Creative Talent: Top Guns - Adweek identifies the stars of the freelance creative world

Discuss freelance talent with creative directors and recruiters and you’ll get the same response: Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re out there. And the list of “must haves”–talents like Mark Fenske and David Fowler–keeps growing. On these pages, Adweek profiles the most-wanted creatives, examines an experiment called The Syndicate and looks at life in the fast and furious freelance world.
Paul Spencer, a New York-based freelance copywriter, was thrilled when a campaign he and his partner, Kevin Kearns, created was approved by both agency and client. It was a $50 million redirection for a soft drink set to debut on the Super Bowl–a coup, especially for an adjunct team, formerly co-creative directors of New York’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.
“The one time we hit it out of the park was a year ago,” says Spencer, who has been freelancing for almost four years. “The client bought a really cool campaign. We got a great director, but when we brought it back to them, they took it away from us.”
It’s the ultimate irony of the freelance life. A creative director leaves his or her management job, weighted with client meetings and staffing issues, to get back to creating ads, and ends up further away from it. “They made something that embarrassed us,” says Spencer, “bad advertising.”
Even heavyweights, like Fenske, admit to having no recourse when it comes to controlling the final product (see page 24). Despite the disadvantages to freelancing–losing control over the work is just one–more creatives are throwing off the shackles of agency life to become masters of their own domains.
“That’s what freelance is about,” says Stephanie Crippen, a former copywriter at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, “the freedom to work with different people. You are in charge of what you choose to do and not to do.”
The healthy economy and acceptance of the cyberlife are only making the choices easier. “Every week, there is a new crop of people coming into the freelance category,” says Sallie Mars, director of creative services at McCann-Erickson, New York, an agency that gets 50 portfolios a week. “There is no way that the marketplace can absorb all these people.
“Part of the reason [freelancers] are always busy is, the more people out there freelancing, the less they want to take full-time jobs and the more openings we have,” Mars adds. “It’s cyclical.”
The prime candidates for those assignments can command anywhere from a respectable $1,000 a day to $2,500 a day for the chosen few.
The greatest challenge will always be producing work. “They come into the freelance world with fabulous reels,” says Mars, “but most agencies aren’t going to pay them to produce jobs. They’ll use staff for that.”
Rich Silverstein, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, emphasizes the importance of keeping portfolios current. “It looks really glamorous, but a lot of times you don’t get to finish the work because you don’t have the clout,” he says. “That’s why there is a tendency to see them working two to three years and then go back to full time. I don’t see too many freelancers out there, getting their work into [award show] books. I measure the quality of the person in the finish of the work.”
Although one of Goodby’s high-profile Budweiser creatives is a freelancer, Steve Dildarian, he is a “permalancer,” a full-time freelancer, working for the agency on the same account. But “he can go off and write a book,” says Silverstein.
Goodby hires freelancers as needed, such as when the agency was first added to Nike’s roster, but, Silverstein emphasizes, “I am philosophically against hiring a freelancer to pitch a piece of business. It’s dishonest.” But it happens–a lot. Many of the creatives interviewed for this feature said about 40 percent of their work comes from new-business pitches.
Some agencies, like Ogilvy & Mather with The Syndicate, are finding new ways to tackle their creative needs. Others, like Young & Rubicam, are simply cutting back to invest in agency staff. “I’ve reduced our freelance budget by 60 to 70 percent,” says Jim Ferguson, chief creative officer of Y&R, New York. “People need to feel responsible for what they do.”
While the ad business is healthy–the influx of business has buoyed the freelance business as agencies struggle to digest the volume–the demand for freelancers will remain steady if not grow.
But there is a downside if agencies don’t figure out a way to hold onto talent. “It will ultimately hurt the industry,” says New York-based recruiter Susan Kirshenbaum. “Talented people who could be leaders of the industry have just stepped off the path.”
Or maybe, they’ve just stepped onto a new one, and the agency world will follow.
The Syndicate – strength in numbers
The Syndicate brings together creative shops from all over the country as a resource pool for Ogilvy & Mather.
