Freelancing: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Freelance creative strategist Zac Martin details his experience freelancing in Australia's advertising industry, covering everything from sleeping in on a Friday to why working from home sucks.

The following is a modified excerpt from Zac Martin’s How to Freelance in Advertising – 11,000 words for taking the leap and not being homeless.

18 months ago I took the leap and started freelancing in advertising. This is the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good

The coin is great if you know how to earn it. It will take time to learn what you’re worth, and even longer to become confident enough to ask for it. But if you’re even remotely busy, you can make good bank.

Choosing your own hours is a superpower, in terms of when and how many. It does incredible things to your happiness. Early on I decided to work no more than four days a week in big agencies, creating time for other projects (paid and unpaid), chase new ones or just enjoy a sleep in on a Friday.

You get to be a firefighter, and everyone loves someone who saves the day. You come into situations where people need help, and if you can be even a little bit useful, they are exceptionally grateful.

The changing nature of work exposures you to more problems, more people, more clients and more processes. You see different ways of working. And you figure out who you could learn more from, and who are the dickheads. You get to steal the best bits of everything and leave the rest. If you’re hungry, you’ll learn real fast.

There’s variety if you want it – work of all shapes and sizes if you want it. No other employment will give you the opportunity to flirt around with different types of agencies and different types of projects. You’ll also work at different speeds – some projects last months while others need to be done in hours.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

You get to be a boss bitch. Freelancing is short term, giving you a freedom to be bold and say it like it is. When you walk into a contract there’s no client baggage and you’re not there long enough to worry about politics. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve said: “I’m not around tomorrow, so I don’t care what you do, but if you want to win then this is the right answer.” It’s empowering.

And lastly, every contract is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. With each new job you can redefine who you are – a reset button which doesn’t come along often in full time employment.

The bad

Everything above might be a con, not a pro. Starting from scratch or fighting fires may be your idea of a nightmare, not a dream. Taking control is a responsibility as much as a power and it’s fatiguing always being in the deep end.

You need to be okay with some uncertainty. Not just financially, but mentally. Not knowing when your next pay cheque is coming in is one thing, but not knowing what you’re going to be doing next week, if anything, is another. You do get better at this over time. I’m much more comfortable now with down time and the unknown but it takes some getting used to.

This downtime can suck. While it’s good to hustle or create or write, sometimes you need it just to catch your breathe. Freelancing takes a toll. But prepare yourself for quiet days at home, if you’re introverted could be appealing to spend more time with yourself. However it can be lonely and you’ll need to manage it.

Easily the thing I miss most from my old life is not having a crew. No banter, no beers, no culture and no teams. This means no celebrations or commiserations. You get a taste of it as a freelancer in the good agencies, but building a rapport takes time, and is always fleeting.

Your folio will collect dust. That’s not to say you only work on the shit briefs, yet the work good enough for case studies and awards doesn’t seem to materialise as often. Depending on your role, career stage and what you might want to do next, a folio filled with work collecting dust might be problematic.

You also don’t get to see most projects through. You’re brought in for a specific role on a specific project – you’re often not around for the state and rarely around for the end.

Working from home sucks. Especially in winter. It’s impossible to be productive for long hours, and you’ll feel guilty when you’re not.

You’re in the work, not on the work. If you enjoyed management, business development and leadership, you probably won’t find much if it as a freelancer.

And lastly, it’s much harder to buy a home. Not impossible, particularly after two years, but most lenders will turn you down or only take you on with a higher interest rate.

The ugly

At some point into your freelancing career, you might start asking yourself some bigger questions. Like, can you freelance forever?

Being promiscuous and flirting around is fun. But eventually do you need a stable relationship?

Freelancing doesn’t fulfil you long term. The novelty rusts, faster for some than others. And then you’re left with lots of short deadlines and small wins. There aren’t many big hairy audacious goals. And increasingly you find yourself asking what are you working toward?

A few years in you might start being more seriously tempted by a job offer where you can do something more meaningful. Or perhaps the answer is starting your own shop. I don’t have the answers on this one, but it’s the ugly duckling few in freelancing talk about.

Zac Martin is a freelance creative strategist. This piece is an excerpt from How to Freelance in Advertising, which you can download for free.


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