7 Tips for the Advertising Freelancer

Good advice from a bunch of independent creatives

If you work at a big agency, it seems like once a week that somebody sends out an email about farewell drinks and plans to join the freelance army.

There are lots of reasons for the explosion of advertising freelancers in recent years. From an agency perspective, more project work versus AOR assignments means that agencies are less likely to take on permanent staff. From the freelancer side, many people like the freedom and flexibility that freelancing provides. The money is pretty good too.

But it’s not a bed of roses. You still have to hustle to land jobs. There’s always uncertainty about where your next paycheck is going to come from. And you have to get comfortable with paying for and managing your own health insurance, retirement accounts, and other perks that come with full-time employment.

So what’s the key to making it work?

Along with my own observations, I reached out to some of my fellow freelancers to get their best advice. Here are seven tips.

These apply most directly to creative freelancers, but I’m seeing more and more account and strategy freelancers every day and many of the same lessons are apropos.

1. Remember who your client is.

Wieden+Kennedy ECD Mark Fitzloff summed it up perfectly with this tweet:

As a creative, you’re going to get a client brief and, yes, your job is to help solve the client’s problem…but as a freelancer, the client isn’t your real client.

“When you work on staff, your client is the client. When you work as a freelancer, your client is the creative director you’re working for,” freelance CD Chris Ford told me when I first went freelance (although he said that Matt Rivitz had told him that when he started, so we should probably give him a slash credit.)

Whoever said it first, it’s true. Which means that your job is to…

2. Solve your creative director’s problem.

The calculus for effectiveness is different as a freelancer than a staff creative.

Look at it this way — you wouldn’t have the gig if the agency had a problem they could handle with their regular creative staff.

You’re there because they don’t have the in-house bandwidth or skill set or patience for a particular project. Your job is to figure out what their problem is and make it go away.

To do this, you have to understand the real assignment. Sometimes that’s not just what’s on the brief. The real assignment may be “We’ve struck out three times on this and I need something this week that I can sell.” Or “Everybody here is completely burned out working on this client, so we need some fresh enthusiastic energy and no complaints about how lame the brief is.” Or “We have an idea that we love, but I can’t roll in with just one and I need some meeting fodder.”

The best freelancers read between the lines and understand the real deal. If you make your creative director’s life easier and solve his/her problems, he/she is going to love you and you’re going to get invited back.

And as the Fitzloff tweet above suggests, many CDs appreciate the transactional nature of the freelance arrangement. The freelancer brings a whole bunch of ideas and the CD gets to pick the ones that best solve his/her problem with a minimum of drama.

Solving the problem applies even when you can’t take the gig. If you’re not available or not interested, always take the time to recommend somebody else. The agency will appreciate it and the freelancer you refer will almost certainly do the same for you in the future. (More about the benefits of networking with other freelancers below.)

3. Over deliver.

There’s a “provide good customer service” aspect to freelancing. If you do the little extra things that make you more valuable, they’re going to have you back.

I call it, “Putting the mint on the pillow.”

It’s actually one of the things that I like best about freelancing: providing extra ideas and options beyond the assignment.

Yes, I did that when I was a staff creative too. But as a freelancer, my workload is often more focused and I actually have more time to think about a specific problem. As a result, I usually have time to provide multiple creative approaches, including some that go beyond the scope of the brief.

Lots of times these extras never see the light of day, but CD’s usually appreciate the thinking. And you’ve demonstrated that you can concept broadly on a brief, even if that work doesn’t make it into the presentation.

Your goal is to make yourself invaluable. As NYC-based Jonathan Graham says, “Really be the go-to gal or guy for someone, so that there’s one agency that always wants to have you around.”

4. A good attitude goes a long way.

A friend of mine talks a lot about the “freelancer mind” which he uses as a reminder to stay out of the day-to-day agency politics and just focus on the work.

Or as San Francisco freelancer Katherine Fernandez puts it succinctly, “Don’t lose your shit over the b.s.”

It comes down to attitude and a good one goes a long way.

Now, I am as cynical as they come. I believe that good creative is born from a critical eye and not taking things at face value. The jaded creative is a cliché for a reason.

