Thursday, December 22, 2005


It’s rough out there. A weak economy, layoffs and stiff competition are making it harder for a creative to find work. Based on my experiences over the years, here are 20 things that I have learned while peddling my portfolio.

1) Your book will always suck to some Creative Director, unless you have an award for each ad.

2) Pharmaceutical advertising in your book, no matter how great the creative may be, is only good if you want a position doing pharmaceutical advertising (this goes for food accounts, retail etc.).

3) If you make a cold call, chances are they aren’t hiring and will only see you because you could be the next David Ogilvy.

4) Leave messages but don’t expect a return call. Creative Directors have meetings to go to, people to see, and hundreds of people just like you calling them looking for a job.

5) Use call display-block when making a call. *67 works in Ontario. It hides the number of times you have called and usually gets Creative Directors on the phone if they are at their desks because you could be a client for all they know.

6) Don’t come across as a jack of all trades. If you want to do print ads, show a book full of your best print ads. Don’t go to an agency that does outdoor with a book full of direct mail.

7) If you think it’s great, put spec work in your book because it shows how you think.

8) When they say keep in touch, call them every month to remind them who you are. It’s all timing and for all you know, their creative team just jumped ship.

9) Stand up for your work. If you can’t sell yourself, why would they hire you to sell creative for a million dollar account?

10) Just because someone didn’t like your book doesn’t mean the next person you see won’t love it. It’s art. Everyone has an opinion.

11) Put what YOU think is your best work in your portfolio. You will get conflicting suggestions from every Creative Director on what you should and shouldn’t have in your book (see #10).

12) If you drop off your book, it will probably take forever to get it back (see #4).

13) Creative staff, working at an agency, who don’t know you, usually fear that you will take their job and will not help you.

14) Make sure you have two copies of your portfolio (see # 12).

15) Because you are creative, make sure you have a creative resume.

16) Make nice to everyone you encounter. It really is a small industry and chances are you’ll meet again or even be working together someday.

17) Buy tickets to award shows. You can corner and network with everyone who didn’t return any of your calls and they usually feel guilty about it (see #4).

18) If you score an interview, call the day before to confirm the appointment. There’s a very good chance they will have to cancel (once again see #4).

19) Leave your ego at the door. You’re unemployed for heaven’s sake.

20) You have nothing to lose. Be persistent. Be a go-getter. Keep calling. Keep doing new ads. Keep thinking. Keep a folder full of ideas. Keep on their asses because in this industry it’s as the old saying goes…It’s not what you know but who you know.


As a freelance creative, one of the things that I do on an ongoing basis is promote my services. This is done in many ways and one of them involves having my website address and company name listed on several industry sites, such as this one. Because of this, I receive resumes from graduating students and designers looking for work on a regular basis. In fact, in April (when school lets out) I receive a ton of them. Now, I’m no authority on this subject but I can honestly tell you that most of the CVs I encounter have at least one major problem and if I was in fact hiring they would immediately be placed in the recycling bin I keep under my desk. I’m sure that most of you have noticed that when you send out your resume to an agency/studio it is incredibly rare to receive feedback, therefore I feel it is my duty to share with you some of the problems I’ve encountered with resumes that come my way.

1) Spelling mistakes are a major no-no.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have encountered resumes with typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It is something that aggravates me every time I see one, especially from those looking to become copywriters. Being a creative in this business is all about being a perfectionist. Let’s face it, this industry hires a very, very small percentage of those that come through its gates. There is no room for error. One mistake and your CV is sure to go to the bottom of the pile. Think of your resume as a finished ad for a product that you have spent months, even years on. Imagine what it would feel like to find an error after all the printing has been done and the media has been bought and placed. Keep imagining, knowing that it will have to be redone, time and money were wasted, the client will be pissed, and your employer won’t be too happy with you.

Well, if you’ve sent out a resume with errors you’ve already been in the situation I just described, only you didn’t know it. The product you were selling that you screwed up on was you.

2) Research the company you are applying to.

It amazes me how many people write a cover letter indicating that they would love to work for me and that they see themselves as a great fit and asset to my creative department. Sounds great. Only, they got my email from a website, and that website has a link to my website, and if they spent even three seconds checking out my website, they will have seen my biography page which states that I am a freelancer who works alone.

