‘It can be very lucrative’: Confessions of a freelance creative director

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 agencies deal with the new market reality of more project-based work versus agency-of-record assignments, many companies are now more dependent on freelancers. Instead of hiring full-time for project work, adding a freelancer for the length of a project allows agencies to expand and contract as needed. In the latest edition of Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, a freelance creative director spoke about the dynamics of freelancing for agencies, payment issues, time management and why, even with its various issues, freelancing is still appealing.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you go freelance?
I realized I could be doing the same things I was doing for agencies for myself. Also, as a woman, I got sexually harassed a lot at a few agencies. I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew I couldn’t go to HR to talk about it, especially when I wasn’t a creative director yet. I just didn’t want to deal with [office] politics. I decided to be freelance so I don’t have to put up with an environment. I come in as a hired gun and I leave. I also get to work on a lot of different projects and get experience across the board. Usually, at an agency, you work on [a set number] of brands. I like being able to work on different projects throughout the year. It keeps my skills strong. Being freelance, I get to see how good agencies function and how bad agencies function.

Why did you feel like you weren’t able to address harassment issues? 
It opens up a can of worms. Everybody knows who those people are at different agencies. There’s a culture that allows it. You feel like a whistleblower or that you’re going to get a lot of attention and get a lot of people in trouble. It’s just easier to leave and start in a fresh place because if I did report it and it would open up a can of worms, then I wouldn’t be able to do my job. I’d have to deal with it, and I’d have to leave anyway.

Is freelancing more lucrative than being at an agency?
If you treat freelancing like a business and the economy is good, it can be very lucrative. Granted, you’re going to work sweatshop hours because ad agencies believe that they own you. Once you’re there, you can’t go home until the work is done. For me, my time is more valuable. I like to be able to have more free time to work on my own projects and do other things without being stuck at an agency. Whenever I’m at an agency, I can’t even maintain my health. I can’t go home at 5 p.m. There are very few agencies that allow you to do that.

Are freelancers paid late? With the rise of extended payment windows from clients to agencies, does that impact when you’re paid?
Yes, sometimes it does. I was at an agency last year that waited 60 days. That’s a long time for a person and it’s unacceptable. Being a freelancer, there’s a lot of things you pay out of pocket for. I pay for my own tools, insurance, software, obviously my own computer. There’s a lot of overhead that goes into being a freelancer. You’re paying for your own equipment and your own healthcare. We don’t have vacations, and we don’t have sick days; that’s not covered. If I’m sick and I can’t work, that comes out of my own pocket.

With more project work versus agency-of-record work, there seems to be more reliance on freelancers. Has that changed the dynamic?
A lot of businesses still rely on freelancers to do the work. If they’ve won new business and they have to execute the work quickly or if they have too much work, they bring in freelancers. I think a lot of agencies are run by freelancers, and that’s the secret that nobody talks about. There are also a few agencies I know of that have won Cannes Lions with work done by freelancers. That’s a dirty little secret that no one talks about as well. Sometimes it’s not the full-time employees who are doing award-winning work, but it’s the hired guns.



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