‘I’ve given up getting paid’: global tech platform accused of exploiting artists
It is a global technology platform that claims to “democratise creativity” by allowing up-and-coming artists to submit work to the world’s biggest brands.
But Talenthouse, which boasts clients including Netflix, Sony, Coca-Cola and the United Nations, has been accused of exploiting artists and failing to pay them, in some cases leaving them thousands of pounds out of pocket.
The company, based in London, shares briefs from its clients and invites artists to create work that matches the brand’s demands – from designing a poster for a Hollywood film to an illustration for a drink brand’s social media campaign.
If their submission is picked, the artist is paid a fee, and the potential career benefits are huge: their work could be used in marketing materials and seen by millions of people around the world.
Since 2009, Talenthouse claims its service has helped level the playing field for artists internationally. On its corporate page, it implores companies to partner with it because “purpose-driven brands do better”. “Up your integrity. Virtue signalling is not enough. Take action with Talenthouse today and democratise creativity,” it adds.
However, Talenthouse contributors say the company is failing to deliver on its promises. The Observer has spoken to 12 creatives including visual artists, a photographer and a scriptwriter, who say they have not been paid money they are owed by Talenthouse, after completing briefs for companies including DreamWorks, Nationwide and Snap.
The group includes creatives in the UK, US, Poland, India and the Philippines. The problems are believed to be more widespread, with others describing similar experiences on social media.
One artist, Sarah Sumeray, 37, from Crouch End, London, said she has been waiting six months to be paid for a Talenthouse project from March 2022, creating a poster for the animated DreamWorks film The Bad Guys. Sumeray spent three days creating a unique design, which she later learned had been selected by DreamWorks. According to Talenthouse’s terms, she should have been paid $2,000 (£1,600) within 90 days.
But the payment window came and went, and despite emails showing she repeatedly chased the company, she says she has still not been paid. “At this point I’ve given up on getting the money. But it’s so disrespectful to treat hardworking artists like this,” she said. “It was quite a big deal to be selected for something like that, and it’s quite a chunk of money. It’s just not fair.”
Another UK artist, Helen Clamp, 39, from Fishponds, Bristol, responded to a brief posted in August on behalf of Nationwide, asking for artists to submit illustrations for use in a social media “money mindfulness” campaign.
Clamp’s design was chosen in October and should have earned her £500 from Talenthouse within 90 days. But she was not paid either. After raising the issue with Nationwide, Clamp and others who were selected for the campaign received the money directly from the building society.
While she says Nationwide dealt with her case “really well”, she is sharing her story because she believes there is a “bigger problem” with Talenthouse’s payment practices. “I don’t want them to just get away with treating people like this,” she said.
Others understood to have been affected by the payment issues include an artist from Poland who is owed €600, which she says is “six months late”, an illustrator from Florida who is owed $2,000 for a project completed in October 2022, and a script writer from Los Angeles who is owed $2,500 for a project completed via Talenthouse which he was supposed to be paid for three months ago. All provided documentary evidence such as emails and contracts to support their claims.
In the Philippines, Robert Acle, 47, said he is owed $3,720 after completing four projects via Talenthouse between April and August 2022, but only receiving payment for two. “The excuses are always the same. They are having some issues with client payments so they’re behind,” he said. “We felt exploited and discriminated against, and we have no legal means readily available to demand for our right to be paid.”
In emails to creatives, Talenthouse has admitted experiencing problems paying artists and has apologised. In one email sent to a creative, a company representative said they were “so sorry” the fee had not been paid, and that the company had “experienced delays with funding coming in, which has in turn put a delay on outgoings”.
But artists have questioned why the company continues to advertise new briefs on its platform. This weekend, several projects were live and actively inviting submissions.
In financial statements posted online for investors, Talenthouse has claimed to be enjoying strong growth. According to its latest report, from November 2022, revenue grew by 29% and gross profit by 64% in the third quarter of 2022 compared with the same period in 2021, driven by a recent acquisition.
The company, which is listed on the Six Swiss stock exchange, also began new deals which added to its revenue streams, including “signing exciting projects with Trivago, Razorfish (World Cup video campaign), and several others”. “The number of customers generating over $1m in annual revenue for the company grew considerably in the last two years,” the report added.
Zita Holbourne, joint chair of the Artists’ Union England, said it was “totally unacceptable” that Talenthouse contributors had not been paid. “Artists can’t live off thin air. The work is very precarious as it is and you really need to be paid promptly and on time,” she said.
She said the payment problems raised wider ethical concerns about the business models of companies like Talenthouse, which rely on artists submitting work speculatively. Those whose work is not selected are not paid. Artists are routinely asked to grant permission for their work to be used at the point when they submit it.
Roman Scharf, the co-founder of Talenthouse and chairman of the board, said: “We are extremely sorry for this unacceptable delay in payments and any inconvenience and upset it has caused. We take this matter extremely seriously and are working on a long-term robust solution that will benefit all Talenthouse creatives. This solution is well advanced and we plan to announce it soon.”
Nationwide said it had commissioned Talenthouse to help with content for its Instagram feed and that it had “paid upfront for the work”. When it found out artists had not been paid within 90 days as they should have, it “took the decision to pay the 11 artists directly … so as not to inconvenience them further”.
A spokesperson for the building society said that working with Talenthouse had enabled it to access artists it might not have found otherwise. It has one outstanding brief with the company and said it would ensure the selected artists were paid on time. “We have no plans to commission any further work with them,” they added.
DreamWorks Animation said it was addressing the allegations with Talenthouse. Snap said it was looking into the matter.
There is no suggestion that artists who responded to briefs for other Talenthouse clients have suffered payment problems.
Clamp said she had little sympathy for Talenthouse’s claims about cashflow problems. “An ethical company should be ringfencing the part of their income that is due to go to artists who need to be paid,” she said. “From the outside, it looks like a legitimate business. But its claim to democratise creativity is a sham.”