Future of Work: freelance vs full-time

A full-time staff job at an ad agency was once the holy grail for creatives. But as employees seek a more flexible working life, freelancing is becoming increasingly attractive. We look at what it’s like to take the leap, and whether the industry is ready for a new way of working

“Stick with that full-time role, or go freelance? Even in a pretty progressive industry, it’s a decision that still feels dangerous.” Ellen Ling spent three years at D&AD and two years as a Creative at Love agency before she became her own boss. She can remember the ‘for’ and ‘against’ list she wrote when still on staff. “There were hefty cons,” she tells Creative Review. “Terror almost denied me the best next step.”

She can remember the panic in her parent’s voice. Ling herself questioned whether she would become the advertising equivalent of a would-be actress who wound up waitressing. 

“Having a permanent role always held this holy grail status,” she says. “But when I started questioning if there might be other paths worth walking, full-time lost a little of its shine.”

Working as a freelance in the creative industries is a very different beast to that of rising up the internal hierarchy of a company. Instead of having work land on your desk, you have to go and look for it. It means building up industry contacts and maintaining professional relationships that will position you at the front of the queue when an opportunity crops up. It’s a constant hustle.

You might have to do some unsexy work to pay the bills, but it’s your signature on the sale of your soul

“But everything you earn, everything you do, is your win,” Ling says. “Out in the wild, you take on projects on your terms. And you might have to do some unsexy work to pay the bills, but it’s your signature on the sale of your soul.”

The pull of a life without presenteeism – of having to be at your desk at 9am through 5pm for fear of colleagues’ tongues wagging – is a serious draw. So is the ability to do things – travelling with work, travelling whilst working, taking an impromptu holiday – without having to get the approval of a line manager. For advertising creatives with children, it means being able to do the school run every day, or not over-spending on endless childcare, because they can work on projects around the demands of their offspring. Or it means working for high-end clients whilst living away from the big city, where life is cheaper, easier and more peaceful.

Adam Morten worked in fashion advertising at Wednesday Agency for over six years before going freelance a year ago.

He points to friends who are working on passion projects in the creative industries, or travelling the world and working for clients remotely. “Many of them don’t regard themselves as working up the ladder to become Creative Director at a large advertising agency,” he says. “Some don’t want permanence, and are happy not getting involved in office politics. They get paid and move on to the next thing.”

But for all that you stand to gain, what do you lose from ducking out of an on-staff job – or, as Ling calls it, “salary servitude”?

Until recently, a culture existed wherein staff jobs at advertising and creative agencies were seen as superior to freelance contracts. That’s primarily because, as a staffer, you are able to see projects through from start to finish. As a freelancer, there’s the risk you will be reduced to doing odds and ends – whatever the staffers don’t want to do. There’s the concern that any ideas you do contribute will be swallowed up by the wider company apparatus. Any recognition for your contribution might be claimed by the employer.

“I would say that perception is still present,” says Morten. “It’s how I viewed freelancers when I was full-time at my previous agency. Those old pitfalls still exist and always will, but I think there is a change in how freelancers are approaching the job.”

And then, of course, there’s the insecurity. “At agencies, big clients are won and then lost,” Morten says. “This means hiring, and freelancers can be taken on at short notice. But unfortunately it also means redundancies and contracts ending.”

That means work in the advertising agency can be plentiful. And as the culture of advertising agencies has changed and adapted to the needs of employees, so the status of the once lowly freelancer has risen.

Being freelance is a career choice to aspire to, not be scared of

“Being freelance is a career choice to aspire to, not be scared of,” says Ling. “There’s been a rise of in-house creative teams and a general relaxing of traditional client-agency relationships. That means the way we produce work, and who we bring on board to create it, has changed.”

Nils Leonard has spent over 18 years in the advertising industry, working across a spread of agencies in London, including, most prominently, Grey, where he worked as Chief Creative Officer. He describes himself as someone who is “agitating for change and diversity in the industry.” 

“At Grey, we put on weight every year,” Leonard tells Creative Review. “We’d then have to pitch for business and take things on that, ultimately, we shouldn’t have taken on, but we had to – otherwise we would have had to let people go. That always struck me as an incredibly short-sighted way of growing a business.”

