Freelancing & creative leadership: my perspective from both desks.

June 29, 2011


Been there, done that…

My entire career, I’ve been a full time employee of three agencies. Before now, my only work stoppage (six months) was on account of a separation agreement.

This time I have no such covenants. Therefore, in addition to copious amounts of personal writing, I’ve also taken my first foray into freelance copywriting. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed it. A lot. Not only did I not miss being the boss I actually relished being inconspicuous. Why? Well, that’s the subject of this post. I think I have a fairly unique perspective. Hopefully, most of you will find it interesting and maybe even enlightening, especially if you’ve got designs on creative leadership.

Freelancing put me back in the creative trenches: conceptualizing and writing. Two things I deeply missed. Fact is, unless a Chief Creative Officer actively fights against it most of us end up being curators and choreographers. Those are important tasks but it’s just not the same as coming up with ideas and writing. Whether my peers admit it or not, the longer they stay out of the trenches the more likely their creative muscles atrophy. It’s the same as anything else: use it or lose it. Remaining a player/coach isn’t easy, especially if various members of the agency are driving you in different directions. In addition, you have to want to do the work. Think about it. If no one at the agency expects you to write copy or compose layouts then would you? Lots of ECD’s and CCO’s (the most famous ones included) don’t create anything anymore. Regarding global creative directors, a colleague once told me the only “books” those guys care about are their passports.

Freelancing, I no longer have to suffer fools the way most creative directors must. A CCO is expected to work with senior people across his or her network as well as for clients. While many in the C-suite are brilliant and pleasant plenty are also tools. Paid only to write they are no longer my concern. A blessing.

Finally, I don’t miss power. As a matter of fact, I’m here to tell you power is overrated. For one thing, it separates you from the people and places and things that make advertising so damn fun. While separation from the troops is endemic to any leadership position I missed the camaraderie. You know who scares me? The ECD or CCO who doesn’t. Those guys are trouble.

As a freelancer, I get to create work with the other people who create work. That “flow” trumps pomp and circumstance. Plus, whether or not I become a CCO again, it’s nice to know I’m comfortable working the skill sets that got me there in the first place.

Full disclosure: As a CCO, I was never a big fan of hiring freelancers. I thought perhaps they wouldn’t try as hard as FTE’s. Or be as vested in outcomes as FTE’s. I was dead wrong on the first point. (Freelancers won’t get hired back if they don’t go full out.) And while the second point is usually true it’s also a moot point. If a company demands loyalty from a freelancer offer him or her a damn job!

3 Responses to “Freelancing & creative leadership: my perspective from both desks.”

  1. timogeo said

    Nice article, Steffan. Perspective changes are always a great catalyst to creativity.

    Maybe all CCO’s should get 6-month ‘creative sabbaticals’ that put them back into those trenches. A lot of times, the younger talent has fresher ideas that doesn’t seem to gel with a more seasoned CD. So putting them back in the trenches might help give that jolt they need.

    Then again, I have known a few very hands-on ECDs…which could be either great or awful depending on the individual and the situation. Nobody wants to be somebody’s ‘arm’ especially at a senior level – nor should they be – but if you’re a Junior and under somebody great – it can be one of the best ways to learn their skills.

    Last, putting a CCO in a creative role might just shine a light on whether they really got there on creative merit. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

  2. Your article reminds me why I like the smaller agencies. As a Sr. CD you would figure I’m just acting as mentor, air traffic control, or king of the creative power point new biz presentation. I’m am…but I still get to concept, create, and craft. My agency relies on it. It’s a lot more work, but it doesn’t separate me from my team. It makes them fell like I’m in it just like they are. It makes it “our work”

    The best thing, I still get that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when create something cool…I still get to have fun.

    Glad your getting back to your roots. Hope you have fun too.

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