Friday, May 18, 2007

Why Freelance…part 2

Today, I woke up to sunshine after 4 gloomy, rainy days.
I ate a leisurely breakfast, read the newspaper cover to cover, and walked my daughter to school. I came home, made a pot of coffee, and sat down to peruse my email and make some phone calls.

Today is one of those days where I am in transition. Some projects are already in for French translation (for the Quebec market), some are still waiting for the green light, and then there’s the one where I am simply waiting for feedback on my work (I’ll bet my client is out on a golf course).
Basically, I realized that I didn’t have to worry about much today.

I looked towards the sunshine in the window, switched to my cell phone and walked out into the city and warm sunshine (with my coffee in hand) to run a few errands.

Walking up the street, I smiled to myself as I passed all the cars sitting in traffic on a main artery in the city. There were people of all backgrounds trying to make it in to work (it was 9:30 and they were most likely late). Very few of them looked happy.
At one point, I stopped into the drugstore to pick up a birthday card for my grandfather.
I allowed an old gentleman to skip ahead of me in line because I was in no hurry.

I made a few more stops and came home around 10:15am.
I logged back onto my email and a new brief had come through. I had a conversation with the marketing agency about the project I will be working on.

Left around noon to have lunch with my grandfather at a card club. Several of his friends came over to sit down and chat with us while we ate. There’s nothing like hearing old stories about the Great Depression and how they were there to storm the beaches in WW2. The card room was remarkably packed for a Thursday. I lost track of time while I cherished the moment, acknowledging that there are only a few grains of sand left in the hourglass before that generation and their stories are gone forever.

I made it home from lunch at 2:00pm.
Back onto my email. Back on the phone. Speaking with clients, trying to find some new clients, typing up and sending a proposal for the brief I had received with some quotes...I dedicated a serious 2 hours.

4:00pm…my buddy rolls up into my driveway. I switch to my walking shoes and we head for the Toronto Ravine System. We walk a number of kilometers through the urban forest and wetlands listening to a spring symphony of birds looking to start a family. The sounds of dozens of Red Winged Blackbirds, Robins, and Woodpeckers (hammering on trees) made it seem almost sacrilegious to speak. We walked without saying much. Thinking our silent thoughts.

It was at this point that I looked towards the office buildings in the distance and thought about the people stuck in cubicles under fluorescent lighting. Barking into the phone, running downstairs to grab a quick sandwich, climbing each day of their short existence on the rat race treadmill and I began to somehow reminisce about the old days.
The idea crosses my mind about what it would be like to go back but disappears quickly as I walk in the front door of my house and into my office.

The signed proposal for the project I sent out earlier is sitting on the fax machine.

They are calling for more sunshine tomorrow.

How much should I charge?

“Dear Ronnie, I have just picked up a freelance job and was wondering what I should be charging for this type of project?”

I receive many emails that begin this way.
If you have ever worked on a project on your own, you have tackled the hardest part of the business...what to charge? If you haven’t, you eventually will.

There are so many factors involved that it is almost impossible to narrow it down to a science.
What kind of client will you be working for? What kind of product? Will the project be big or small? Local or national? What do you consider a decent hourly rate? Are you a senior or a junior? Where are you located (small town or big city)? Will the client want to purchase the full rights? Is there the potential for more work with this client down the road? Of course, I could go on.

Fortunately, there is help out there.
The freelancers bible...

The “Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook” produced and updated every year by the Graphic Artists Guild

This book contains EVERYTHING...and I mean everything.
Pricing guidelines for newspaper illustration to CD Jackets. From web design to concepts for television commercials.
If it has to do with advertising, design and illustration, it is in there, including all the paperwork and samples of legal documentation needed to run your own business.

Of course, like salary guides produced every year, numbers range depending on the factors I stated above. However, as a starting point or even just for reference, nothing beats it and it is the first place I turn to when I am stumped.

Mixing Pleasure and Business

One of the greatest things you can do in life is marry your hobbies with your business.
If you enjoy something tremendously, it’s even better when you get paid to partake in it.
One of the reasons I freelance is because I have many hobbies. The open schedule allows me to enjoy them more often than most. As I grew older, I started strongly believing in the philosophy of working to live rather than living to work. Many weekday mornings I have battled rush hour traffic to sit not at a desk, but rather in a golf cart or on the bank of a trout stream. I have been fortunate enough to mix my hobbies with business and I have produced several projects for people I have been paired up with on the golf course.