I have no creative teams (except for a rolodex full of friends in the industry that I like to bounce ideas off of every now and then) because I don’t have an office. I work wherever I want and even if I like you, I’m not taking you to the cottage with me if I am working up there for two weeks. Research the company you want to work for, know the work that they do, and understand why you would want to be there. Also, it is generally a good idea to find out where the company is located. Do you really want to travel to Cambridge every day when you live in midtown Toronto? Recently, I had a resume sent to me from India. That would be one hell of a commute.

3) Know to whom you are sending your resume.

On many occasions, I have received what I know is a blanket cover letter with a resume attached. The cover letters are very generic and I can tell that they know nothing about who I am or what I do. The email starts with “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam” and probably went out to every agency listed on this site (all several hundred of them). Sometimes, believe it or not, they will even have all the email addresses showing. Those that do this show a lack of effort and poor attention to detail. Find out to whom you should be forwarding your resume and learn who they are. If I see Dear Ms. Lebow on the first line (and I have), it will seriously piss me off. Addressing a cover letter “To whom it may concern” (and that’s “whom”, not “who” for all you copywriters out there) is fine if you are responding to a want ad where the contact name isn’t given.

4) Leave off everything that doesn’t apply to the position.

You want to be a copywriter, an art director, or a designer. Then why list your past experience working the till at a dry cleaners when you were 16? Will it benefit the creative department? I know many seniors in this business that still have a one page resume. It’s usually all you will ever need. If it’s useless information that doesn’t apply to the position, leave it out.

5) Don’t expect a reply.

As I already mentioned, I am blown away by the number of emails I receive from people looking for work given that I am nothing more than a small fry in this industry…. if that. I can only imagine the quantity that the top CDs are bombarded with each day. It must make their heads spin and it’s understandable why they don’t reply or return calls …they would never get any work done.

Remember that writing a resume is not rocket science. It just takes a little time, patience, proofreading, and some research on the company to put together a decent resume and cover letter. If you need some help, visit your local bookstore or search online for websites that deal with this subject. Hopefully this has helped even just one person out there. To you I say good luck, and may yours always be at the top of the pile.


In my last article, I discussed why I became a freelance creative. Since the article ran, my inbox has been filled with emails asking the same question…so how do I get started? This is not a simple question to answer. There is no one magic method and I believe that if you asked other freelancers, they will tell you different strategies that have proven successful for them.

I of course can only speak from my own experience. I don’t produce spec work and go looking for suitable clients (although I have), I don’t place ads in various publications (although I’ve done this too and nothing came from it) and I don’t personally shop my book around to ad agencies anymore because that takes way too much time and effort. I have found that networking is the most successful way that I can get work.

I believe that the one thing a designer (or anyone) should carry with them at all times is a great looking business card. Anytime I leave the house I know that I may come in contact with someone that could use my services. If I go to a party, I take cards. When I go on vacation, I take cards. When I am going to play golf, I take cards. I have met my clients in every place imaginable. The truth is that everywhere you go, everyone you come in contact with, be it the woman you are sitting beside on an airplane or the older gentleman you just got teamed up with on the golf course, works for (or better yet, owns) a company that may be in need of your creativity.

Now, it sounds like I must be one hell of an extrovert…and I am, but the pitch is easy and it works. When you meet someone new, ask them what they do for a living. They will automatically ask you the same question. After telling them say “Here’s my card, you should check out my site”.

It’s that simple. The pitch is made and it takes mere seconds. They will pocket the card (I have yet to see anyone crumple it up in front of me and drop it on the ground) and if it makes it back to their home or office, they will eventually check out my work strictly out of curiosity. You would be surprised at the results.

Another tactic is to attach your website address to every email you send out. Many people will forward emails without deleting all the information on the one they originally received. Every great joke you send, can and will be forwarded around the world with your website attached to it…and it may get hits.

Now try not to be too picky with the first projects that you take on. As I have said in the past, I got into this business because I couldn’t legally spray paint a wall. Any way I get to do that is all right with me. You can and should design everything and anything. Every small client is a potential big client, or they know someone to whom they will recommend your services if you do a great job for them. Satisfied, they will also become a repeat customer. Many times I have produced something small (a business card perhaps) for a client only to have them add on a few more projects because they liked what I did on the first one. There have also been many times where they have told their friends what a great job I did and the next thing I know, I’m creating a huge outdoor branding campaign and getting paid extremely well for it.

