THE JUGGLE IS REAL

Written for Creative Review’s piece – FUTURE OF WORK: FREELANCE VS FULL-TIME: www.creativereview.co.uk/future-of-work-freelance-vs-full-time/

Stick with that full-time role, or go freelance? Even in a pretty progressive industry, it’s a decision that still feels dangerous. Working for yourself isn’t a big, brave move though, it’s a no brainer. 

I’ve been a fully-fledged freelancer for six months now (so far, so good). But the hefty cons list I wrote while wrought with terror nearly denied me the best next step I could have taken.

The panic in my parents’ voices when I told them I was going solo was everything I used to subscribe to. As many of us do, I thought freelancers were chancers. The advertising equivalent of would-be actresses who wound up waitressing. Having a permanent role always held this holy grail status. Then when I started questioning if there might be other paths worth walking, full time lost a little of its shine.

So what are the headlines from the pro-freelance side of the list? 

Firstly, there’s the hustle. For a new wave of ambitious creatives, this is no small perk. Instead of having work land on your desk, or given to you simply because yours was the free schedule that week, everything you earn, everything you do, is your win. You’re the boss. It’s very rare to be in a position to say no to work within an agency. Out here in the wild, you can take on projects on your terms. And yeah, you might have to do some unsexy work to pay the bills, but it’s your signature on the sale of your soul. 

The other main attraction is obviously the flexibility. Sure you can work remotely in your joggers if that’s your MO, but it’s the more significant freedoms turning heads – like more time to travel (without a tip-off to a manager), or more agile approaches to childcare.

Then, the biggie for me, is getting exposed to a whole host of different working styles, disciplines and ways in. We’re seeing more of us trade a career ladder that leads to managing people, for one built on meeting them. Something that feels palpable in the industry is the idea that ‘going freelance’ is some kind of permanent transformation you can’t go back on. It’s not a sex change, you can always switch back if you want. And if you choose to seek a salary again, how better to have figured out where you fit than learning about different agencies and building connections on the job?

Now, don’t get a girl wrong. Independence ain’t easy. Freelancing means all the cushty things about being at an agency are now on your shoulders. The juggle is real. 

It isn’t better full stop, it’s horses for courses, of course. Now though, being freelance is a career choice to aspire to, not be scared of. It’s satisfying creative individuals and businesses. With the rise of in-house creative teams, freelance-recruiters-turned-studios, and a general relaxing of traditional client-agency relationships, how we’re producing the work and who we bring on board to create it has changed. While the industry craves more diverse skills, agencies can plug gaps with the talent it needs, respecting them for the role they can play. 

Freelance is having its Matrix moment right now. The wool’s been pulled from our eyes and suddenly ‘freelance’ isn’t a fear-filled word anymore. The fear of the unknown, of being denied a mortgage or of living off beans has shifted. Freelancing can be a seriously sweet deal. From my full-time side of the fence, anyone contemplating it would worry what they’d be missing, all those doors they’d be closing. Looking back on my pros and cons list, it was never a case of freelance freedom winning over salary servitude, but the freelance world isn’t short of open doors.

Hungry Talent, Meet Starving Industry

Originally published by Intern Magazine, with illustration by Michael William Lester.

We need new talent in the creative industry. Obvious opener there, I know. But it shouldn’t be about a ‘giving back’ mentality. Sure, it’s great to give someone the break they deserve, and experience they’re desperate to gain, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the industry that’s in desperate need of their fresh thinking. We have to start making way for it. For me that means a shift in attitude, from top to bottom.

I used to work on D&AD’s ‘New Blood’ programme, so I heard that opening line a whole lot. Now hold up, this isn’t about to turn into some kind of exposé. I believed in what we were trying to achieve through New Blood, and I still stand by it now. Still, I can’t help thinking, looking back, that my own outlook was a bit off at times. In interviews I’d find myself asking industry mentors if the talent they saw through New Blood ‘scared’ them. I wanted them to play along, feeding me sound bites about how ‘scared for their jobs’ they were. To me that somehow elevated this new talent. If it posed a threat then people would sit up and pay attention. Boy, was I asking the wrong question. Because ultimately it’s something we should all welcome, and learn from ourselves.

What good is simply getting the next generation hired, if we’re not actually tapping into their real value?

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Unfortunately, right now there seems to be a disappointing disconnect between that new talent — whether that’s from education, awards programs or other schemes for identifying and nurturing talent — and the industry. Early on, I assumed that once we got them into a job, there was a happy ending. Wrong again.

In my experience, emerging creatives come to the industry with one of two pieces of baggage. Either they’ve been told that they’re the future and are going to change the world through creativity, or that this industry expects them to pay their dues, so they’d better keep their heads down. The first leaves pumped-up individuals let down when, all too often, they discover there’s no such opportunity waiting for them straight away. And the second can strip away individuality and confidence, and create frustration. Neither sounds very inspiring. Those up-and-comers have a responsibility too, of course. The industry doesn’t owe you a living simply because you graduated, you need to claim your place. But what good is simply getting the next generation hired, if we’re not actually tapping into their real value?

Hungry talent needs feeding. But hey, it’s not only newbies that are starving here. It runs deeper than how we support emerging talent. What happened to the last ‘next generation of creative superstars’, or the one before that? Here’s the nitty gritty for me; we should be willing to learn from the thinking that surrounds us, no matter what career stage or pay grade it comes from. That naturally starts with proactively surrounding ourselves with diverse thinking. And if we created a culture of exchange throughout our industry, wouldn’t we all make better work?

