Me, Myself And I

After working full time for six years, art director Liz Otremba wanted a change. In March, she quit her job at Olson + Co. and took a nice long vacation in New Zealand. When she returned to Minneapolis, she jumped into a freelance career. “I wanted to keep that freedom,” she says, “and I liked the idea of working with different creatives and moving around.”

Freelancing isn’t just for those who are in between jobs. Sure, that’s often how it begins, but some find it gives them the balance between work and life they can’t find at an agency. Ultimately, many full-time freelancers—in advertising, they’re almost all creatives—find the benefits of the career choice outweigh its many downsides.

It didn’t take Otremba long to enjoy the key advantage: flexibility. “If I want to sleep in and work at night, I can do that. Or go out and do all the things I want to do before working,” says Otremba, who has gotten work from a local agency and clients she found through word-of-mouth.

That kind of freedom enabled San Diego-based copywriter John Kuraoka and his family to participate in a house exchange in Germany from July through September. “As long as I had an Internet connection, I was up and working most workdays,” says Kuraoka, 42, a 15-year freelancing veteran. Likewise, writer and creative director Rich Flora of Dallas has spent much more time with his family since going out on his own nine years ago. “My daughter and I used to sit around and watch trash TV during lunch,” says Flora, 48. “No one cares if I’m gone for an hour.”

Going solo also shields workers from some of the frustrations of agency life. Mike Sellers, 47, an art director in Alpharetta, Ga., doesn’t miss the office politics. “I go into places and I can see there are personality conflicts,” he says. “It’s so nice to stay out of it and just do my work.”

But as Flora notes, “the highs can be high, and the lows can be low.” “When you have to resign a piece of business or are asked not to participate, you take it really personally, because your name is on the door,” he says. “But when someone calls and says they’ve heard about you, or they’ve seen your work, and they ask you to take on a project, it’s so flattering.”

Still, instability is endemic—particularly during a downturn. “If not knowing when and how much the next paycheck is going to be bothers you, then stay out of it,” warns Sellers, who’s been independent since 1997.

Freelancers find themselves with new responsibilities, too. “You have to be a competent businessperson to last long-term,” says Kuraoka. The extra work runs the gamut from refilling supplies to marketing. Adrienne Doherty, 37, a graphic designer in San Francisco, can’t stand the paperwork. “The one thing I hate the most is the financial side—keeping track of invoices,” she says. Meanwhile, Otremba is adjusting to the idea that she has to do her own production work. “That’s definitely something I’ve had to catch up on again,” she says.

Freelancing can pay well—$500-2,500 a day in the big ad markets, says Jill Weingarten of Greenberg Kirshenbaum, a New York recruiting firm. And while people like Sellers figure they make more than they would at an agency—even with the health insurance and social security benefits they have to pay themselves—others don’t find it more lucrative. Some say that’s by choice. “I’m selective in what I take on because I’m actively making time for family,” Kuraoka says.

New York-based art director Kristi Roberts says the past three years have been particularly hard on New York freelancers. She enjoys having the time to write middle-school novels and travel, but with jobs still hard to find, the flexibility is limited. “In a way, you’re really stuck,” says Roberts, 43. “You don’t want to leave town, because you want to be around for work.”

Kelly Simmons is one freelancer who’s back on the agency side, having joined Tierney Communications as chief creative officer after doing project work for the Philadelphia shop. She says she switched back in order to “achieve together what I couldn’t achieve in my own way. It’s very hard to have big ideas and great clients and try to do it all on your own.”