Am I A Fossil?

Technology has reinvented the way freelance art directors and writers are getting their names out there. But unless your résumé has Crispin or Wieden on it, getting on an agency’s shortlist hasn’t gotten any easier. And for agency recruiters, distinguishing the technology from the talent is only getting harder.

Freelancers who brag about how wonderful the freelance life is in today’s economy are either very new to it or bullshitting. Money is very tight, and agencies are spending a lot less of it on freelancers than they used to. Not to mention there are more freelancers now and less work. Fortunately, human nature may offer some salvation.

Arguably, there is no better way to make a lasting impression than through a personal contact. The problem is, with fewer doors open, how does a freelancer make any connection, much less a personal one? Showing your reel online as a streaming video or mailing out your latest work on a DVD is a cutting-edge way to get your work looked at, no question. But despite all the digitized hoo-ha being sent around, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: Agency recruiters still like to hold a piece of paper in their hands and will take their time to read it. Creative directors will actually call you—assuming of course that what you put on the paper is any good.

What I’m suggesting is that despite all the new technology, the personal touch still matters. Nothing else feels like a crisp 100 percent cotton-fiber envelope, especially when it has a handwritten note inside personally addressed to you.

Imagine you’re a creative director or an agency recruiter and you receive one of them in the mail. It’s a thank-you note, or perhaps a brief follow-up letter. Who do you think they are going to remember, the individual who wrote it or the author of one of their last 100 unsolicited e-mails? Technology has little to do with it.

It’s been said that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The evolution from LPs to cassettes to CDs to MP3s is a good example. People may like new technology, but they love their music. That’s why, as technology changes, they’re happy to purchase their favorite songs over and over again. In other words, new technology is pointless if there isn’t an emotional relationship to what we use it for. Steve Jobs understands this. Freelance art directors and writers looking for work need to understand it as well.

Agency recruiters and creative directors don’t just look for great portfolios; they look for talent. There is a difference. Like an iPod, your portfolio is simply a nice container for delivering something far more valuable.

All of us wish we were good enough to just slap our 10 best commercials onto a reel and be offered the keys to the kingdom. But to get on the radar, it takes more than a digital résumé you can e-mail around; you need to create something recruiters will want to show around. And what better way to demonstrate that you are a genius at branding products than to present yourself as one? A memorable leave-behind piece is the new muster test a freelancer must pass. If you’re still not convinced, consider this: Most award shows now have a category for them. Doh!

A former colleague of mine who now lives in Milan created a charming self-promo piece that included, besides his ads and bio, a lovely photograph of a pair of his Lobbs. If you knew him, you’d appreciate this, as he has a serious shoe fetish and owns dozens of pairs. Point being, it was an agency recruiter who showed this to me, having held onto it for more than a year.

Creating a self-promo piece with originality is a nice way for freelancers who happen to be AARP members to reinvent themselves, too. You think you’re an advertising guru? Here’s your chance to prove it—on the one brand nobody else knows as well as you do.

I’ve worked with 73 agencies, including the FBI. I’ve worked freelance and on staff. If I’ve learned anything being on both sides of the desk, it’s what art directors and writers are up against. No matter how experienced you are, there will always come a time when you’ll face some hot new technology and not know what to do with it. Get used to it. It’s now part of the job.

It used to be all about having the best portfolio. Showing award-winning work and having a résumé with bragging rights. Now, as exasperating as it is, more and more of our time is spent wrestling with software.

It doesn’t matter. Talent, not technology, will inevitably prevail. It’s human nature.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and first deployed it in 1990. Before him, the Internet had no graphics. This was his free gift to the world (with no patents pending). Five years later, I had an epiphany. In my gut I knew that being one of the first art directors to build his own Web site would give me a huge competitive edge. Even my therapist gave it two thumbs up.

I’ve been planning my Web site for 10 years now. The fact that it isn’t built yet … well, I just hope that doesn’t make me a fossil. Anyway, the technology will probably be even better when I get around to it.