‘Can’t run a business on shitty cash flow’: Confessions of a freelance media buyer

For freelance media buyers, the rise of digital advertising on social media along with improvements in technology have made it possible to do their jobs without being on the staff of a massive agency or company.

In the latest edition of Confessions, Digiday hears from a freelance media buyer about what it’s like to perform his job, how extended payment terms can affect freelancers and why he won’t accept payment terms requiring him to wait more than 30 days.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s it like to be a freelance media buyer? Do you work with agencies, brands or both?
Sometimes I’m hired by agencies because they have more work than people to do it — or the team they have is too junior so they need help. I’ve also worked for a big brand that needs help with buying media ahead of a product launch, so I’ll work for them for a few months. I get access to their buying power for a project where they’re planning to spend significantly on paid [media] and then [not much] after that. Either way, the agencies or brands don’t want to hire someone to do it full time. Clients just want a faster turnaround, or they don’t want to pay the fees of a big agency. My fees are less than [those of] a huge agency.

What kind of media buying do you do?
I do paid media on Google and Facebook as well as podcasts. I’ve never bought paid media for TV, radio or newspapers. I talk to clients about buying billboards; they’ve become very in vogue.

Do you make more freelancing than you did working full time at agencies?
One hundred percent. I definitely make more money. I make three times what I used to make. When you work for a company, you have one income stream. When you work for yourself, you’ve got multiple clients and multiple income streams. You have to find the people who will value you and pay you what you’re worth. Don’t accept $10 an hour for what should be $50 an hour. I’m not cheap but I’m certainly not expensive. I say no to lots of work because people want to pay me $50 an hour, and I can’t do it. There’s lots of work out there. I don’t get out of bed for less than $150 an hour; I don’t have time for that.

What’s it like to do freelance media buying versus creative work?
They’re different beasts. I don’t think one is easier to do freelance than the other. They both generally have tight deadlines. When I work for an agency, I always tell them to be honest with their clients that I don’t work for them full time, so unless it’s a real emergency I’m going to handle it on Monday. 

Both have the challenge that sometimes you are asked to join at the last minute to help save a project, channel or business. If you are thinking of hiring someone freelance, do it earlier in the process and give them all the resources they need to be successful. They want you to succeed as much as you do. Listen to them when they give you solid advice based on their experience.

In recent years, payment terms for agencies have been extending long past 30 days into net 90-day or 120-day arrangements. Has that had an impact on you as a freelancer?
When I started, I was very set on 30-day payment terms. The worst [terms] I would do was 30 days because no one ever really pays in 30 days. I did that because previously, when I freelanced the first time, there was one agency that put it out to 45 days before setting up payment. I can’t afford to do the work and wait 45 days to get paid.

Last year I moved my payment terms to 15 days. No one has said anything. I imagine at some point an agency will say they want 45 days. If they said that, I just wouldn’t take the work. [I don’t want to be in a situation where] I’ve done the work, and you have the work to give to your client, but I’m waiting around to be paid because of your payment terms with your client. Your terms with your client are different than your terms with me.

Why do you think you’re able to get 15-day payment terms? That seems unheard of.
You’ve got to be confident in what you say and willing to turn down work. You can’t run a business on shitty cash flow. As much as that brand may be amazing, if someone is going to screw you over and put you on a 45-day payment schedule, they just want the work done and they don’t value you as a person or a company. At the end of the day, cash flow is everything in a business. If you’re an independent contractor, one missed client payment could put you out of business. Let’s be honest, a holding company has access to millions. If someone misses a payment, yes it hurts them, but they have access to tons of capital to support themselves.

Have payment terms gotten worse?
It’s definitely gotten worse. Clients want to stretch out the payment. When I read articles about payment terms being 60- and 90-days for some agencies, all I can think is that [those agencies are] letting clients bully them and push them around. More agencies need to say that it isn’t working. Until agencies, especially the larger ones, start saying this is not OK, clients are just going to do what they want.

If agencies say no, those clients will go elsewhere. Won’t the same happen to freelancers?
Clients think they hold all the power, but they don’t. If agencies, freelancers and employees in general started pushing back, companies would have to listen. Also, agencies who hire freelancers will have to listen if people decide not to go work for them.

Of course, unfortunately, like agencies, there’s always a freelancer who will say yes to the shitty rate even though it’s not enough for them to survive. It’s a vicious cycle.

Have you had instances where people laugh off your payment terms?
No one has pushed back. One thing that can be an issue is that people see freelancers as people rather than businesses. So there’s less of a feeling that they need to pay that freelancer on time. But the reality is that they are a business. They have taxes to pay. They have themselves to pay. They have tools and technology they need to invest in.

One thing that helps is that I always bill my clients on the first and 15th of the month to build that consistency there. I think it helps instill in clients that I’m a business and that they need to pay me consistently. The faster I bill you, the faster I get paid. You’d be shocked how many freelancers don’t do it.

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