But you’re more likely to get away with the “loveable asshole” persona when you’re on staff. So be decent. And not just to your CD and the other creatives. Be nice to the account people and the strategists too. Listen to them and incorporate their feedback when you can. It makes a difference.

That doesn’t mean you should simply phone it in and dump everybody’s two cents into the creative. “Don’t be afraid to swing for it and have a POV, but always do it respectfully,” says Graham.

5. Keep in touch.

Guess what? You’re in sales now. And your product is you.

If you’re not comfortable with putting yourself out there and staying in touch with creative resource managers and creative directors, you’re going to have a tough road.

You don’t have to be an asshole about it. No matter how amazing you are, nobody wants to get a cold-call email from you every week. We all receive too much spam. 
But dropping an email every now and then to check in keeps you on a person’s radar.

As NYC-based freelancer Jaime Walker says, “I’ve managed to stay employed by constantly being on the hunt for the next job. If you wait till your current gig is over to start looking, you could be in the lurch for weeks when it ends.”

And you never know when an agency is going to have a need pop up. Your email might arrive at exactly the right time.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who aren’t necessarily hiring,” says Walker. “By checking in with the creative recruiter at a place I used to freelance, I snagged a job starting that Monday. Sometimes just by emailing and reminding a recruiter you exist, you can move to the top of their list.”

6. Know your worth.

For many people, it’s weird to talk about how much money you make. If you take a staff job, negotiations take place at set times: when you take the job and when it’s time for a review.

But if you’re going to be a successful freelancer, you need to understand what you’re worth and you need to be comfortable talking about money.

One of the best ways to do that is to talk to other freelancers. Understand the going rate in various markets for various levels of experience.

“We freelancers shouldn’t be afraid of each other,” says New York-based copywriter Sha Nguyen. “There’s no point in hiding how much our rates are, not sharing contacts with each other, or not passing fellow freelancers along for gigs we’ve turned down. When you’re self-employed, you give up having colleagues, which can be a huge part of success. Usually the best things, you can’t do alone. So I think it’s important to keep strong ties with your fellow freelancers and friends, because we’re stronger and better as individuals when we’re in it together.”

Once you’ve set your rate, many freelancers say the same thing: stick to your guns.

“Never get into a serious haggle over rate. It does the work no favors,” says San Francisco-based freelancer Chris Hancock. “It’s ok to push back gently and, if necessary, regretfully decline the project. But I always try to reco someone else who might better fit their specific need. I need the karma.”

“If someone wants to bleed you on your rate they are going to bleed you on your work,” adds Chris Ford. “Another way to say this would be: the hardest jobs are always the ones that pay the least.”

And remember that the rate you set will usually follow you for a while.

“Once you set your rate with an agency, they tend to lock you into that rate for future gigs. So stick to your guns when it comes to the money,” says San Francisco ACD Matt Bottkol. “It’s good to be somewhat flexible, depending on the scope of the project or the size of the agency. But get what you’re worth. Even if you have to pass on a gig. Otherwise, you’ll be losing money over the long haul.”

7. Remember why you freelance.

There’s a reason you went freelance in the first place. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Austin-based freelance creative director Erik Enberg says, “I stole this from Michael Howard who was my initial freelance sherpa, but you have to have clear idea of what you want from freelancing. Do you want to make work? Do you want to make a certain amount of money? Do you want to build a business? Do you want to create time to pursue some other, currently less profitable dream? Do you want to spend more time at home with your kids?”

The freelancers I know answer this question in different ways. For one, he only wants jobs he can do from his home office. For another, she has number she wants to earn each year and when she hits it, she takes the rest of the year off and travels. I know others that have used it as a way to “date around” before taking their next full time position.

“Having an idea of what your version of success looks like will help guide every other decision in the process,” says Enberg. “There is no one flavor of freelance, there are a hundred. It’s one of the best things about freelancing, if you figure out which one is yours.”

MORE ADVICE: 15 Lessons From My Two Years as an “Agency of One”

THE OTHER SIDE: 6 Ways AGENCIES Can Get the Most out of Freelancers

About the Author

When he wrote this, John Kovacevich was a freelance writer and creative director in San Francisco. In 2018, he pulled in his freelance shingle to join Duncan Channon as an executive creative director. Here’s why he did it.

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