Confessions of an advertising freelancer: ‘With brands, there is an overall lack of clarity’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

As brands move more resources in-house, agencies have increasingly become more project-based, and there is a greater need for freelancers who can do specialized work. The Creative Group surveyed 400 advertising executives and found that on average, freelancers now make up 23 percent of employees at small agencies, while freelancers account for 8 percent of staffers at large companies.

For this edition of Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, Digiday spoke with a full-time freelancer who does user experience project work at five different companies, on both the agency and brand sides. This freelancer spoke about his rising workload, a common lack of clarity with commissioned projects on the brand side and feeling excluded.

Are you noticing an increase in work as agencies increase their project-based work and brands bring more resources in-house?
Yes, I have noticed an increase in work. It seems like brands moving more work in-house has led to agencies keeping a leaner full-time staff, which has created a lot of opportunity for me to work with these agencies on a project basis — especially at smaller agencies whose full-time teams don’t have many hours to spare.

Have you increased your rates because of this?
My rates have remained the same. I charge between $65 and $75 an hour, based on the project.

Are you getting paid on time?
Yes, I almost always get paid on time. I know it’s lucky, but I can’t remember the last time I was chasing down payment. But it’s fairly common to not get paid on time. I think that people feel that can get away with more when they’re dealing with “just a freelancer” and not a big agency.

What do you think of the overall trend?
The shift helps me, obviously, but for agencies and brands, there are some pros and cons with hiring more freelancers. Freelancers offer more flexibility and keep costs down. On the downside, though, if an agency or brand is onboarding a lot of freelancers and the communication isn’t there, it can certainly add to wasted hours.

Do you find that there’s often a lack of communication?
Yes. Agencies are a little better. They’re more used to dealing with onboarding freelancers. With brands, there is an overall lack of clarity, and more back and forth. I think brands can get so caught up in the way they do things internally that they forget that someone who is coming in from the outside doesn’t have all the knowledge of their process right off the bat. Sometimes I also get the sense that a brand really doesn’t know how to accomplish what they need, which can be difficult because being able to find the heart of the problem quickly is crucial for a freelancer.

Can you give an example?
I’ve been brought on to a couple projects where what was talked about in the initial meeting was not what they ended up needing. For instance: adding some front-end development work to what was supposed to only be a quick user interface project. It was a combination of the client not knowing what they needed and not knowing how to articulate what they thought they needed.

What is the best thing about being a freelancer?
I have much more ownership of what I’m doing. I’m not just doing work for somebody else.

What is the hardest thing about being a freelancer?
You end up doing a lot of things outside of the main project you are being charged for. I have to do things like find new clients, respond to inquiries, self-promote on social media, and billing can all take up a lot of time. Freelancers know that there’s going to be a lot of extraneous work that we have to do that we aren’t hired for, so I have to keep these hours in mind when setting my hourly rate or quoting for a project.

As a freelancer, do you find that you are integrated in the culture of whichever agency or brand you are working for?
I would say about half the time I feel welcome, and the other half of the time I feel like an outsider. Often, the leadership doesn’t want freelancers to participate in things like happy hours. There was also one time when I was really given the cold shoulder because I was hired for a project at this agency, and the full-time designers thought their jobs were in jeopardy because they were outsourcing. Of course, I prefer when I’m brought in and treated like a member of the team.

What about the work they give you?
It’s been a mixed bag. I’ve had some employers that haven’t hidden anything from me. Other times, I’m not trusted with larger tasks, [and I’m] left out of important meetings and given more production work.

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