Nine months ago, Rick Boyko, co-president/executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, established a new way to provide freelance support to the global network. He linked seven award-winning boutiques–CORE, St. Louis; Grant, Scott & Hurley, San Francisco; Hunt Adkins, Minneapolis; WORK, Richmond, Va.; Pyro, Dallas; WongDoody, Seattle; and VitroRobertson, San Diego–to create a premier freelance talent pool for Ogilvy and its clients. It helps avoid “scrambling around looking for freelancers each time a project comes along,” says Boyko. Although the agency continues to use outside freelancers, The Syndicate has saved Ogilvy time and money, Boyko says.
“We try and use them rather than go to someone on the street,” says Boyko. “We’ve used them on Sears, IBM, Ford, American Express Travelers Checks, Hershey’s; existing business when we need fresh brains; or need people because we have a big crunch on time.”
Although a number of Syndicate projects are pending, there’s nothing yet to show for it. “The industry is obviously waiting for proof The Syndicate is going to work,” says Keith Tilford, managing partner at CORE. “It’s going to take a while. Working with them so far has gone better than we ever expected.” CORE and Ogilvy are currently collaborating on a creative task for an undisclosed client. They’re also working together on a brand-positioning pitch for Bridge Information Systems, a financial systems company in New York and St. Louis.
The Syndicate is such a unique arrangement that some participating shops were initially suspicious. “We thought it was some weird way to acquire us,” says Grant Richards, co-creative director at Grant, Scott & Hurley. “But when we talked to Rick [Boyko], we realized this was a no-lose proposition.” CORE set the maximum number of hours it would give The Syndicate, which has “worked well within that,” says Tilford.
Tilford and Richards say the benefits to the smaller agencies are many. The arrangement brings a steady stream of income, and Syndicate members work on big brands they couldn’t handle otherwise, such as IBM, Ford and AmEx. Also, Ogilvy’s reputation and resources accompany them into pitches.
WongDoody recently won by pitching its Syndicate membership and its access to the Los Angeles branch of OgilvyOne, the agency’s direct-advertising division. Ogilvy pitched the media and WongDoody did the creative. Says Pat Doody, president and partner, “ liked the idea that we’re joined at the hip or the lip or something like that.” –Richard Linnett
Mark Fenske – It’s in the Genes
MARK FENSKE, creative director of The Bomb Factory, is perhaps one of the best-known freelancers. He has big ideas, writes clever copy and even does voice-overs. Earlier in his career, he was a writer for Wieden & Kennedy. His last agency gig was a brief, but turbulent stint as chief creative officer of N.W. Ayer. Here’s five minutes with Fenske:
Adweek: Why do you freelance?
a) No one can stand working with me longer than three weeks.
b) ” I’m out of town, in ____, working at ____ with____ on ____. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you ____” sounds cool on an answering machine.
c) In 1989, I moved to a town where the hippest people didn’t have regular jobs and I’m still trying to fit in.
d) I’m not a real freelancer. I only freelance at it.
Adweek: Would you ever consider an agency job again?
Fenske: On every project, I go to work the first day like I’ve taken a new job at the agency. I figure they’d put me in a conference room because they don’t have an office for me yet, that no one would talk to me because I smell bad and that they’d let me go after the first thing I worked on because I did a bad job.
Adweek: Are you able to produce the same quality of work as a freelancer?
Fenske: Actually, the freelance stuff turns out better. When I was on staff, I not only had to think up the ideas, I was expected to follow them through production. So my words and ideas were limited by my own talents. But when I’m a freelancer, everyone at the agency feels they can take the words and ideas I have and do whatever they want with them, without having any of my influence holding them back. So the stuff really gets to fly.
Adweek: Who do you feel are the best freelancers in the business?
Fenske: Art directors. Writers have it so easy. We ride in, shoot the place up with words and head off into the sunset carrying a floppy disk with all our copy on it ready to use at the next place. Art directors have to do actual work using somebody else’s tools at somebody else’s desk to fit somebody else’s format and then have to leave it all behind. They’re my heroes.
