not McDonald’s; we are not trying to sell something to our clients as much as we are striving to work with them, as partners.

Those relationships are precious and they require trust. And for that, we are happy to give away the sauce for free.