A guest blog by Alastaire Allday of Allday Creative
But a lot of agency copywriters don’t like freelancers — they think we do unimportant work (big brands go to big agencies) and they hate the fact that we choose our own hours. The freelancer who works for agencies, though, sits in the middle — and often, he’s the most despised of all.
I got into agency work because I wanted a shot at bigger brands than I was getting through my website. But I couldn’t bear to leave the freelance lifestyle behind.
You can romanticise the work. You can see yourself as a drifter, a gunslinger — the man with no name — moving from town to town, wherever he’s needed next. But wherever you are, you’re never there long — and you never belong.
Here’s some helpful tips for surviving agency life as a freelance gunslinger (Stetson not required):
1. Work from home
There’s three different ways you can work with agencies. The first, working from home, is often the best of all possible worlds. The agency calls you up, asks for your expertise, calls you in for a brief (or to meet their client) then sends you home to work.
With this kind of job, it’s practically the same as working directly for the client — except in this case, your client is a well organised agency with account managers, creative directors, and other support staff.
The most important thing to remember is that you are the junior partner. When working direct-to-client, usually the client is happy to be led (to an extent) by you. They come to you for your advice, your experience, your expertise. Not so the agency — you are a small cog in a much larger machine and should be wary of speaking out of turn, particularly when being briefed.
Leave your ego at the door.
2. Work on a roster
Some copywriters will sign on with a recruitment or similar agency who will then hire them out to their clients. Don’t. Anyone who heard the phrase “pimpin’ ain’t easy” never heard of these guys. Not only do you lose your freelance freedom (you’ve gotta work when and where they tell you to) you get royally ripped off.
I signed on a roster once at £250 a day. Then I discovered the agency I was at was paying my agency £500 for a day of my time. Yes, it’s a way to get your foot in the door — but often you’ll be forbidden from working with that agency directly for up to a year.
I’ve never had any luck convincing creative agencies to work with me — I’ve sent out speculative emails, portfolios, etc — the fact is agencies only want you when they want you. The best way to “get your foot in the door” is to find your niche and make them come to you. What are you really good at?
I’ve picked up a reputation as a really good consumer facing tech writer — so when a big tech brand comes to an agency looking to launch a product, I often get called in as the copywriter.
If you want agencies to pay attention to you, make yourself useful, specialise, and work on your reputation. Sooner or later, the phone will be ringing off the hook.
3. Working at the agency
This is the big one. You’re not just some freelancer working from home — you’re a temporary employee. The same pitfalls as working for an agency from home apply — remember you’re a very small cog — but now there are plenty more pitfalls to avoid.
The first time you work somewhere it can be extremely disconcerting. Every agency is different and you’ve got to learn the rules and figure out where you fit in.
You’re in a room full of strangers, full of distractions. As you’re probably on a day rate, you’re expected to work much harder — while they’re content to spend half the day on Facebook or crowding round and laughing at YouTube videos, you’ve been called in for a specific brief and the client will expect their money’s worth.
Want to make sure you make a good impression? Make sure you’re the last person to leave the office. The trouble is the boss usually gets in at 7am and leaves at 8pm.
Agency work can be gruelling, but when you think about it, it’s actually easy money. When you’re working direct to client, at least half the job is figuring out the client, the brief, the tone of voice, explaining to them what SEO or WordPress is, or who David Ogilvy was, et cetera. The other half of it is self-discipline: getting up on time, chasing those invoices, remembering to shower every so often.
With agency work, it’s all done for you. All you’ve got to do is write. You sit down at your desk, you’re given your brief, you get to work. At last! You’re being paid to write — and it’s a great reminder of why you got into copywriting in the first place. You didn’t get into it to spend your life on the phone or chasing unpaid debts.
Agency work feels a lot like driving on the open road again after spending your life driving through traffic. All you’ve got to do is cruise from A to B. And if you’re lucky enough to be brought in to attend strategy meetings, contribute to the creative process, help work on actual campaigns — it’s a lot like being an extra on Mad Men. People are paying you to be opinionated. How cool is that?
When you’re doing agency work, you’ve got to be chipper and cheery and playing your A game at all times. You’re being paid big money compared to the full time staff. The boss expects to see results. At the same time, you’re feeling like a fish out of water and you’re not really sure where you fit in. So plan a coping strategy that helps you get to work right away.
If you’re used to your own space, make sure you bring headphones. It may seem like a small point — but it’s a lifesaver. Copywriting is a solitary pursuit and most in-agency copywriters I know swear by them, especially if the office plays music all the time. Rain noise, or even this soothing clip of the engines of the Starship Enterprise can help. Trust me, once you’ve had to write cheerful copy through an afternoon of The Smiths Greatest Hits, you’ll never leave home without your headphones again.
Always bring your own computer. It’ll make you feel more at home (and you’ll have your old work to hand to use as inspiration).
Even if you’ve been freelancing at the agency for six months, you’ll still feel like the outsider. But if you’re going to befriend anyone, befriend the admin staff. Full-time creatives will resent you, client services won’t know what to do with you (Can they order you about? Who knows!). The admin staff will be the ones who pay your invoice — so make sure you get to know them.
I usually bring the admin folks biscuits and stop for a chat. Working for one agency, I read the Daily Mail before work every day just so I could chat to the admin staff about “The Only Way is Essex” over a cup of tea. I don’t even own a television. They never knew the difference. But my invoices always got paid on time.
If you think agency work is all about copywriting, think again — like every other office job, it’s about politics.
Bigger agencies don’t have a problem with admitting they employ freelancers. In fact, being able to bag a “big name” freelancer gives them bragging rights. But smaller agencies — the sort you’ll probably be hired by — often call you in because they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, or they’ve managed to score a client they don’t have the resources to service.
This makes them very cagey about admitting they employ freelancers, in case the client respects them less. As a result, you may be forced into a watertight NDA. Make sure you charge extra for this — after all, the bragging rights of servicing bigger clients are half the reason to work at an agency. Just don’t price yourself out of the job.
Agency work has its ups and downs, but it tends to be lower stress and better paid than direct-to-client. On the other hand, the hours are longer and you’re sacrificing some of your freedom. But more often than not, it’s the only way to advance your career.
Being a freelancer who works for agencies can seem like the best of both worlds — you get to work on bigger brands and more exciting projects, you also get to keep a lot of your freedom. You have a lot of support, too — an account manager to handle the client, a creative director to tell you what to do. I enjoy freelancing at agencies because I enjoy writing. I don’t enjoy account handling or chasing invoices.
Just don’t be surprised if you feel like the outsider. Bring your best work to the table. But don’t forget to bring your headphones and a pack of biscuits for everybody else, too.
Alastaire Allday is a freelance copywriter based in London and the author of Think like a Copywriter, a 9 chapter framework for beginners learning to write copy.