Adweek: How does freelancing fit into your life goals?
Fenske: Freelance creative is just like having a regular agency job, except the money’s not as good, you don’t get the good projects, your work is not your own, you’ve got nowhere to sit and there’s no vacation time. Since my life’s ambition is to be a scorned, ignored and self-tormented artist, it’s been perfect for me.
Houman Pirdavari – Clear as spring water
Pirdavari entered the ad biz with a tenacious effort to get an interview with Lee Clow. Now the art director is just as convinced he belongs in freelancing, working on accounts such as Evian.
Eighteen years ago, Houman Pirdavari worked at a small Southern California ad shop. But he had his eye only on another–Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. “Chiat/Day was this inferno of talent,” says the 39-year-old art director, based in San Francisco. With a spec portfolio and a concerted letter-writing campaign, he talked his way into an interview with Lee Clow. Three months later, he was in.
The same dedication he placed on getting into the mainstream of the ad business Pirdavari now uses to stay out of it, at least full time. An experimental filmmaker, photographer and lover of travel, Pirdavari prefers to pursue his personal art as much as the art of persuasion. “I didn’t want to end up on airplanes, meeting with clients,” says Pirdavari, who has been a freelancer since he took a sabbatical from his last job as associate creative director at Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, in the early ’90s. “I didn’t want to go back on staff. I wanted to have more time to do other things,” he explains. “I didn’t enjoy [management] that much. I don’t know if I’m as good at that as creative.”
Pirdavari is selective about the projects he accepts. “I have to live up to my reputation and my day rate,” he says. Among the agencies he’s freelanced for: Chiat/Day on both coasts, BBDO, Hal Riney & Partners and Berlin Wright Cameron. “I worked on staff with good agencies, with good influences and good mentors,” says Pirdavari. “The first part was integral to the second. Frankly, I wouldn’t have changed the way I’ve done my career a bit.” –Eleftheria Parpis
Jean Robaire & Sally Hogshead – Body Of Work
People say work for freelancers in Los Angeles has dried up, but one team is swimming laps around the competition.
In the last 18 months, creative directors Jean Robaire, 42, and Sally Hogshead, 30, have worked on ads for Remy Martin Cognac, Sony, Conde Nast and Target stores, for agencies such as Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon McElligott and TBWA/Chiat/Day.
Beginning last year as a “freelance creative department for agencies,” Robaire and Hogshead didn’t exactly start in the kiddie pool. Veteran creative director Robaire, who twice helmed his own full-service agency as a partner in Kresser Stein Robaire and Stein Robaire Helm, met Hogshead while working at The Martin Agency’s short-lived Santa Monica, Calif., shop, Martin Creative/L.A.
The two struck out on their own, says Hogshead, because “we wanted to work for a company that focused exclusively on the creation of ideas–not on management or client hand-holding.”
With a staff of five, RandH is housed in a 3,500-square-foot Venice, Calif., loft adorned with Oriental carpets, leopard-skin ottomans and rubber ducks. The duo primarily works with other agencies, but has completed projects for some clients directly, such as recent national work for Condƒ Nast’s health and beauty Web site, RandH is currently working on a four-spot Super Bowl campaign for an “undisclosed client.”
“They’re like group heads at an agency, and since Jean has managed a couple successful agencies himself, you can trust him; he knows what he’s doing,” says David Lubars, creative director of Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, who hired the duo for an undisclosed project. “They come in and immediately understand what they need to do.”
Will RandH become a full-service agency? “We work on a project basis, never on retainer,” Robaire says. “We don’t handle media buying or account services. Our focus always remains strictly creative, pure and simple.” –Teresa Buyikian
Patrick O’Neill & Dallas Itzen – Get Happy
For those who take themselves too seriously, O’Neill and Itzen advocate a healthy dose of humor in ads for the New York Comedy Film Festival.
They never expected their freelance life to last this long. It’s like a “really long job search,” jokes art director Patrick O’Neill.
