Revenge of the Nerds

Like so many creatives, I was laid off late last year. (Just in time for Thanksgiving; I was the turkey.) Rather than go on about how unfair it was — hey, it was — or how it could be the best thing that ever happened to me — the jury is still very much out-let me tell you what I’ve seen freelancing these past months. It’s how freelancing and, maybe even agencies, are evolving as a result of The Great Recession.

What you’ve heard is true. On a good day, freelance rates are off 30-40 percent. On a not-so-good day, you’re making what you made at your first job.

If there’s an upside here — and boy, does this depend on your point-of-view — it’s this: The days of freelance being that place where mediocre creatives made $300,000-400,000 a year are as dead as Caesar. Staff people will have to find a new group to mutter enviously about.

Yet, if freelance money has changed for the worse, the opportunities have changed for the better. The hot-shit team that did that awesome spot shot by what’s-his-name that won a blank, blank and blank? Odds are, they’re home dusting trophies.

But if, in addition to really good TV and print, you’ve ever deigned to do a great brochure, some killer direct or, dare I say it, come up with compelling brand positionings, your freelance experience has probably been bearable. Good, even.

I already see some of you sharpening your One Show pencils, ready with the hate mail. But my point isn’t that great creative isn’t important, and something to be fiercely proud and protective of. Rather, it’s that there’s a sea change going on. Agencies, pressed harder than a panini to do more with less, and desperate to be paid for doing something — anything — have a new-found respect for individuals who can do a variety of different things well, who are talented generalists able and eager to dig in and solve a variety of problems.

Truly, it’s a wonder they’re any of these folks left. The business has, for as long as I’ve been in it, waged a holy war against this kind of grounded, mature intelligence. For all the talk of integration, touch points and 360-degree marketing, the disciplines that made up the majority of those touch points and degrees have long been things to escape from, career-wise.

Direct, promotions, collateral — anything that didn’t involve lots of crafts services — were the stuff of lesser mortals, the things that somehow never got shown at the meeting. Take my experience at my last staff position. Working on the agency’s signature piece of business, I won awards for both television and collateral. Yet, those latter accolades threw my bosses — bright, nice guys — for a loop. They couldn’t figure out why, after the TV success, I didn’t tell them “no more brochures, no way.” But the thing they saw as grunt work — hack work, really — had helped make the award-winning TV possible. That’s now how they saw it.

Yes, the client was nothing less than thrilled with this very real integration — with having the same creative at the TV meeting, then the print meeting, then the brochure meeting, then the brand film meeting. But for the agency, that someone was willing to work on both the high-profile and below-the-line was somehow suspect.

Yet, here I am. Alive, kicking and paying my bills in Manhattan. A testament, let me humbly suggest, to the new value of being good enough to do anything, as opposed to too good to do something. The nerds, and I suppose I’m one of them, are having their revenge.

Does this mean you’re doomed if your career can be summed up as one long stay at Shutters? No. But it would be wise to expand your horizons and embrace your inner grunt.

Truth is, there’s nothing sexier than being really good at a lot of things. Being a pro. Being able to sit across from a client and sell all kinds of services. Believe it or not, it makes the job more satisfying, makes your work, regardless of the medium, better and you more interesting — all while doing wonders for your employability.

Good luck.

Saul Dennis is a freelance writer and strategic storyteller. He can be reached at