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March 22, 2010
Freelance, the New Full-Time

Remember those paper hats with the word “trainee” printed on the side? The kind that fast-food franchises used to make new employees wear? It might as well have read “prone to screw up” or “don't blame me for the undercooked fries.” Trainee hats shouted to the world that this was a different class of worker -- new, accident prone, and unseasoned. Well, I propose we bring back the paper hats for the advertising business. Except they must read “freelancer." This is not to embarrass anyone, just to show how many freaking freelancers are working in any given agency. In many places, you’d see a sea of paper hats.

To be clear, freelancers are not some creative underclass. They come with a price, as in a hefty day rate. They can rake it in if required to work late nights or weekends. They work, turn in an invoice, and then they’re out of there. Boom. Done. Next job. Freelancers are usually happily disengaged from the politics of agency life. Offsite mandatory meeting this week? Not for freelancers. Agency retreat? You won’t see freelancers there. Internal agency operations don’t mean much to them. Except for payroll. Freelancers are all over that, of course.

The advantages for agencies hiring freelancers are ever increasing. There’s no need to cough up any health and insurance benefits, as it’s well known. Outside of a paycheck, freelancers don’t require much from an agency -- just a place to sit. Maybe. Agencies don’t even have to supply standard office equipment anymore. Take office phones. What freelancer would need one when everyone has a cell phone? Even desktop computers are becoming the way of the dinosaur. What freelancer wants to work on some 10-year-old, frequently crashing Mac when he or she can bring in his or her own laptop? The office fax machine, however, is available to all, thankfully.

Agencies also gain an advantage when it comes to idea generation. Freelancers are often brought in just to come up with creative ideas and prepare them for client presentation. You know, to do the hard-hat conceptual work. Full-time agency staff then presents the agency-approved work to the client, and then goes on to production without freelancer involvement. I’m not a fan of this. In this practice, agency staff concepts less but produces more. Agencies get to claim the work as their own, and freelancers move on to the next gig without any creative control past a certain point. Advantage: agencies.

Now, more and more agencies are using freelancers as “full-time lite.” Some hire staff as freelancers on a probation period to see if they’re worth keeping around. In other words, agencies hire freelancers to try them on for size. Are they worthy of tacking on benefits of a full-time job? That’s up to the agency. People who want to switch jobs may have to think twice. Does one keep the old job with the benefits, or risk it and go freelance? It’s a tough call, especially for those with personal health issues or with young families. In case you haven’t been watching the news, people need health benefits. Just sayin’.

For many, freelancing is not an ideal situation. Others love the focus on the work without the commitment of a full-time job. Still, in these tough times, work is work. I’d gladly don a paper hat if asked -- on days, nights, and weekends, too.

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Brad Mislow is a New York-based ACD in both traditional and digital media. He has worked on Citibank, Toyota, AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, the U.S. Army, American Express, Hershey Foods, Unilever, DHL, Kraft Foods, Kodak, Amtrak, Miller Lite, and Post Cereals. For a look at his work and more articles like this one, go to bradmislow.com.

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