But after four-and-a-half years on the freelance trail, this New York-based team–copywriter Dallas Itzen and O’Neill–shows no signs of settling down. “We definitely feel empowered by this,” says O’Neill, 34. “The creative product and the thinking does feel like it’s being recognized, where maybe it wasn’t as much before.”
“You feel wanted,” adds Itzen, 36. “It’s not about the agency–‘Oh, I don’t want to work there’–it’s about, ‘I want to have more control over my life.’ “
The two have spent most of their time this year at McCann-Erickson, working on Coca-Cola, Motorola and Avis. Most of their projects are still in development, with the exception of a Coke campaign, for which they’re finishing an effects-driven spot that targets the youth market in Asia.
The duo met at Ogilvy & Mather in 1990, but didn’t work together until 1992, after both landed–coincidentally–at Deutsch. O’Neill was part of the team that developed Mr. Jenkins for Tanqueray, and together, O’Neill and Itzen created ads for Kohler and Ikea, including a ground-breaking spot in 1994 that depicted a gay couple purchasing a dining-room table.
Most days, the partners work independently at home. O’Neill exaggerates only slightly when he says they’re on the phone five hours a day. His apartment is equipped with a Mac, a scanner and printer and inundated with magazines, which he mines for ideas.
While writing on a Powerbook, Itzen often keeps her TV tuned to a news channel. O’Neill prefers silence or some trippy instrumental music. Both cite music videos and movies as stimuli for creative ideas.
Inside McCann, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG (where they worked on Evian) and DiNoto Lee (Mistic, N.Y. Comedy Film Festival), they’ve carved a rep as good listeners, team players and fun people.
As Tom Carroll, CEO of TBWA/ Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., says, “Going to a Dallas and Patrick meeting is exciting because you know they are going to blow your mind.” –Andrew McMains
Ernie Schenck & Jamie Mambro – Heart Smart
They may be known as emotional hit men, but since copywriter Ernie Schenck (pictured, far right) and art director Jamie Mambro left Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos this year, the two are expanding their palette, breaking away from financial services to create airline and beer ads.
After leaving the Boston shop, Schenck worked exclusively for GSD&M for six months. He brought Mambro into the agency, and the two produced an ad for Fannie Mae that focused on the need for good credit.
“When Ernie, Jamie and I get together, it’s like we are lost brothers–wayward souls,” says president Roy Spence. Schenck, he explains, became a mentor to staffers at the Austin, Texas, agency’s loosely formed creative department, which operates without an executive creative director.
Schenck and Mambro have also been hired by Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis (to work on United, post “Rising”), TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York (the Delta pitch), and Square One in Dallas (Miller brands).
“They have a great sensibility for beer,” says Square One principal Tom Hanson.
Schenck, 53, has always had the soul of a freelancer, working for himself in between agency stints, first at Leonard Monahan in Providence, R.I., and later after leaving the shop he cofounded, Pagano, Schenck & Kay.
In 1994, he landed at Hill, Holliday as a freelancer and later joined full time to work on a follow-up to John Hancock’s “Real life, real answers” campaign of 10 years ago. The big-budget campaign featured the tagline, “Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunity.” The pair also produced a controversial campaign for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, which pushed hot buttons inside and outside the Catholic church.
One of their last Hill, Holliday assignments–the first spot for, which was to air during Super Bowl XXXIII–was killed when Fox rejected the storyboard, saying it was in poor taste. Titled “Dumbo,” the ad featured a worker sweeping up at the zoo only to get “sucked” into the backside of an elephant. As the enormous creature jumps up, the broom hits the floor and a voiceover concludes: “Need a new job?”
The pair can afford to pick and choose their spots. But Mambro, who works from his home in Boston, and Schenck, who writes from his home in Jamestown, R.I., remain on the lookout. –Judy Warner
Janet Champ – Power Play
Some say she created a revolution in advertising for women. Then, after years of writing poetic Nike ads with a healthy dose of empowerment, Janet Champ experienced a coup in her life.
“It was time to move out of the house and get my own apartment,” she says of Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., her sole employer for 14 years in the ad biz.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without all those years behind me, but this just feels like more of a life. Knock on wood,” she says, careful not to jinx it.
