Art & Commerce: Free to Be

Creative Editor, Adweek
It’s 10 a.m. I’m wearing my favorite sweats, my cat is sitting on my lap and I’m working. This is my fantasy life. I’d watch Rosie or Judge Judy for inspiration, while I toiled to make the rent. Well, actually, the preferred distraction would be a Mediterranean beach, but I digress. The point is, I’d work on my own time. It could be four in the afternoon or four in the morning–it wouldn’t matter. I’d make my own rules. If I wanted to, I could run off to Tahiti for two months.
For an increasing number of copywriters and art directors, my dream is their reality. The economy is healthy, the great dot com is here and agencies are winning new business faster than they can staff it–and not for lack of trying. Freelancers not only make more money than they did as employees, they’re also working on their screenplays or novels or paintings.
Ten years ago, freelancing was something you did when you were between jobs. Now it is the job. And a good one, commanding, according to headhunters, an average of anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 a day. Anyone from junior copywriter to the most senior level creative directors can be hired to finish a job, win new business or create a campaign.
The top hired guns could probably work for any agency they want to; they choose not to. Instead, they work for them all on plum assignments. If they are lucky, they’ll get their work sold. If they are really lucky, they’ll get it produced. But luck is rare, which brings me to the disadvantages of freelancing.
The main one for those still interested in working in advertising is: It’s difficult to keep your book current if you never get to produce a commercial. A 4-year-old Pizza Hut spot isn’t going to get you very far, warns one New York director of creative services. And what about the stock options? The bonuses? The sun-soaked weekend respite at Shutters?
For many of the freelancers who can work the system, the freedom it brings is irresistible. They chose who they work with–agencies, clients and creative partners–and what projects they take on.
For the most experienced people, the status allows them to do what they enjoy, making ads, rather than balancing a budget and managing a staff. In essence, it’s what their jobs would be, sans the worse parts, if they were working at the same level in-house.
There is a common misconception that there is a shortage of talent in this business. Why aren’t there more startups shaking up the business? Where is the new generation of
creative leaders?
Yes, the Internet and other glitzy industries that promise big payoffs are luring some of the best and brightest away. But the reality is, it’s agency life that’s pushing them away.
The freelancers I talk to are tired of the cumbersome agency structures that make it almost impossible to produce work they are proud of, the brutal hours that leave little time for family, the lack of respect from management and the shortage of creativity in a so-called creative industry that’s barely changed its business basics since day one.
Ultimately, it has left many people uninspired; at least, they’ve chosen not to play the game full-time. What creative people want most is to be inspired and appreciated. The talent is out there. They just don’t want to work for you–full-time, anyway.