In the last two years, I started playing serious poker several evenings each week. I’m not a gambler but an adrenaline junkie and there is nothing like the rush that is felt when you’ve beat over 100 players and are heads-up at the final table.

I’ve since won several tournaments and poker awards. I’ve even earned a nickname around the city's tables and have been profiled on a poker site.

To me, playing poker is very much like working in the advertising industry. It starts with a vast number of players trying to quickly move ahead, not knowing exactly how long they will last, hoping that others are getting eliminated thereby allowing them to reach the big money at the final table. Chips are the equivalent of (industry) awards and the more you accumulate, the easier it is to move up the ranks and compete with the best players.
During the entire course of the game, you make your own decisions which can make or break you. This is why you will find many business owners around the tables and because I have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, I relate to it.

I quickly realized, if I’m going to have this hobby, how can I make money to support it doing what I do best?
I started approaching the organizers of the poker clubs and tournaments. Dropping my business card, bringing them some samples of my work, and asking if I can produce their next project.

The result:
In 2 years I have designed dozens of logos, posters and advertising campaigns for several of them. I won a creative award and have some pieces being published in 2 upcoming creative books/annuals. I had a poker ad campaign included in a foreign University’s curriculum and I've seen it grace the walls of a casino’s high stakes poker room across the border.
To top it all off, I’ve hung out and played with the world champion (DN), and been given free buy-ins to many large tournaments because I rub shoulders with those that run the industry. All this by simply taking a chance.

Then of course comes the word of mouth. People at the tables being recommended my services by the dealers, the operators, even other players, and I have worked on other projects thanks to this domino effect.

So, because of some initiative, I get to be creative working on something I really know and enjoy (in a VERY open minded industry towards creative solutions) and the perks and results have been outstanding.

No matter what your hobbies are, there is the potential with what we do to make money in it. You like fishing? Speak to fishing lure companies and lodge operators. You enjoy playing golf? Start calling the pro shops and clubhouses.
The next thing you know, you’re not only making money creating work for them, you’ll hear the words that I love best...
“You should come play tomorrow. It’s on me.”

God and Advertising

Recently, a CD gave some book reviews on an industry site. In my opinion, he gave some very interesting picks.
There was one book in particular that caught my attention. Out of the 10 selections, it generated a lot of feedback in the form of a debate. I have wondered if it was a mere coincidence or intentional that it appeared as his last review?

The book was titled “The God Delusion” and the author was Richard Dawkins.
As this CD stated in his review, “The biggest problem facing mankind isn’t global warming, it’s religious fundamentalism. This book will make a non-believer out of you.”

“It will make a non-believer out of me”. As somebody that already has mixed feeling on the subject this book sounds like my cup of tea. However, it seems that not everyone shares this sentiment.
The angry replies came in (as expected) about the existence of god and why would any of us want to be made into non-believers? Why would this CD suggest such a book?

On an advertising site I find this rather humourous. We are supposed to be open minded to suggestion in this industry. In fact, our very jobs are TO suggest. To brainwash people into buying things they probably don’t need. To fear that reading a book might make you into a non-believer means that you are as easily persuaded as those you try to manipulate every day. A few words and theories in print could erase any beliefs that you may have had throughout your life?
I intend to buy this book. To read it. To perhaps look at things from an angle I may not have explored in the past. Does that make me an atheist? Will I suddenly change my beliefs? Maybe, but probably not.

I spent over 10 years in private school as a youth studying the old testament. I had the existence of god pounded into my brain. Being open-minded on the subject, even as a child I questioned all of it. Over 5000 years have gone by and in this day and age we still take primitive beliefs and understandings as truth? Isn’t there the slight chance that we could be wrong?
Battles throughout history have been waged over who's invisible friend is superior. They still are today.

With all this in mind, I won’t argue how can this CD suggest this book. I’d argue, as an open-minded creative leader in today’s modern world, how could he not?

The Power of the Press Release.

You entered some work in a competition/award show and you won. You have just taken on a new client. You teamed up with a new partner or joined a new agency. Maybe you left an agency. What do you do? You tell the world about it.

In today's day and age, the internet is a very powerful marketing tool for your business and your brand (the brand being you).

