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October 10, 2009
Work For The Man? Or Be The Man?

Sooner or later, your ad career comes to this. Work for the man and collect regular paychecks. Or, be the man and make your own living. Given the current state of our industry, many are opting for the latter either by choice or by necessity.

Are you unemployed? Are you unhappy in your ad job? You are my reader.
I’ve blazed the soloist trail years ago. Shown the door in the early ‘90s, I went out on my own for nine years of freelancing and trying to land my own accounts. Here, in 2009, after being shown the door again, I’m considering all the possibilities—full-time agency job, retainer relationships, partnering and going client side.

Do we have any choice? It’s bad out there. And yet, there’s excitement and opportunity and people are salivating. Let’s start our own agency! Freelance baby. I’ll consult and apply that 4-hour workweek advice.

I wish it were as rosy as people envision it. My experience tells me it isn’t. What are the bugaboos that people are missing? Let me detail a few I know all too well.

You do the work and get paid, right? Wrong. In between working and getting paid, insert 30, 60 or 90 days. Imagine the scenario where you’re busy one month and slow the next, then busy again. There’s going to be a stretch where no checks are coming in. Meanwhile, bills and expenses are coming in with clockwork regularity.

Yes, I know the tricks like getting money upfront and providing a cash discount for early payment. My advice. Try to find out how fast a company or agency pays. Ask other vendors. Ask your contact directly. Joke about it. It worked for me.

Another cash flow woe is the client who refuses to pay. It can get nasty. Think for a moment here. You set out to do great creative and what you’re really doing is collections.

On one occasion, I threatened to take the client to small claims court. He stopped the brochure in development and refused to pay for work to date. One day the client called me and we worked it out. He got his brochure and I got paid. Did I say this was a very rare occasion?

I’ve never heard of an ad agency starting up with an IT person as a partner. I think it might be a good idea.

Think how much of your work is done on computer. Or, what happens when the network is down at work. Or your computer at home has a video card going out. That’s my sob story. When the computer stops working, you stop working.

Mac or PC, applications need constant updates. Fonts don’t load. What about backing up? What about data security? Viruses? See how having an IT person right there with you would be totally awesome? Just make sure his name is Jason.

If you’re self-employed, run an S-Corp or are a member of an LLC, you’re responsible for your tax obligation and the proper filing of monthly, quarterly and annual forms and returns.

Before your eyes glaze over, let’s just say taxes can eat your lunch and tax advantages with an S-Corp are cool but only if you comply properly. Sure, you like your CPA, but, most likely, he or she is only doing the annual stuff.

So there you are working away when it’s time to stop working and fill out those tax forms. It’s not going to happen. Or it’s going to happen late. Or, you’re going to do it wrong. Years later, certified IRS letters start to arrive with some nasty civil penalties. Can you tell this has happened to me?

So if you want to be the man today, I suggest partnering up with a banker, an IT guy named Jason and a former IRS agent. From all the startups I’ve seen, that would be one serious point of differentiation.

If you’re still collecting an agency paycheck, that’s fine too. Whether you’re working for the man or desire to be the man, I think the point is the same. It’s written on my Facebook profile.

Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep making a difference.

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Mike Ogden is a digital/senior writer based in Kansas City. Ad agency stops have enabled him to create for major brands like American Century, Capital One, Sprint, and USAA. Seasoned and sharp with a touch of gray, Ogden, aka Og, is known for creating and championing ideas. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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