Life As A Free Agent

A few days after I started freelancing with Jean Robaire, an art director I consider to be a legend in the business, I got some sage words of advice. He told me it would take weeks, maybe months, to get my sea legs. He also said that when people ask how life is working as an ad mercenary, I should always lie and tell them it’s miserable.

Why? Because if staffers find out how good it is on the outside, they’ll quit and be swimming right next to you in the temporary-employment pool. Still, I’m going to set aside Jean’s counsel and come clean. Because the truth is, I love life as a freelancer.

I sincerely believe that leaving my position as a group creative director has added five years to my life. I’m not sure many account folks and planners with whom I’ve had heated discussions would want me on this earth any longer than I have to be. But life in the ad business is anything but fair. Besides, I’ve probably added five years to their lives as well.

At the risk of appearing terribly obvious, I’ll touch on several things that contribute to the new lilt in my step.

Except on very rare occasions, I have little or no client contact. Not that I have anything against clients. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some, like ABC, EarthLink and Castlemaine XXXX, that have strived to push the envelope. Of course, not all clients are as visionary, and I am cursed with a glaring inability to hide my true feelings. This has not served me well in situations where clients didn’t like the work or needed explanations for certain artistic choices. And for some reason, answers like, “I don’t know why it rags left, it just does,” never seem to suffice.

Another thing is, I’m incredibly less vested.

I’m about 100 percent less vested in the company profit-sharing program. But I’m also less vested emotionally. There’s a certain indescribable joy that comes from being at arm’s length from the work. Don’t be mistaken, I’m still enormously passionate about creating big ideas. But when those ideas are met with a “No Sale,” it doesn’t sting like it used to.

Which leads me to an eye-opening incident that happened just a few weeks ago.

I was called into an agency to work with a staff art director. We spent the week developing some very cool work for a major car account. Just before we presented the ideas to the ecd, he announced that at a breakfast meeting, the client and the account folks had agreed to a different direction. He liked many of the spots we presented, but said we needed to complete work in the new direction by Monday. Faced with the prospect of working the weekend, the art director was visibly steamed. I, on the other hand, enjoying my new perspective as a mercenary, saw it as an opportunity to break new barriers in brand building.

Oh, and to squeeze three more days of billing out of the project.

Of course, one of the greatest benefits of not working at an agency is not working at an agency. Thanks to the Internet, Wi-Fi and those forward-thinking people at Starbucks, I can make my own schedule and show up for work at one of my 347 offices around town. And I’m fortunate enough that the creative directors I work for know I’m going to deliver for them regardless of where I do the work, when I do the work or what I am or am not wearing while I do the work.

Mind you, there’s a lot to be said for the glamorous, visually stimulating confines of an ad agency. The free office supplies. The bagels and coffee. The camaraderie of creatives who have turned whining into a high art. But there’s also a lot to be said for sleeping late, private constitutionals and the freedom to catch Oprah when she’s interviewing beautiful lipstick lesbians.

Is there a downside? Well, there are weeks when the phone doesn’t ring and the savings account doesn’t get fed. But that just gives me more time to promote my book.

The truth is, I could go on and on about why I love life as a freelancer. And that’s not to say I’ll never go back to an agency job. It’s just that right now, advertising seems fun again. My stomach doesn’t knot up on Sunday nights. My writing feels better (though it may not be apparent from this article). And for the first time in a really long time, I actually look forward to going to work.

So there it is. Sorry, Jean, I let the cat out of the bag. If it’s any consolation, I’ll write another piece about how insurance costs have forced me to place my family’s healthcare in the hands of a veterinarian with a degree from Grenada.