Free advertising is the best advertising and nothing is better than your website and contact information travelling across the globe while you sleep. One press release can increase your name or company visibility on web search engines by several pages. The more pages you have with your name on it, the more important you look.

It seems like a tough thing to do but it is in fact, the easiest way to get you noticed.
There are many free press release sites online that work...and they work well.
You simply fill in the information and they do the rest.

Some free online press release sites...

Now go and start making a name for yourself.

$300 goes a long way.

This morning I went to my mailbox and found a fancy envelope with my name on it.
It was from an award show across the pond and contained a beautiful, glossy, die-cut brochure announcing a call for entries.

Now, having done a few pieces that I am proud of this year, I decided to log onto the site and check it out.

I looked at the list of judges and they were quite impressive. I looked at the rest of the site and was leaning towards entering a piece or two until I checked out the entry fees.

What I saw turned me off immediately. $300 in American currency for a single entry.
Now, some may call me cheap but I am beginning to understand why we don’t see more work from “the little people” being entered into award shows.

In reality, besides the power of a winning entry’s press release, I really don’t see the need to pay $300 USD to have somebody tell me they like my work. I liked my work. My client liked my work. Hopefully, if I did my job well, the general public liked my work.

I started surfing the web and found that for $300 USD, there are plenty of ways I can skip the shoulder pat from someone else and reward myself.
A flight to Vegas is roughly the same price. So is the new barbeque I was looking at.
I can enjoy a day playing the top golf course in Ontario for less money. I can spend a weekend at a spa, or once again jump out of an airplane to feel that rush I obviously crave. There are hundreds of things I can buy or treat myself to with that kind of money.

I tossed the beautiful brochure in the recycling box. I think that for now, I’ll skip this type of show and continue entering smaller ones that make more sense.

In leaving the agency scene behind, I am beginning to accept the fact that I will probably never see an award on my shelf from an extremely prestigious show. Even if I created work that I feel could have a chance, as a freelancer, I will forever find it hard to pony up the cash to enter the piece. In my mind, I might as well take $300, walk over to a casino’s roulette wheel, randomly pick a number, and lay it all down.
Unfortunately, I am beginning to understand, that’s just not me.

Hey Man...YOU SUCK.

“It takes courage to be creative...” - E. Paul Torrance

These words ring very true.
I’ve been waiting for it - the first anonymous post on my blog (funny how they never sign their names) telling me how much they hate my work. I’m quite surprised, not because I actually received that type of response, but rather because it took so long for one of them to appear.

The poster targeted one ad on my site in particular, and I find this quite funny. The ad they told me they thought was terrible, won bronze in an international show. CDs from known shops around the world liked the ad enough to award it and anonymous thinks it’s “The worst ad he has ever seen”.

Of course, he is entitled to his opinion. Everyone is. No matter how much we like to argue this, our business is a form of art. Some will like your art, some won’t. You can enter a piece in one award show and it will win and in another it won't. This is the norm.
I remember many years ago, while shopping my portfolio around town, a CD told me that my book wouldn’t cut it and I would never find a job in the industry. The very next day, I was hired at a better agency after the CD told me he thought my book was one of the better ones he's seen.

With that, I learned to simply develop thick skin and let the negativity slide.

Personally, there are only two things I care about...what my client thinks and if the ad sells his product.
I never entered this business to win awards. They are simply a bonus. I also never entered it to please others in the industry. I entered it to make money. Period. Both for the client and myself.
Not all award-winning work achieves this goal. And sometimes, ads that aren't deemed award-worthy have achieved excellent results and have made the client millions of dollars.

Now, back to the poster’s comments...Isn’t it sad that we work in an industry where our peers love to belittle us? Can you imagine this in other industries? How about in the medical profession...
“Hey man, you suck. That surgery you performed yesterday was terrible. How did you ever get hired? You should go back to dissecting frogs you hack”
When you look at it this way, it sounds ridiculous. That’s because it is.

I actually want to publicly thank Mr. Anonymous. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I respect your opinion. I don’t agree with it but it is your opinion. And like I said you are entitled to it.
However, if you think it would upset me, you are wrong. I’ve been in this industry a long time (you’ve never seen my agency portfolio because I can’t feature it on my site) and it’s not like I’m quitting anytime soon. Do you really expect me to hang up my hat because you don’t like my work?
If anything, your comments benefit me. Like the quote at the beginning of this post, it will only make me try harder. It may take courage to be creative, but it takes a weakling to trash talk somebody while hiding behind an alias.

