An Alternative View

March 15, 2023

February 28, 2023

Dirty Cash: Knowing your financial worth as a creative

Senior Copywriter, Olivia Downing’s contribution to our online series, An Alternative View

Olivia Downing

Associate Creative Director

Our An Alternative View series showcases creative responses to the world around us from underrepresented voices in the industry. This month, Olivia Downing, shares her thoughts on knowing your financial worth as a creative in the industry.

Sign up



“Money talks, money talks, dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, oh.” 
– The Adventures of Stevie V

In ‘Hegarty on Creativity’, a self-proclaimed handbook for those considering creative careers, there’s one (short) page towards the back, ominously titled: ‘Money Money Money’.

Hegarty makes his stance on this pretty clear:

“If money has a voice, it doesn’t have a soul. It’s a tool, not a philosophy.”

I imagine this is quite easily said from a vineyard in France’s lush Montagne Noire region.

And though I’m not critiquing the content of this book in terms of its creative advice, in the canon of ‘Creative 101’ as a whole, there’s an astonishing lack of advice, particularly financial, to creatives themselves.

Where it does appear, which is very infrequently, key issues like what you should be paid, and how to ask for it are lacking so obtusely, it’s almost funny. Except for those living it, for whom it’s no laughing matter.

In my experience as an advertising creative, there’s always been a tension between creativity’s soft underbelly and the commercial hard shell of this industry.

I’m British, so talking about money as a rule is about as socially acceptable as turning up to a dinner party in nipple tassels. But throw into the megamix the creative ego, and how we find money chat in general to be gauche, and the plot thickens.

No alt text provided for this image
A campaign Olivia worked on for long-standing client of Continuous, Primark

We consider ourselves to be great artistes: happy to struggle through poverty in the great name of ‘creativity’.

We forget however, that many of the world’s greatest artists were desperately trying to make bank.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was written as a speculative job application.

Caravaggio, Davide, even Shakespeare all received handsome salaries for their work, from their respective wealthy patrons (and in some instances, even the monarch).

Do you think they’d have been so prolific, so comfortable to be creative if they’d been worried about money?

It strikes me as absurdly ironic that creative advertising, which at its best is the fusion of commercialism and art, is so uncomfortable with talking about this inherently symbiotic balance.

Similarly, the conversation surrounding the ‘career’ side of being a creative is wildly outdated, if ever mentioned at all.

Hegarty, Trott, Ogilvy are dolloped out annually in the educational spheres, like scoops of aged vanilla ice cream, to every young, wide-eyed creative.

But do these books still reflect what these careers look like now?

What kind of reflection of a diverse, creative landscape is truly represented by such a homogenous holy trinity?

No alt text provided for this image
Previously, Olivia has been included in The Drum's 50 under 30 Outstanding Women in Creative and Digital

Learning how to think, and how to execute great creative work is of utmost importance: I’m not negating that.

But learning how to commercialise this, and make it a sustainable living, I would argue is equally as important, particularly given the current cost of living crisis, and the inevitable fact that we are losing fantastic talent to other industries for precisely this reason.

On that note, I spoke to the head of a creative recruitment agency, who said that since 2004, entry level roles in the North West (at the time, circa £15,000) have only gone up by £5,000 P.A.

Applying the level of inflation between 2004 and 2022, the starting salary should now be £25,350. On average, they are £20,000 – at best.

Agency salaries as a whole have not kept pace with inflation, and from an entry-level talent point of view, that makes our beloved industry less attractive to new and ambitious talent.

It’s even tougher to hear it from the universities’ perspectives, as a senior lecturer on a Creative Advertising (BA) course told me:

“The only people who can afford to take unpaid internships are people who are lucky enough to have rich parents.

"Of course, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about; you can’t help who you’re born to. But what it means is you get a certain type of singularly middle-class perspective, which creatively, doesn’t help the work either.”

Point taken, considering that the industry is consistently up in arms about how it is trying to make itself more diverse.

