Freelancing: A Few Thoughts

If you read this blog last Thursday you might recall that I posted the following comment from Dave Trott’s blog:

In my first job I made friends with a freelance writer. He never wanted a permanent role because he thought it would make him complacent.
Every agency he worked for got the best out of him. If they didn’t, he figured they wouldn’t ask him back.

I was going to expand on this point, but in the end time pressures and sheer indolence got the better of me. However, the comment immediately elicited this response from GOUT-LEGS:

but this whole thing of freelancing and giving it your all because you don’t have a contract! is COD SHIT.
you have no loyalties and you smash out as many ideas as possible, mainly old bottom drawer ones, so that the job is done.
i’m not sure i know of any freelancer who has made a piece of work that made it onto their reel?
(i’m not saying that has never happened, just talking about my experience)
the only time freelancers impress is when they treat it like a placement, mainly because they want to get hired again.

So, two sides to the story.

I don’t know if either of the above people are/have been freelancers, but as there are a lot of them/us about, I thought I’d shed some light on the matter from my point of view (ie, that of a freelancer).

I used to think that ‘freelance’ was a euphemism for ‘unemployed’. I guess for some freelancers it is, but I suspect that the majority find regular work (I have not worked full time since leaving full time employment, but I have earned more money and the time I’ve taken off has been more by my choice than being unwanted). But with more agencies moving towards a freelance model (ie: one which allows for a mobile and expandable/shrinkable workforce in the departments where the amount of work is unpredictable), I think that more people will end up doing it and that will reduce any kind of ‘unemployed’ stigma.

You also get a lot of situations where people work long-term freelance (I believe the neologism for this is ‘permalance’), where you know you’re going to be at a certain place for a minimum of a few months with a view to possibly extending it. I think this is a good way for both employers and employees to test the water and see if they like each other. For example, I recall a very senior creative team who were freelancing a few years ago where, to a certain extent, the company was seeing if they were a good fit to be CDs. But overall the permalance situation offers a little more security of income that is balanced out by the fact that you are expected to become more involved.

With regards to the two arguments above, I think that freelancing is what you make it, but it’s also what the agencies make of you. The insecurity factor can certainly spur you on to work harder than a full-timer, but the lack of involvement can make you work less hard. If you know you’re leaving tomorrow afternoon there might be less of an incentive to pull out all the stops, but then if you want your time at the agency extended, or you want to come back, you know you mustn’t disappoint, and that can light a fire under your arse.

The situation can also be affected by what you’ve been called in to do. By their nature, freelancers are often used to fill in temporary gaps. They are not usually there for the long-term, so often they do not get to see a job through, instead handing over their script or layout for a permanent team to finish. That can be dissatisfying, but you have to accept that it’s part of the job. You also avoid all the headaches and meetings that come with production. Does it even itself out? Probably not, especially when (to take GOUT LEGS’s point) you end up with nothing to add to your reel/website/portfolio.

I have, however, found several unexpected pleasantries about freelancing:

1. You get to meet new people. This isn’t just good because you might make new friends, it’s also good because when you meet people for the first time they are generally on their best behaviour, trying to make a good impression (as are you). So instead of the politics and history that you get from working on a job with that account man who screwed you over a couple of years back, you make a fresh start with everyone, and that tends to make the days really rather agreeable. Equally, you don’t get into a rut with anyone, instead greeting people with open-minded optimism – and that’s a great way in which to have most of your daily contacts.

2. You work on a new things. After a long time in the same agency you will inevitably end up working on the same accounts more than once, and you will therefore bring baggage to those situations: you know the client’s an arsehole or unlikely to buy a certain kind of ad, so you hit the patterns you always hit and that can close off routes to good work. Equally, you get to experience new working methods, different types of clients and new takes on how to improve.

3. You often work on the most interesting projects. I don’t know if it’s coincidence but as a freelancer I’ve worked on more large pitches and ginormous international campaigns than at any other time in my career. As I mentioned above, you get often get called in in an emergency because the brief’s been hanging around uncracked for a month and the absolute final pain-of-death deadline is looming. It’s fun to work at the business end of things. It keeps you sharp and the work exciting. There’s more energy and you feel valued.

4. You get random days off but you still make your money. You know those times you wanted to get going with your novel/see an exhibition/sit on a park bench drinking Thunderbird? Well, they pop up with a welcome regularity when you freelance. That means you can sponge up all those things that make you a better creative and a happier person.

5. Autonomy. Although you need cash, you have the freedom to work when you choose, and that can be very empowering. I remember when I had to buy my own Mac and phone instead of using the company ones. It was not a cheap experience, but it was a really good one. I am responsible for my own shit: how I work, when I work, why I work. Autonomy is widely recognised as one of the keys to happiness, and I have definitely found that to be the case.

The bad things about freelancing really come down the the insecurity about further employment, having to really organise yourself when your brain is not really set up for such an onerous task and the lack of new work to add to your book. These shortcomings are not to be taken lightly, but if you work hard when you do get a gig then that should mitigate these issues.

I must say that I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I may be fortunate in the positions I’ve been offered, but I think you make your own luck. In fact, I have been offered quite attractive full-time jobs that I have decided not to take. That isn’t to say that if the right job came along I wouldn’t be interested, but I feel like freelancing has let me stretch my legs and open my eyes.

And, for better or worse, I have no idea what will happen next.

(By the way, if you need a senior team, Daryl and I may be available to help. See our website on the right to check out our work and contact details. Individual art directing and copywriting also possible.)