In 10 months, she has worked for a dozen agencies, including McCann-Erickson, McKinney & Silver, Toth Brand Imaging and Wieden/Amsterdam. No longer pigeonholed in women’s advertising, her client list features John Hancock, and Wrangler. But she is still sought out to speak to women one-on-one. “You get a sense of a friend sharing a secret,” says art director Bob Barrie, her partner on Fallon McElligott’s Nordstrom work.
Champ, who still lives in Portland, enjoys the freedom to say no. “I don’t want to play with the assholes anymore,” she says. Like many freelancers, when she does say yes, it’s often for pitches without the follow-through. “It’s like constant foreplay.”
She does miss the agency camaraderie, running down the hall to throw an idea at somebody “to see if it’s grotesque or good.” She still works with Wieden alums, including her husband (art director Rick McQuinston), Jerry Cronin of Bayless/Cronin and her former partner Charlotte Moore, now a freelance art director for Leagas Delaney, Rome.
Freelance forever? “Unless something terrible happens. Knock on wood.” –Mallorre Dill
Dave Ayriss & Ron Saltmarsh – Runner’s High
After 15 years, Ron Saltmarsh, a 38-year-old writer living in San Francisco, is finally having the time of his life in the ad business. “There’s nothing like concepting ads outside on your deck,” says Saltmarsh (pictured, back right), who left Goodby, Silverstein & Partners a year and a half ago. “I finally feel lucky to have this job.”
Plus, he gets to travel. Saltmarsh spent five months in Sweden, working with his partner, Seattle-based art director Dave Ayriss, on Ericsson ads for Hall & Cederquist, Stockholm. “We got a cool spot, and an incredible life experience,” says Ayriss, 41.
In the two years since leaving Cole & Weber in Portland, Ore., where he was creative director, Ayriss has worked for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., San Francisco agencies Leagas Delaney and Publicis & Hal Riney and Seattle shops WongDoody and McCann-Erickson, among others.
Although the two teamed up earlier in their careers, at Borders, Perrin & Norrander in Seattle in the early ’90s, and passed through Goodby (Saltmarsh on Isuzu and Ayriss on Unum) at the same time, it took the freelance world to reconnect them again. The partnership appears to work. “Luckily, this year I’ve produced some work I’m happy with,” says Ayriss, pointing to one of the greatest frustrations of the freelance life–getting less ads produced. “That isn’t often the case.”
The two are currently on assignment at Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York. “You’re often parachuted into the fray and expected to be brilliant very fast,” says Saltmarsh, who, before teaming up with Ayriss, freelanced at McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., and TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, as well as other S.F. shops. “Having a good partner makes all the difference in the world.” –Eleftheria Parpis
Dion Hughes – Airport Blues
Working in the basement office of his Minneapolis home just steps away from his newborn son, Jasper, Dion Hughes is particularly content with the liberties of freelance life. The 36-year-old copywriter likes being able to sketch out ideas or write scripts anywhere–in a bar, restaurant or park.
“I was one of the people who liked the way the Chiat office was set up,” laughs Hughes, who spent five years during the late 1980s/early 1990s in the much-criticized virtual offices of Chiat/Day in Los Angeles and New York. There, he worked on Nynex Yellow Pages, New York Life and Mitsubishi, among other accounts.
“I heard from headhunters that I was a good boss, so I decided to work for myself,” says Hughes, who began freelancing three years ago, when he left his group creative director position on United Airlines at Fallon McElligott.
An Aussie by birth, Hughes began his ad career in his home city of Brisbane. He moved to London in 1984, then to Chiat/Day two years later, and was co-creative director at Angotti, Thomas, Hedge in New York from 1992-94.
Now, working exclusively off-site, he freelances for agencies as far away as D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in Melbourne. Hughes spent much of the last year on assignments for creative directors, such as Nina DiSesa at McCann-Erickson and Brent Bouchez at Bozell, both New York based.
