Once upon a time in the West End …
Apart from a year as CD on Barclay’s at Leo Burnett London in 2009, I’ve been working for myself since 1995.
When I started doing it, freelance was pretty much a euphemism for ‘Can’t Get A Job’. But I’d trained under the iron brogues of the great Paul Arden at Saatchi’s London, and by the time I left my next job at Lowe, I was a creative director and Head of Copy … and lucky enough to have won around 20 awards.
So I’m sure I could have ‘got a job’ somewhere if I’d wanted to. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t ‘get a job’ for another 12 years.
The best part of freelance writing. what I like most
I stayed freelance because I liked it. I liked travelling. I liked being my own boss. I liked not having to work in an office. I liked being able to choose who I work with. I liked meeting clients in person and not having their needs filtered through a third party. I’m comfortable presenting my own work. And I don’t mind working on my own if necessary. Or working with people other than art directors when I need to.
I also liked not having to waste 40 hours a month commuting into an office when I could be spending that time working, or writing or composing music or … well, doing more stimulating and creative things than strap-hanging on the London Underground. (Ad agencies have always been remarkably conservative in how they expect creative people to work, and this formulaic approach of shoving a writer and an art director into one room in a city office block all day and expecting them to be creatively productive didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t.)
So I welcomed freelancing with open arms
When I launched myself into freelance writing, I gave a talk for D&AD…
One of the first things I did when I left Lowe all those years ago was to lecture college lecturers about what I thought the future held for their students. I imagined a future in which everyone would be freelance, boundaries between creative disciplines would be blurring, with writers and art directors doing the same job, and not only writing film but making it themselves, directing from their home studios. I envisaged people working virtually, across time zones. People working how, when and where they wanted to, mixing their advertising work with creativity in other fields. Making their work better. Making their lives more varied and fulfilled.
Well, I didn’t get the waves of approval I’d hoped for. Instead of a lot of nodding from my audience, I was met with a wall of stony faces. In fact the only real reaction I got was when I suggested that people would soon be shopping on the internet. Which was met with guffaws of disbelief.
Guffaws. I’m not making this up.
Sure, this was a long time ago, and the internet/telecoms revolution was in its infancy. But I still look back with bewilderment that so many intelligent people could fail to see what to me was obvious. That much of the traditional business we knew was about to be shellacked by a tsunami of change, and that our lives would be changed accordingly.
I’m not taking any great credit for these predictions, by the way – there was definitely a bit of wishful thinking in my talk, and more than a touch of Utopianism, too. (In fact, looking back, the only missing element was a heavenly choir in the background.)
However. Whether it was through pure luck or assisted by the spirit of Nostradamus, I somehow turned out to be more or less right. OK, I was a decade or so out. But much that didn’t come true at the time is certainly a reality now.
And it’s a long-ish list …
The world has changed. Eek.
- Boundaries have indeed blurred between the various branches of the comms industry, and will blur further still. PR, social media, advertising. Everyone’s fighting for the territory where they all converge, and it’s an increasingly large area of ‘no-man’s land’. (Perhaps that should be every-man’s land.) In any case, it’s very confused, and it’s confusing everyone.
- Marketing clients don’t know where to turn. Thanks to the small matter of a global recession, their budgets have been hacked, and since the online revolution they can’t work out what sort of comms campaigns they want anyway. Or who to get it from. The only thing they do believe in right now is data. Few currently trust creative solutions.
- The long-term prognosis for comms agencies isn’t good. The world economy may pick up, but the arrival of the internet as a cheap DIY advertising space – and a fundamentally flawed business model where agencies still give ideas away for next to nothing – means comms agencies will continue to struggle to employ people full-time. The freelance market will be more flooded even than it is now. That means more competition. Less work. Lower fees.
- We in the West are losing influence as the East prospers, taking wealth away from ‘Western’ businesses. So they’ll spend even less on marketing-based campaigns.
And so on.
‘Eek?’ Not necessarily.
You can choose to see a thundercloud of doom and gloom in all this if you like. Or you can choose to observe what’s good about it. To cherry-pick opportunities the new landscape offers.
We were all brought up to believe that ‘having a job’ was the norm, and being ‘freelance’ was a bit weird. But as I said to a bunch of students recently, the norm, in this profession and in many others, will soon be self-employment. The Industrial Revolution model of the working population travelling to workplaces in cities, receiving a wage and getting a pension when they get too old to work … that model is almost dead now. We can’t think and behave like passive wage-slaves any longer. None of us can expect to have a ‘job’ for most of our working life. So now we have to think and behave like entrepreneurs.