I will also take on a small client that doesn’t have a huge budget if I know that the potential payoff will be great. For instance, every year I produce a magazine for one client. 70% of the magazine’s advertisers don’t have a designer to produce their ads. I give my client a slight break on the rate, and in return, they happily recommend me to their advertisers and the next thing I know I’m designing 25 ads on the side on top of producing the magazine. That’s 25 more clients that will think of me next time they need something creative. It pays to be resourceful.

There are many, many ways to find work. For example, the web is full of networking sites, forums, and freelance work sites. I take an hour out of each day and frequent these. Sometimes they pay off. Through this method I have produced work for US companies and had the bonus of being paid in US dollars. Out your door are thousands of companies that need work done. There are also many companies that have in-house creative departments that may be short staffed and need to fan out some work. Finally, when you get confident enough, there are the large corporations that may be unsatisfied with their ad agencies - and not exactly pleased with the fact that they charge$25k for one magazine ad, an ad that you could do for a quarter of the price. If you have an agency background they would probably be interested in talking to you. Sound impossible? Think about it this way…it is far easier to shop your portfolio to the heads of these large corporations than it is to get in to see an agency creative director.

Now get out there. With some initiative and perseverance the world can be your showcase.


It’s Thursday, early evening, and I am sitting on a dock in cottage country with my laptop while others are just getting home from work.

I have been asked to write about what it’s like to be a freelance creative. I spoke to the staff at the magazine and I asked, what part of it do you want me to cover? They replied … the money, the difference between working in an agency and on your own, how you get clients, etc. It was decided that I would write several articles because there is no way to cover everything in one unless you the reader, have an hour or so to kill.

So here I am, with the screen open in front of me, and I think the only logical way to begin is to explain why I became a freelancer in the first place.

It was really quite simple. Security and freedom.

Security. You are most likely asking yourself how someone without a full-time job can consider their life secure? After working for nearly a decade as an art director and copywriter in several advertising agencies, I can honestly tell you that I never felt like my job was secure. How many of you in this industry actually do? Look around your agency…how many 40 year old creatives are you working with?

It was only when I bumped into a senior mentor from my past that my potential future hit me like a load of bricks. You see, he had won awards during his long career employed in different agencies, and here he was, working in a big box superstore, complete with a “Hello my name is” nametag pinned to his shirt , directing me to aisle 36. I came home and had a sleepless night wondering if I was doomed to the same fate.

Where do all the creatives go when they reach middle age? We all know of somebody that suddenly disappeared from the industry one day never to be heard from again. The question remained in my head…what am I going to do to ensure that this doesn’t happen to me? Do I want to be a middle-aged creative peddling my portfolio around town, competing with 20 years olds fresh out of school that will work for beer money? I decided that morning to go off on my own and start building my clientele. My thought was that with my experience, maybe in 5-10 years I’d be established enough to have several large clients giving me consistent work so that I’d have a career doing what I love to do, and make the money I had always dreamed of. I started hustling. It took me one year.

Freedom. One only has to read my first sentence to understand what I am referring to. It is a great time to be in this business; the internet has changed everything. You can work from anywhere and everywhere. I can leave the city whenever I want. Gone are big boardrooms and presentations. Everything can happen today with three letters. Let me explain. The client checks out my WWW. The brief comes via FAX. My specs are sent to them as JPGs. The final files get uploaded to an FTP site and finally, the invoice is sent as a printable PDF. All this and I never had to meet with the client. It’s a beautiful thing.

My schedule is mine. I work when I want during the day or the evening. Have you ever been in a supermarket at 10:30 in the morning on a Thursday? How about playing golf at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning? Everything is empty because everyone’s at work.

Here are a few more questions I asked myself: Did I actually want to become a creative director for an agency? What were my chances of getting there? Did I want the hectic schedule that goes along with the position? If I didn’t become a CD then what?

I recently spoke with Heidi Ehlers of 'Black Bag', a recruitment agency in Toronto, and I asked her what happened to a few senior creatives I used to know that dropped out of sight. She replied “they’re gone…they didn’t have a plan. I don’t care what industry you are in or what you do, you must have a plan”. Extremely wise words indeed. Words I will never forget.