Working with many different art directors, Hughes has recently spent the most time with David Angelo, who left his position of executive creative director at Cliff Freeman and Partners a year ago. Together, they worked on McCann pitches for the Olympics, Coca-Cola and Avis. “I like working with Dion because he gets it. Period,” says Angelo. Adds Hughes, “It’s intense. We both like to win.”
Freelancing has kept Hughes so surprisingly busy–he says he’s been booked for all but six weeks out of the last year–it has taken a toll on his body. “I actually had carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Hughes. “I realized that this year, I’ve written over 600 ad scripts. Almost as much as David Kelley.”
Hughes appreciates the return to his craft. As a creative director, “it was always crises time if I had to sit down and write something, a dive and save,” he says. “Being 100 percent creative is 100 percent better.”
–Eleftheria Parpis
Kathy Hepinstall – Empowered
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Kathy Hepinstall realized it was time to shake things up in her cozy Southern California life.
She had spent the last three years working as a full-time copywriter at Los Angeles agencies such as D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and Larsen Colby. But as an aspiring novelist, Hepinstall, 35, decided freelance was a better way to go. Leaving behind the natural disasters of L.A., she moved to Austin, Texas. So far, so good. Her first novel, The House of Gentle Men, is slated to be published in February by Avon/ Bard. Hepinstall likens her book to The English Patient set in post World War II Louisiana.
“People thought I had torpedoed my advertising career to write books,” she says. “But I consider the money I earn from freelancing the means to buy my freedom.”
Hepinstall says she has created her best work during her five freelance years. Shortly after exiting the rat race, she worked for BBDO West on Pioneer’s “Road kill diaries,” a dark humor print campaign. She also co-wrote copy on the agency’s “Lost words” LA Cellular campaign, which showed simple words like “and” and “lattƒ” in unusual settings to convey the company’s promise of clear connections.
In 1995, she linked up with Wieden & Kennedy, where she has worked on several print and TV ads, including a Nike commercial last year with then-hopeful Olympic skier Picabo Street. In February, she wrote ads for Wieden’s London office for Nike women’s running shoes. “When I started freelancing, I fell in love with the business all over again,” she says.
This year, Hepinstall has spent three months working on ads, including an unproduced Energizer spot for TBWA/Chiat/Day. Although credited on Taco Bell’s “Gordita” ad last year, she admits her ideas were shelved. “Our original plan was to shoot it like a World War II propaganda film,” she says.
“She has the ability to come up with cool, fun solutions,” says TBWA creative director Chuck Bennett. “She helped give the chihuahua a Che Guevara attitude. We took it from there.”
Any advice for potential freelancers? “Anyone who thinks fate is going to hit them is just dreaming,” she says. “You have to make things happen for yourself.” –Angela Dawson
Nat Whitten – Cookie Monster
It’s not exactly a natural progression to go from partner at an ad agency to partner of a cookie company. But that’s where life has taken Nat Whitten.
In 1997, he walked away from Weiss, Whitten, Stagliano, New York. “I’d been managing some accounts for eight years. I was getting stale,” says the 39-year-old.
Whitten dreamed of writing for the stage. Unfortunately, “the world isn’t banging down the door for a new playwright,” he says. It is hungry for cookies, though, judging by the growth of his company, Love, Marcy. “Is it Nike? No. But it’s a kick to be on the other side of a brand,” says Whitten, who started at Chiat/Day in the ’80s.
He still heeds the call of his former life as a copywriter. He’s worked at a variety of New York shops, including BBDO and DeVito/Verdi, for clients Merrill Lynch, Chanel and Compaq.
“The role of a freelancer is like parachuting into a firestorm. Usually you get the most difficult assignments,” he says. “Sometimes you put out a fire; sometimes you start one.”
“Nat is a big thinker,” says David Nathanson, creative co-chief at DDB, New York. “Having managed an agency, he can see the bigger picture.”
Whitten isn’t sure what’s next–but advertising has given him a short attention span, he says. “I could be a paratrooper or a race-car driver. Or I could be cleaning Central Park. You never know.” –Mallorre Dil