For many creative people this scenario isn’t a comfortable one. But it’s a nettle that, once grasped, can be liberating.
Because in many respects the world is changing for the better. The internet/telecoms revolution might be killing the advertising star, but if you’re a self-employed person it also means you can work wherever, whenever, however, and with whoever you want.
Earlier this month I was in a village in France, having Skype meetings with a London agency. This week I’m in London working for a UK client direct, alongside their chief designer, who happens to be in Canada right now. Earlier this week I was emailing a colleague about a project in Dubai.
At no time in any of this did I need to change out of my dressing-gown. (Don’t worry. The webcam was off.)
I worked the hours I needed to, not ‘office hours’. Which leaves me free to do other things when I feel like it, which in my case means anything from blogging to writing music to going to a museum.
And you’ll notice that I said I’m working directly with a client. This is something I believe is crucial to all of us. If we as freelancers want to make a good living, we have to offer our services beyond the existing comms agencies to some of those companies fighting over advertising’s traditional territory: to management consultants, media agencies, PR, and, crucially, brands themselves. Do we really need to do work for brands through third parties? I don’t think so. We should get better at mining these potentially rich seams. And encourage our agents to do the same. It’s very much in their interest, too.
The future we’re all gazing into is one that’s pretty uncertain. Some factors are beyond anyone’s control. But aspects of our future aren’t. As UK Prime Minister David Cameron said last week, we all have stark choices.
Either we can stick our fingers in our ears, do everything we’ve been doing up to now: perpetuating a model of the business which is basically the same as it was in the 1950’s. And hope for the best.
Or we can be proactive, reconfiguring our behaviour and thinking for a different world.
Being more entrepreneurial. Bypassing comms agencies and going direct to brands. Being more businesslike and professional. Being better organised. Making a better case for the value of what we do.
Supporting each other by everyone insisting on realistic fees, for God’s sake.
It’s a challenge, and it’s scary. But whenever there’s big change and upheaval, opportunities always open up alongside those that disappear. The dinosaurs were replaced by smaller, leaner, more adaptable animals, after all.
’Freelancer’ itself is a word I’ve always hated and I wish we could lose it. To me it demeans us all. It sounds a bit ‘junior’ and low rent. It also describes our employment and tax status rather than what we actually do. What matters is the value each of us can bring to a brand, and we should think of ourselves as self-employed consultants who add incredible value to the marketing mix. Never forget that we can make a fantastic impact on behalf of somebody’s business. We should not only be confident about this, but more importantly, behave more confidently about it.
Whatever else the future holds for freelancers (ugh), one thing’s certain. If we choose to, we can enjoy the best things freelancing offers. Living more flexibly, doing a wider variety of things, with the time to enjoy other life-enhancing stuff. Because fundamentally freelancing is about freedom.
So. Above all, enjoy it. Life’s short, isn’t it?
Freelancing. Some thoughts for the future
- Self-employed is the new employed.
- Talk up what you do. Always remember that you can turn a brand from a zero to a hero.
- Don’t be intimidated. Negotiate realistic fees. (Because you’re worth it.)
- You’re a business. Think like one.
- Your future clients are clients. Build relationships beyond ad agencies.
- Adopt a ‘portmanteau’ working life. Do other things alongside advertising and design work. It’ll supplement your income, inject variety and make you more creative.
- The internet is a loudhailer. Use everything it offers to promote yourself.
Most of all …
- Embrace change. Because you can’t stop it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Simon works as a creative director, writer and brand strategist for advertising design and branding agencies and brands.
He began his career at Y&R London before moving to Saatchi & Saatchi, then Lowe, where he became a creative director and Head of Copy. In 2009 he was creative director, Barclays, at Leo Burnett. As a freelance he has worked in 11 countries on 4 continents, with over 100 agencies, and taken part in more than 100 new business pitches. From 2006-9 he was a member of D&AD’s Executive Committee, and his awards include a One Show Gold, a Cannes Silver Lion and the Eurobest Grand Prix.
Alongside advertising, Simon has written two unpublished novels and proofreads for Penguin books and others. For 5 years he sang opera professionally and is currently a singer and guitarist in two London bands.
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