Tax Time and Freelancing

This is the time of year that I receive emails asking how one goes about filing their taxes as a freelancer.
(Do I need to get a T4? etc.)
It’s really quite simple. While freelancing, did you invoice the company you worked for or did they pay you the same way as a full-time employee and automatically take the taxes from your pay?

Hopefully you invoiced them. And hopefully, you kept every receipt from your purchases for the entire year.
Everything you spend money on during the year is a potential write-off. For example...your car, the gas, parking, insurance, a portion of your home, your meals, even your newspaper and cell phone are (potential) write-offs.

For those of you just starting to freelance or opening your own business, it’s really not rocket science.
Each month, start a new envelope. Nothing fancy, just a regular #10. Throw all your receipts for the month into the envelope. At the end of the month, separate the contents into categories (parking, gas etc.) and add up the totals. Write the totals on the front of the envelope.
At the end of the year, you simply take the 12 envelopes and add the category figures onto a spreadsheet.
Then add up and include your income and all other expenses. Anything and everything you spent money on (rent or mortgage payments, car insurance, hydro, etc.) Put these totals onto the spreadsheet as well. As a rule of thumb, when in doubt regarding a purchase or a payment you made, simply add it to the spreadsheet.

Finally, you have to get yourself a great accountant. Not mediocre. Not one of those kiosks that open in the malls this time of year. A private accountant that has been around the block a few times (you can even add his bill from this session to next year’s spreadsheet).
In my opinion, there are 3 things you should never cheap-out on in life...bedding, shoes, and a great accountant.
Think of it this way, you wouldn't hire an average designer to work on your business so don't hire an average accountant. Their job is to save you money so it's worth it to pay a little more for someone that's great at it.
Bring the accountant the spreadsheet. They will use their expertise and figure out what you can and can’t use.

That’s basically it. It takes a little getting used to but is one of those things that will become a normal part of running your own show. I really believe that this should be taught in every school regardless of the industry. Even as a one day lesson. Why it’s not has always puzzled me.
Hopefully this has helped.

Artists and Businessmen

Recently, a forum thread appeared and it was titled "A hunded little ad fucks".
The following question/statement came up...

"I’ve looked at the portfolios of hundreds of agency websites and see the same thing, 90% of the work they’ve done is just pedestrian work, ranging from good to just okay. But then I come to the creative forums and read repeated comments about Ads and CDs only looking for creatives who can come up with the “CONCEPT”, and I’m like, “Okay, maybe I’m missing something here."

Here's was my response and thoughts on this...

Agency CDs are always looking for the "Concept".
Kids that are new to the business only care about the "concept". The concept is what they teach in school because that is what CDs are looking for when they are hiring.
There is a very good explanation for this and why 90% of the work that is produced is "pedestrian".

There are 2 sides (in my opinion...and all of this is strictly my opinion) to this business. The "artist" side and the "businessman" side.

A large percentage of the stuff we work on is mainstream. We don't admit it but it's true. Work at any agency and you won't be creating ads everyday that are award worthy (even though we'd like to believe so).
We try to push the envelope as creative people but the majority of our clients are very conservative. They have reputations to protect, and sometimes old school values and ways of thinking. Also, the salespeople are usually not creative people. They don't see things from our perspective. To them, "outside the box" means we strayed from their usual formula and moved their logo to another corner.

Now granted, every now and then we get the odd piece approved (miraculously) from these clients that warrants attention from our peers and award juries, but there are many proven formulas that work and drive sales that we usually have to stick to.

For instance, right now, I'm creating something that will go in a supermarket environment. My client knows through studies that certain colours and fonts we must stay away from. Certain looks attract the consumer and get them to make the purchase. I will not win any awards with this type of work but I will drive sales for my client. This is (bottom line) what the sole purpose of my job is about.

Another would be difficult to win awards creating an FSI for a client like a big-box superstore. However, they are a client that repeatedly advertises so as a "businessman", they are a great client to have.
I know that if I create an FSI for a huge boxing day sale, it will bring people into the stores in droves and I will sell millions of dollars in product. As a businessman, I'm thrilled.
As a client, they are thrilled. Awards in this case don't mean much. As an advertiser, I'm doing my job. And I'm probably going to be able to buy that Porsche I wanted.

