For the last few years I’ve seen a heightened degree of frustration and disappointment in many of the creative people and account services people who continue to work for big ad agencies. They tell me about their longer hours, the heavy demands of management, and the lack of recognition they are feeling. Some are questioning their quality of life, saying they “no longer have a life”; they work, sleep, work, eat, work, work, work.
Many of them are looking for alternatives that will offer a life-style change, and are considering quitting their jobs to become a freelancer. They know they will be giving up many of the benefits and perks that come with working for large agencies, including the monthly pay cheque, and entering a world of uncertainty. In a full-time job you’re paid a fixed salary each month, paid leave and other perks. In freelancing your earnings are directly dependent on your rates and there are no perks.
Is there enough work to go around?
There certainly are more freelancers in the market these days than ever before. This is do in a large part to the declining global economy forcing many large marketers to cut back expenditures on advertising and to reduce staff numbers. Because of this decline, and the fact that clients are not making huge marketing commitments they once did, layoffs have escalated in the advertising industry.
Another factor is that many of the independent traditional and digital ad agencies have been swallowed up and acquired by huge corporate conglomerates in an unrelenting manner. Today four major corporations control the entire ad industry. The acquired agencies appear to be no longer run as creative enterprises, but as large businesses interested in their own profits. Some of the industries leading names that once were on the door (and had a hands-on involvement in the creative process), are no longer there. I use to think that advertising was there for the purpose of selling brands, products and services by using talented creative people. Given today’s agency environment, I don’t get that same feeling.
Taking the plunge
Today’s freelance market is flooded with more people trying to make up for lost incomes. Many creative people I know who were at the top of their field in big agencies have jumped ship. They’ve spent some time rethinking their priorities on life and work, and have taken the plunge to become freelancers—designers, artists, illustrators, photographers and writers.
Are they making money? Some people are making lots of money. But on a more universal level, many freelancers are not making the money they use to make because of the shrinking number of client projects available and because of the increasing number of freelancers going after the same piece of pie.
There can be lot of uncertainty in a freelancing career, especially if you have worked in an advertising agency before. As a freelancer, you have no means of dependence and hence have to really work hard on your freelancing career. One thing you have to keep in mind is, it takes a long time for a freelancing career to give you the income that you need. Hence this is one of the challenges faced by many freelancers who leave their full time positions without giving a thought to these minute details in career.
Joe Suskin is a freelance copywriter and creative director with international work experience which includes South Africa, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. “As a freelancer,” he says, “the Internet has been a lifesaver. I have been able to garner clients around the world. Sure, the same adrenaline that working in an agency with a team is gone – I miss that, in its place workman labour. What do you want, how fast do you want it is the rule of the day. Creativity has become a commodity and most clients can’t be bothered. They want something to fill the space and fill it fast. Freelance life has left me financially poorer, and spiritually richer. My quality of life has improved working my own hours, spend more time schlepping kids and not having the multitude of agency lunches and dinners, merely a sandwich made at home has improved my health. I also have time to work out and take an active part in activities not related to work”.
It isn’t the same old marketplace
If you are a freelancer, you know that it isn’t the same old marketplace it use to be. The emphasis now isn’t so much on creativity, as it is more on doing it fast, and keeping it cheap. There’s no room here for a freelancer to do any experimentation. Most complain about how the Internet has cut into their livelihood. For certain, the Web has changed the way we all do business, and freelancers are no exception.
Another freelancer told me there isn’t as much work out there as he thought there would be. “Everyone is hassling me on fees. They want it all, cheap and fast, so I give them what they want and nothing more and they pay me.”
On the other hand, I do know other freelancers who are not complaining. I think this is due to their unique specialization (mostly Internet and e-commerce related work) for which they can charge top dollar and face limited competition.
A friend of mine who owns an international freelance sourcing website, told me: “Slowly but surely, freelance is becoming the market’s choice of sourcing materials. Freelance is the most flexible way of approaching a market where everything is wanted yesterday or the week before. This is an industry where getting the job done is the big yardstick, and if you can provide what’s wanted on time and on budget, you’ll get more business than you’d believe.”