Recently, Leonard founded Uncommon alongside Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme. Freelancers, and the modern emphasis on flexible working in general, is a key element of how Leonard, Jameson and Graeme intend to run the operation.

Leonard admits this was in part a response to a wider cultural shift in the way society views the work/life balance. “The world’s best talents don’t want to be chained to an office desk anymore,” Leonard says. “Whether you want to spend more time with your children, or you want two days a week to launch your screenplay – we respect that, and we decided we wanted to be a home to those kind of people.”

“When we started Uncommon, we decided we wanted to centre it all on talent,” Leonard says. “And that meant working round our employees. We didn’t want people to decide between their best life at home and their best life at work. It’s all one thing. We knew people would be able to give us their best work if we were able to offer that.”

One of the advantages of working as a freelancer is the ability to raise one’s profile and visibility, Leonard points out. “From an optical perspective, it’s been far cooler to be a freelancer for a lot longer,” he says. “You see people giving seminars and writing books and then dipping into a high-profile agency to work on a two-month project of real clout, before then leaving. They’re happy to dip in and dip out.”

Leonard points to the movie industry, where it’s de rigueur for creatives – from directors to actors to cinematographers – to work from one production to the next without an overall employer. “They lean in and out of projects, and that’s how they make their money,” Leonard says. “I think we can learn a lot from that. I think we’re late to that party. If we adopt that mindset a lot more as employees, that could change the game completely.”

I ask Leonard what the challenges, from a managerial point of view, are when it comes to employing more freelancers. “The legacy business is geared in the old way,” he says. “In the advertising world, there are lots of dysfunctional organisations that were built on a business model that is now out-dated. Companies need to be far more flexible and far more fluid than they used to be. And that’s about setting a cultural ambition.”

But employment and taxation law, as set by the UK government and HMRC, is not always that supportive to this cultural ambition.

“I don’t think the system is set up to make the best of it,” Leonard says. “I would love to see wholesale changes from the ground up, including an emphasis on apprenticeships. A recognition of the way the creative industries is changing would be massive, because I genuinely feel that creativity is the UK’s last growing industry.” 

One of the biggest issues freelancers have traditionally come up against in the advertising industry revolves around the question of ownership – how much you’re able to take credit for and be recognised for the work that’s gone into a big, complicated and time-consuming project. If you’re just involved on a freelance basis and employed by a broader company that, legalistically, doesn’t have much in the way of obligation towards you, then its easy for them to take credit for your work, and steal ideas that were once your intellectual property. “Ownership has always been a bit of a sticky issue,” Leonard says. “And it can be the root of a lot of problems.”

Morten agrees: “You definitely get more ownership of projects when you work on them full-time.” But there are ways round it, and that often relates to how you handle yourself when starting to work on a new project. 

“If you can land a ‘permalance’ job – a contract of three or six months or more – then you can slowly integrate yourself into the team and get the chance to own projects.”

The most difficult thing when working at an agency is finding freelancers you trust

Morten speaks of the difficulties of working on short-term contracts as both a freelancer, and someone who employed freelancers at his agency. But reliability, he says, is key. “The most difficult thing when working at an agency is finding freelancers you trust,” he says. “So, as a freelancer, if you can be trusted and respected like a full-time employee then you are an asset they will want to call back time and time again.”

“In my experience, if a freelancer comes in and nails a project, they’re able to then produce it, because it was their vision that led to the project happening,” Leonard says. “There’s a tricky and difficult place between creatives who are on the tools and in the making, and the conceptual thinkers – because concepts either fly or they don’t, or they become muddied along the way. And projects can often take a long time to get off the ground. You have to be candid with people about the deal.”

But the deal, slowly, seems to be moving in favour of those intrepid enough to take the chance on self-employment. “Freelance is having its Matrix moment right now,” Ling says. “It isn’t a fear-filled word anymore. The terror of the unknown, of being denied a mortgage or of living off beans, has shifted. Freelance can be a seriously sweet deal.”

Besides, Ling says, if it doesn’t work out for you, it isn’t the end of the world. “Freelance is not a sex change, you can always switch back if you want.”