Indeed, the focus of D&I initiatives centre largely on race and/or gender.

But surely economics, and whether you can afford to live or not, directly factors into this too?

And if you’re missing out on people from less privileged backgrounds who might have an interesting or genuine perspective on a relevant issue, then it's not just wallets that suffer, but work itself.

No alt text provided for this image
Olivia is a former winner of the School of Thought competition

I slept on a couch for two weeks doing my internship at AMV BBDO.

The graduate spot went to someone’s brother who already worked there (nepotism still thrives, but that’s another article).

Despite this, surely we have to ask ourselves the question: how could anyone, no matter how creatively aspirational, be at their best under these conditions? And by these conditions, I mean peeling yourself off a leather sofa everyday?

Even if you are lucky enough to bag that starting role, as previously mentioned, the financial issues are still ever present.

You’re expected to work late (often also unpaid), meaning that your salary shrivels away until it becomes next to nothing.

One colleague told me that in their previous role, when they addressed their lack of pay in comparison to their colleagues to the HR manager, she told them that they were in breach of confidentiality.

This early scaremongering stops people from being open about their pay, and what they deserve, and as a consequence, we all become complicit in underselling ourselves.

So what to do, what to do.

Well, I certainly don’t want this article to be a rant with no resolve, so in the absence of literally any help regarding money in creative disciplines, below is some of the best financial advice I have been given, or have discovered myself during my career so far. I hope you find it useful:

01. Salary negotiations.

When someone asks what your salary expectations are, you don’t actually have to tell them what you’re on.

If you know you’re being wildly underpaid, ask for what you believe you should be on.

Sure, they’ll find out eventually from your P45 but the old maxim stands: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

02. Need more? Move.

It is very unlikely that you will be paid substantially more in your existing work place, even if you’re doing an absolutely killer job.

When it comes to that point, really ask yourself if you’re only moving for money, or if you actually like it where you are.

My advice here is that if you really love what you do and where you work currently, then moving may not make you happier in the long run.

But if the financial sting is really in need of antiseptic, you do need to move, and there is no shame in this.

Yes, you’re a creative. Yes, you want to do good work. But you also need to be paid appropriately – your agency is not a charity.

03. Money talks.

If talking about money gives you the same uncomfortable squirm as watching a sex scene with your parents, then maybe it’s time to book in that family movie night and tune into 50 Shades.

The only way that disparity in pay is allowed to thrive and fester, is because the people it directly affects are not talking about it.

Vikki Ross kindly shared with me a spreadsheet put together by Alex Holder and Anna Codrea-Rado of average salaries of freelancers, which does at least give an insightful overview of some of the world’s wages.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that this needs to take place for agencies, but what I am suggesting is simply talking about money with your friends at work.

Find out who’s on what. Consider if you’re being paid fairly in comparison to skillset/rank/size of agency etc. And then decide what you’re going to do about it.

04. The work is important. But you only live once.

I’ve dedicated so much of my career to promoting, and celebrating the joys of creativity.

But there was a big chunk of that time where truthfully, I couldn’t move out of my parents’ home, put the heating on, go on holiday, and more, because I simply couldn’t afford to.

It is so easy to be blindsided by the glamour of this work: the self-gratification of seeing it out in the world, and that beaming, almost effervescent sense of pride when you win an award for it.

But so many things, realistically, are much more important than that.

This is a cost of living crisis after all, and we have to fend for ourselves as best we can.

My hope is that following this article, we might all stop considering cash and its relationship to creative careers as ‘dirty’, and perhaps start again with a clean (appropriately paid) slate.

If you’d like to learn more about this project, email


Never stand still

When uncertainty and shifting expectations are the new normal, brands no longer need radical transformation. What’s needed is long-term thinking and the ability to adapt quickly.

Ready for change?
Let’s talk

Start with an email, and we’ll be in touch within 24 hours to organise a phone call, video chat, or face-to-face coffee – whatever works best for you.