It’s lonely, but someone’s got to do it.
"Freelancing can be a lonely profession," says a freelancer from Hong Kong. "You no longer are part of an office environment. You work alone—a lot. Now you are more isolated working from your home. Sometimes you could go an entire day without using your voice. So if you’re used to having people around while working, consider sharing an out-of home office with someone".
To be a freelancer today, he told me, you have to believe in giving full and total service to every client, no matter the job’s price. Every client should be treated as your best client. You have to meet your deadlines and keep your word.
No matter the project, you have to always do your best work, for as the saying goes “you’re only as good as your last job”. And last, believe in our profession, one of the most exciting and challenging professions anywhere.
Most freelancers I know work alone. There’s no account manager (suits) in the middle now to take all the heat. Now its you and the client, face to face. You need to be courteous, direct and helpful. There’s no room for exasperation, sarcasm or criticism – even when they are horrid to work with. This may be a difficult concept for some, but your client is now your boss and you have to treat them like one.
Most clients stick with freelancers who are easy to work with and always go out of their way to deliver 100%. So impress them, and you should have smooth sailing.
A freelance writer in Singapore had this to add: “Unless you’ve directly dealt with your company’s clients during your ad agency years, your very first roadblock is going to be finding and dealing with clients”.
Can you deal with unreasonable clients?
As a freelancer, you will come up against irate clients making some unreasonable demands and rejecting some of your work. Whether it’s a rejection or an unreasonable demand, you’ll need to keep your emotions in check and instead of going on the offensive, handle the situation with tact. You can’t afford to alienate your clients.
To succeed as a full time freelancer, you must treat your work as a business. You’re the CEO — the one responsible for everything related to it. Freelancing full time means you have to stay focused. You’re responsible for yourself and your work more than ever. There’s no one around to monitor whether you’re meeting your deadlines, doing the right amount of work or spending half your time tweeting and visiting with friends on Skype or Facebook. You may also think that since you’re working for yourself, you can set your own hours or sleep in most mornings. Wrong.
On the positive side, you can take a break when you want to, or work extra hours when you need to. You can spend more time with your family since you’re not spending as much time stuck in those long and excruciating client and agency meetings. You can also set your own hours: if you can get your work done in 6 hours instead of 12, no one’s forcing you to stay in the office. Now that in itself is pretty cool.
And last, to be a successful freelancer, you should believe in our profession, one of the most exciting and challenging professions anywhere.
What’s the future look like for freelancers?
One point of view doesn’t bode well. “The future for “local” freelancers doesn’t look so sweet,” cites a Hong Kong ad agency managing director (who wishes to remain anonymous). “Clients and ad agencies are finding more and more outsourcing websites and this is hastening the export of jobs from richer countries to poorer ones, which is bad news for the skilled ad agency creative person and for the local freelancer.
“For example, several “freelance” websites connects businesses and individuals with freelance workers worldwide. In effect, they are like an offshoring tsunami, exporting jobs from rich countries to poor. And this will profoundly wash away the careers of many advertising creative people.
“Countries like India, China and Indonesia are teaming with hungry, driven, self-skilled and self-motivated digital creative people who want work. And they will do the work at rates that are much cheaper than local agency and freelance creatives in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo. This will have huge implications on many local creative workforces”.
In less than three years, one of these websites, Freelancer.com, has built itself into one of the world's leading outsourcing websites, and it doesn't look like it’s slowing.
We have barely seen the tip of the offshoring freelance iceberg. Now the creative work you are looking for can just as easily be processed in Mumbai or Beijing, Jakarta or Phnom Penh, In fact, most people with jobs in ad agencies located in major world centres may be at risk. For now, I think the conceptual work will still be done locally, but the finished product will be done cheaply overseas.
One thing is certain: there is going to be a lot of pain especially for people who studied advertising for years and were paid well but who find their job no longer exits.