Then there is the "artist" side.

The part of us that is highly creative, we can't simply do this "pedestrian" work all the time. We need to free the artist in us. We need to create. We need to push boundaries. We need to be expressive.
This is why agencies look for "dog walking clients".
They allow us creative freedom. A martial arts studio has no reputation to protect. They have no strict branding. You simply need to bring people in by making them think that this place is kick-ass. You can have alot of fun with this type of client.
These clients (as businessmen) earn us very little in the way of revenue.
What they do is bring us attention.

In this business, the most important thing you can do for yourself (and your company) is win awards because awards bring attention.

Awards allow us something worth it's weight in gold (excuse the pun). The power of the press release. The press release gets us noticed. It puts our name out there.
It gets people talking. It gets our agency in industry magazines. It gets us hits on our websites. And the best way to get this recognition is by winning. We can only usually win by being "Artists". Winning makes us look important. It sets us apart from the rest of the competition and gets the big-box superstore clients to take notice. So we can go after their business.

Young creatives only grasping the Artist side never make it long in this business. They do great work and then have to move aside for the new batch that will work cheaper and longer hours. The ones that understand the game and become businessmen, have very long and prosperous futures. I can name several agencies in Canada that opened when the artists became businessmen (and women).

So as a businessman (and CD), When I hire, I'm looking for artists. The "hundred little ad fucks" as it was put. The ones that can do great work and also win awards, which I will then PR the hell out of, so I can put my agency's name all over the map, to do what I am here to pedestrian clients that constantly advertise and make tons of money.
Both for them and for me. By sometimes having to contain the artist in me and use formulas that have been proven and work.
A happy client that sees results is a client that sticks around.

To sum up...
Be an artist and you'll get in the business and make a name for yourself.
Then learn to be a businessman and continue doing what you love, but with a lifestyle that many would envy.

I WON...yet I failed.

Today I found out I won another creative award.
A bronze in an international show.
Thousands of submissions from twenty-three countries were submitted and my piece scored among the very best.
The judges consisted of professionals from shops around the world. Shops like TBWA, Ogilvy & Mather, etc.

It’s a bittersweet win.

We place so much value on awards in this industry. We try so hard to create work that stands out. Work that others look at and wish they had created. Work that gets noticed.
I did that.

However, this was not my goal. My goal was to design a piece that did what it was supposed to.
Bring in some more business.
I had never attempted something like this before. My projects have always come through word of mouth. I decided to experiment and see if this would be money well spent.

Not too long ago, I placed a forum topic on this website asking for help. I asked in a poll what would be the most effective way to advertise myself as a creatve freelancer.
Should I take out an ad in an industy magazine? Should I make cold-calls? Should I send out a direct mail piece? The latter was the one that the majority recommended and agreed upon.

My piece was a self-promotional postcard. A surgically-clean design sent to 1000 companies informing them of my services.
I bought a large, updated list from a (hopefully) reputable company and narrowed it down to companies I would want to target. Companies that typically need creative work done.

It took a few weeks to produce. Coming up with the concept. Art directing the piece. Finding the perfect shot. Tweaking it over and over again. Checking and rechecking my list with the names and addresses. Getting the labels right and placed perfectly on the postcards. Stamping each one by beautifully aligning them in the top corner. A real work of art. I sure thought so. Everyone that I showed it to thought so. It seems a jury of my peers thought so too.

The result?
I’m still waiting.

This should be proof to everyone out there that just because something wins an award doesn’t necessarily mean that it worked. Our jobs are not to win awards. Our jobs are to create a piece that does exactly what it was meant to do. Win business. Sell product. Make us and our clients money.
In this instance, I believe that I failed.

However, some good can come from all this.
I will now turn it around and make it work in another way to hopefully achieve my original goal…to win the attention of individuals and companies that may want to work with me.

I will take advantage of the very reason we bother with these award shows.
It’s not simply all about the work. It’s not about how much money we made our clients or how much product we moved.
It’s all about us.
The award will be added to my resumé and in the next few days, I will send out a press release informing the world of my win.
I will shamelessly promote my self-promotion and once again let the world know about me and my services.

Hopefully, this time, the piece will generate some work. That is all that I really care about. That is what I originally set out to do.
But while I’m waiting, I can make room for another shiny trophy on my mantle.