I’ve had my foot in the door for a little while, but my foot’s job is far from done. That can be a tricky space to navigate. Spending a lot of time around senior creatives at D&AD(most of them with intimidating, award-winning successes to their names) put this idea in my head. The idea that I wanted to ‘make it’. Constantly asking said creatives how they ‘broke into the industry’ or ‘got to where they are’, ramped up the pressure. But the practicalities of moving up, once you’re in, can start to eclipse your original hunger to just ‘make good shit’. And that only closes us off to different ways of thinking. It was only when I stopped writing about good design and advertising, and set out to make some of it myself, that I appreciated the real power of collaboration. If you’re thrashing out an idea and you’re not hearing different points of view or opposing opinions, then it’s alarm bells you should be hearing instead.

Different opinions can make for the richest outcomes, but unconscious bias is still a massive problem for us.

New talent is cited as our go-to source for a much-needed injection of energy, but diversity also kills complacency. And I mean diversity in every sense of the word, background, gender, thinking, discipline, the whole shebang. In an industry that preaches about brave, left-field, off-kilter, original ideas, why isn’t our infrastructure geared at sustaining them? The people who engage with our work are a diverse audience, but we know the make-up of our industry is far from it. Anyone can have a great idea, but we tend to recruit in the same monotonous ways. Different opinions can make for the richest outcomes, but unconscious bias is still a massive problem for us.

I’m not some kind of anarchist, authority hater. Really. Experience, skill and craft obviously warrant respect. I’m lucky to have learnt, and still be learning, from some incredibly in-the-know folk (consider that a compliment to them, not a humble brag from me). They respect what I have to contribute, my take on things and don’t pull rank when I pick holes in things. It’s a trade. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of negative experiences too. It’s the dirty looks I was shot for piping up with opinions as ‘the intern’ that led me to think exchange is the way forward.

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Another favourite interview question of mine was, “what’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?” Pure gold that. You’d hear all sorts, the weird and wonderful things that had shaped these, now leading, creatives when they were starting out. The one that’s stuck with me from those interviews, apart from “always carry a clean tissue”, is “if you can think, we can teach you everything else”. I love that sentiment. If you take away the experience that defines our careers, and the skills that have determined which directions they’ve gone in, we’re all just people with ideas. We should remind ourselves of that.

If I were to preach (which I fear I’m about to), I’d say that where there’s hierarchy, there should also be transparency. Where there are established ways of thinking, we need to leave space for challenge. Where there’s experience and convention, let’s open ourselves up to fresh perspectives and disruption. Because established creatives might know what they’re doing, but you’ll know things they don’t. Your novice view on something could be a blind spot for someone else. If you don’t agree with a practice, un-do it.

To stay relevant, and keep making relevant creative, we have to stay open

The commercial creativity industry is a monster business. But we all know that the more ‘marketingy’ our marketing output, the less effective that marketing actually is. Tricky clients and nervous budgeters aside, that’s a bloody amazing rationale for making good shit. This industry thrives on unconventional, irreverent and subversive thinking. We interrogate briefs, but it’s our job to interrogate what we’re bringing to that process too. To stay relevant, and keep making relevant creative, we have to stay open.

It all starts with the ‘we need new talent’ debate, but there are a zillion layers to the issue. If I had to break it down, I’d probably pin my hopes on these three; we have to make way for new talent, make use of their fresh thinking in a more meaningful way, and create a system that keeps us all thinking fresh too. All that can only give rise to bolder, braver work.

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Guts, Grit and an Open Mind.

Interview originally published by Lecture In Progress, with photography by Richard Kelly.

“Some of your best ideas come out when you have something to prove.” Determined to move to Manchester, creative copywriter Ellen Ling spotted the perfect opportunity in the form of a job listing at LOVE. Previously an executive at D&AD’s New Blood and with a background in contemporary performance, Ellen took a somewhat unconventional route into the industry. But whether it’s pitching or channelling Sherlock Holmes to crack design briefs, it’s something that comes in useful on a daily basis. She tells us about getting to go crazy on copy, why ideas don’t need to be shiny and why the industry needs more all-rounders. 

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“I’d love designers to have more of a point of view on copy. The industry needs all-rounders. I’m actively fighting against being pigeonholed.”

How collaborative is your role?
You do need 360 thinking; if you get really into a project, you’ll be thinking about it in so many ways – not just copy, or design. And if you care about stuff, you have an opinion on everything. I’d like to have more involvement in creative output as a whole, and I’d love designers to have more of a point of view on copy. The industry needs all-rounders. I’m actively fighting against being pigeonholed. For example, I’m mega into film and production, so that’s something I’m always trying to stick my nose into. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love working on advertising briefs, coming up with ideas and brainstorming as part of the team. Taking something from a blank sheet, to pitch, to production is the best thing. Hopping from project to project, never getting to sink your teeth in, is probably the least satisfying way of working. I do a lot of copy heavy toolkits and guidelines, which aren’t always the most exciting. But I think it’s really important to have jobs that don’t stretch your brain to the very limits of your creativity all the time. Being on big jobs that require a lot of bitty tasks can make you feel really flat. But they also give you space in your brain for more creative stuff. It’s up to you to look after yourself and make sure you’re fulfilled. If you’re not getting something from your day job, look beyond your desk.

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“I try and see briefs as Sherlock Holmes cases. You’ve got to take all the info as clues and crack it.”


What skills are essential to your job?
There are a few things that are a bit boring (but true): Good writing, obviously. For me, that’s not about reciting the dictionary or being a punctuation freak. It’s about understanding rhythm, how to create layers of meaning and how to say something and mean it. Communication – an idea’s no good squirrelled away unsaid. Problem solving – I try and see briefs as Sherlock Holmes cases. You’ve got to take all the info as clues and crack it. It really works for me as an analogy, I could go on and on about it. Then I personally think anyone in this game needs guts, grit and an open mind.