So thank you Heidi and here’s my plan. I plan to get more clients. I plan to do great work for them. I plan to still be around when others are gone. I plan to watch my daughter grow up, to enjoy life, to play enough golf this year that I break 80, to stop and smell the roses, and finally, at the end of this sentence, I plan to take one more slow paddle around the lake and listen to the loons before the sun goes down.


Growing up, I was constantly scolded by my mother for sitting too close to the television set. I’m sure we were all told the same thing sometime during our young lives. “It will ruin your eyes,” she would yell at me from the other room. Today, as I type this, I sit with a 20-inch monitor positioned less than a foot from my face. It is a key component of the primary tool used by today’s commercial artists and it allows me the opportunity to be both creative and put food on the table each day. My monitor is basically as big as the TV set I used to watch. Only now Mom’s proud. She doesn’t yell anymore. Her son makes ads and designs things and is getting paid well for it. However this was never my intention. I never believed that I would be sitting so close to a radiation-spewing box anytime in my career. I’m sure in the back of my mind that mom was right and man, do I have a love/hate relationship with the beast in front of me.

Why? Because after 4 years of art school studying typography, colour, life-drawing, layout and the like to get into this industry, what do I do everyday? I punch keys. Now don’t get me wrong, I still love what I do and wouldn’t change my choice of career for the world but the computer is definitely not my first choice of tools.

Looking around my office, one would notice that it is divided into two sides. On one side sits my desk with my hard-drive, monitor, scanner, keyboard, etc. All the electronic toys one could want. This is where I spend around 12 hours of my day working on my projects – one hand on the mouse, the other on the keyboard. There is definite skill involved and many are convinced they have it, as we observe by the numbers currently roaming the streets looking for work. It seems that anyone with design programs on their computer and a basic working knowledge of them considers themselves a professional.

On the other side of my office is the real reason I got into this industry. My drafting table sits ready and waiting. Its companion, an extremely cool, rolling studio cabinet loaded with shelves and drawers containing hundreds of Design markers, circle and ellipse templates, Rapidographs, brushes, drawing cleaning powders, inks, coloured pencils and everything else that can be found at an artist supply store, all collecting dust since their former days of glory. I remember those days like they were only yesterday - because they were - and it’s amazing to me how this industry has changed in only a decade.

I went to the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design) in the late eighties and considered myself an artist. We all did. We were accepted into school based on our portfolios. Not our finances. We were then hired in the industry because we had skills others didn’t. Skills that could not be learned by taking a weekend crash course at a “design institute”. I was judged on the street not only on my book but on how tight my illustrated layouts were. I was a “wrist” and could produce an ad to present to the client with a handful of markers that looked like the future finished piece. Many crumpled up sheets of paper lay on the floor of my office because I didn’t feel I had nailed a pose just right. Luckily, 8 years of life drawing classes (4 in high school, 4 in art school) paid off. I would leave the office at the end of each day high on magic marker fumes with my palms a rainbow of colours from brushing the layouts. I had rubber cement and wax on my arms (remember the hot wax machine?), and nicks and paper cuts on my fingers from the various blades and mounting boards. I have to admit that those were the days when I was the happiest in this profession. The industry magazines were full of want ads for creatives with these skills. But this is not the case anymore.

Thanks to the computer, courses are offered to the masses and schools are pumping out “art directors” and “designers” on what seems to be a production line. Where my graduating class spoke of Ems and Picas, todays speak Adobe. The new breed have clean, slick books, not because they can handle a colourless blender but because Kinkos has a new high-tech colour laser. They will never experience an all-nighter laying type with Letraset, or brushing eraser bits from their layouts and I will forever feel somewhat sorry for them.

I don’t really know what possesses me to keep all of my art supplies. Besides creating the odd illustration now and then, I don’t really have much use for them. I guess I keep all of it out of a hope that one day, the medium might change and we’ll go back to basics. I know that this is only a pipe dream. Perhaps the real reason is that it represents a sense of pride in my background and showcases the skills upon which this industry was founded.

In front of me I also have a small arrangement of metal letters that are joined together to spell out my name. The letters are from an original Gutenberg printing press and they were a gift from a mentor at an advertising agency where I used to work. My guess is that he gave them to me because he shared the same appreciation of which I speak. They sit on top of my monitor. All of my art supplies may one day be put on the curb but the letters will always remain with me as my reminder and tribute to yesteryear.