The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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“Put that sandwich down and do what I say. I want something done now and I want your undivided attention. Why haven’t you done it already?”

If any client ever speaks to you like that, I wholeheartedly endorse the use of this book as a makeshift suppository. Yet when advertising and marketing agencies make similar demands of your freelance time, it’s customary to comply in mercenary fashion.

That’s just the nature of agency work. Perhaps it’s not entirely their fault, their big budget clients put them under similar pressure to meet challenging briefs and deadlines after all. But things can get very tricky when pleasing them becomes a higher priority than your principles.

Mercenary work practices can be frustrating and sometimes upsetting for honest freelancers like you who care about your work, only to see it snatched away, profiteered and torn apart by faceless third parties. So here’s my basic guide to the highs and lows of freelancing for agencies, what to expect and how to handle it.

Go for it

For all the challenges of working with agencies I encourage you to try it. Not just for the diverse work they throw at you but because it’s a vastly different way of doing your job. Alone, after a while you establish familiar working rituals which embed predictability into your freelance day. Refreshingly, these tiresome routines vapourise like a rancid guff when your phone rings with an urgent agency job.

Agency work is creatively challenging too once you get your foot in the door. When you’re their preferred supplier it offers bundles of work with fixed durations and a chance to collaborate on big brand briefs you’d never stand a chance of winning on your own.

The deadlines are exciting as well, you work with creative professionals at the top of their game and there’s every chance you’ll see your work in prestigious places. Plus you can pretend you’re part of an office community and remind yourself of just how excruciatingly shit full-time employment is.

Get your foot in the door

Time for another shit analogy. Securing work from an agency is like following-through. It happens unpredictably yet feels quietly self-validating when it does. If you push for anything the results are inconsistent but when something does happen, it tends to erupt all at once.

Some freelancers approach agencies whose work they admire or who they share specialties and experience with. If you do, don’t be surprised to hear “we’ll keep your details on file” when you make the first move. Do however be surprised when they contact you with a job two years later, completely out of the blue, as happened to me.

From the agency’s perspective, I asked a senior marketing droid with the paradoxical terms manager and creative in his job title to elaborate on events that lead up to his agency needing a freelancer:

“We only call when there’s an emergency…either our usual freelancer’s away or we’ve got too much work on.”

This explains the typical urgency when an agency yells for help so you’d better be prepared when they do. Have your hourly and day rate ready – the latter being cheaper than multiples of the former. In utopia you’d price for an entire project but work often comes in isolated chunks. When you respond they need rapid assurance if you’re interested and that you can do the job within their timescale. There’s very little time to mull the job over and it’s only right you give other freelancers a chance if you’re not keen.

I asked another droid how she finds freelancers after her agency decides they need an extra pair of hands:

“When I need someone I pick up the phone and ask around for recommendations. I don’t search the web but I might use it to check out someone who comes highly rated.”

From this all-too-conveniently succinct paraphrase you can extrapolate that word of mouth counts for much more than pestering, an impeccable website or simply crossing your ngers. So as ever, be friendly, helpful and personable, especially amongst the intimately entangled agency community. You never know who someone will remember you to.

Let’s suppose you’re lucky enough to get the call. Here are some essential questions to pose on your agency bat phone.

1. Always question the deadline

It’s surprising how a roughly earmarked date becomes set in stone when it looms on the horizon, even though the deadline was only ever arbitrary and flexible in their client’s eyes.

The alternative is to blindly accept an unrealistic deadline then exhaust yourself meeting it, only to discover there’s a whole week allocated to your work to lying pointlessly on the whacky office ping-pong table.

Remember, as an honest freelancer you’re always in pursuit of doing the best job possible and unrealistic deadlines compromise quality and undermine sustainable business.

2. Always question the brief

Is this work a speculative pitch or has their client requested it? Who reviews your work and who approves it?

Answers to these questions determine how much effort is required. Sometimes a rough sample is enough to prove a new concept rather than wasting time getting things perfect, only for everything to change later on. And why get anxious over meeting an agency’s requirements when it’s really their client’s opinion that matters (or in most cases the end customer). Remember, it’s OK to do an OK job sometimes too.

Also be sure to check how much creative freedom there is on the project. Do they want you to follow their brief to the letter or canvas some additional new ideas? I’ve actually been scalded for doing a job a bit too well.

Under all that pressure, agencies sometimes forget that each freelancer works differently, and new ones aren’t party to in-house conventions and all that’s happened before. So you’re well within your rights to ask for a little patience while you learn the ropes.

3. Always question the account

Does the agency work directly with their client or through an even bigger agency? What’s the history like and how long have they worked together? Do they give fast and helpful responses?

The agency’s relationship with their client means either constructive feedback and a job everyone’s proud of or endless heartbreaking revisions to your work. If the latter begins to happen, ask if you can join client meetings because you want to understand the real reasons behind their client’s amendments. Politics are always at play so stay vigilant for unpleasant battles to tactically avoid.

Needless information conduits

There’s a reason cutting out the middleman is such a universally approved concept. So let me introduce your bridge between an agency and their client – typically a young and ambitious account manager who enjoys “nothing more than making money”, to quote one I used to work with. They now look elsewhere for a freelance copywriter.

In the most hopeless cases be prepared for secondhand information, needless delay and exciting games of Chinese whispers with your dependable account manager. If you’re allowed, try to catch the ear of someone who understands the bigger picture of what their client wants to achieve, like a creative director or the salesperson who won the account. But again, avoid treading on anyone’s political toes.

Admittedly my appraisal of account managers is somewhat biased. We can put that down to my first-hand experience of being a professional information conduit who made things needlessly complicated during a memorably bleak period of my corporate past.

You’re a hired gun

Once you’ve proved your mettle as an agency’s preferred freelancer you then have to contend with the risks in turning work down. Sometimes you simply can’t take on a job and that’s when the ever virtuous free market steps in with reassuring competition to usurp and punish you for enjoying a holiday or having the cheek to fall ill.

Yet this really comes down to the kind of agency you want to work with. If a project isn’t for you or there are more pressing appointments like going swimming, then an agency should value your honesty, respect your decision and not drop you from their books. If they do, are they the kind of people you want in your life anyway? There are good and bad agencies like there are people. Good agencies shield you from politics and really nurture their freelance talent, bad ones pass on problems then expect miracles.

Being an agency freelancer means you’re a hired gun for when the shit hits the toaster, so urgency often precludes your ethics. But just because it puts your honesty-led principles to the test doesn’t mean you have to forfeit them. If you stick to your guns, ask the right questions and insist on doing things the right way it’s still possible for honesty to prevail.

Agency work sits on the extreme end of the freelance intensity spectrum so thankfully work won’t always be quite so demanding. When things get really testing, remind yourself that agency projects have often already reached the eleventh hour by the time you’re drafted in to contribute, so they rarely drag on much longer.

Remember, you always have the last say on whether or not you accept the opportunities that come your way in the first place, however challenging they may be. That’s the thrill of agency work.

Remember

  • agency work is different, challenging and a break from your regular freelance routine
  • always question what you’re told and insist on honesty; politics are always at play
  • the rules dictate you’re a mercenary but stick to your principles
The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

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