Spooner on…the precarious world of the freelancer

spooner newThe other morning I was reading in my tatty-yet-beautiful, sun-dappled, miniature Brighton garden (reading quite guiltily, as I should have been sending emails to agencies and clients around the world full of earnest yet manly supplication) April’s issue of Literary Review, when I came across this from a review by Michael Burleigh of ‘The Fate Of The West’ by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist.
“In the workplace there is a gulf between permanent workers with legal protections and job security and the ‘precari’ on temporary or zero-hours contracts, whose rights are no more elaborate than the phone call telling them they are needed that half-day. Various forms of HR jiggery-pokery are used to distance overworked an underpaid contract personnel from the parent corporations that in reality govern their working days.”
I like this coinage THE PRECARI. We are THE PRECARI. (It sounds like a particularly unsuccessful British tribe of the first century AD; cliff-dwelling neighbours of Boudicca’s Iceni.)
You, of course, probably imagine that Spoon Creative Ltd exists within a spacious, reclaimed, industrial loft boasting skylights that open to the glorious Sussex skies, walls a-glow with abstruse masterpieces of modern art, elegant receptionists (“Good morning Glen, good morning Catriona”), ‘break-out areas’ with artfully distressed leather sofas and primary-coloured beanbags, recycled refectory tables of gleaming, polished elm, dotted here and there with sleek, scintillating hardware, refulgent with the heady scent of the finest Vietnamese & Ethiopian hand-picked-and-roasted coffees – and peopled by a host of smiling yet intent young people impeccably accoutred in foulards, plus-fours and exquisite tattoos.
No. It’s me and the cats in the kitchen.
Now, over the last few months I have done some interesting work. I have helped an old friend successfully demonstrate the ‘marketability’ of a new financial services product across every medium known to humankind, I have written copious numbers of emails for a complex eCRM programme, I am working on a research-driven and fascinating (really!) white paper for an extremely well-known brand, I have helped a gen-tech company to define their business offering – I have done many other things too – but OH THE PRECARIOUSNESS OF IT ALL!
Which brings me to a question posed previously by Lord McKelvey, the benign, quasi-socialist oligarch behind Decision Marketing (the nation’s favourite online magazine for ‘marketeers’).
“In these days when agency and client budgets are shrinking, freelancers shore up the industry and can bring years of experience, businesses need freelancers, in fact, they couldn’t survive without freelancers, so why aren’t you freelancers valued more?’
And despite my expensive education, vast experience, considerable intelligence (and huge reserves of modesty) I can’t quite answer that question. When I was ECD of Tangible (now Cello Signal) making my demi-royal progress like an only-very-slightly-slenderer-yet-hugely-more-uxorious Henry VIII from London to Cheltenham to Edinburgh and back, patting shoulders, encouraging, cajoling and very occasionally castigating or ‘putting the frighteners on’ my huge team of omni-talented creative people, we used freelancers quite rarely. After all, the agency was vast enough to ride the bumps in the road created by holidays and inevitable illness with the smoothness of a Bentley Grand Tourer. Slack was picked up. But sometimes, equally inevitably, we needed freelance people – at times on protracted contracts.
I made it a point of principle to treat these people as if they were part of the agency team. In fact it was one of Spooner’s three rules of common human decency:
1. Treat freelancers as if they were part of the team
2. Reply to direct emails from individuals even if one is letting them down
3. Always finish the pitch work at 5pm the night before one has to present it
Good rules all, I commend them to you.
And many is the time that I have had to write to people saying that ‘we are not currently hiring or we do not currently have any freelance requirements though please do send your details to our sweary, all-knowing CSD, Kat Burns’.
But now that the exquisite, hand-made Italian boot is on the other elegant foot, I am frankly, and sadly not astonished that behaviour like this is the exception rather than the rule.
So why aren’t freelancers valued?
On mature reflection (the only kind available to me) I think it’s a simple case of behavioural psychology.
When we hire a freelancer it is very often a ‘distress purchase’ one made of necessity rather than out of desire.
Think with what joy you renew your car insurance. See?
You are stressed, someone is sick, you have cocked up the holiday roster, someone has let you down, you must go cap in hand to the CEO and the CFO and you must justify what seems to them a punitive and above all unnecessary expense. ‘We pay your department a small fortune’, they will say, ‘Make people work late or at the weekend!’, they will chorus and only after you have wrung your hands and argued yourself blue in the face will you emerge with the P.O that you require.
Is it any wonder that you don’t value your freelancers?
Now of course I have many proper friends in the freelance community who I have only met through hiring them: the inimitably talented Jane Stead (now a Mistress Of Content At The Ministry Of Justice and incipient novelist), the learned and gentlemanly, Opera-and-East-Enders-loving Steven Rowland (now advising customers urbanely at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly) and of course the brilliant and prolific ‘Colin&Ash’ with whom the flimsiest brief results (like the best children’s toys where little effort brings huge reward) in a veritable cascade of imaginative responses.
These are just the first to spring to mind, there are dozens and dozens more.
They may be hauling one’s ‘skinny white ass’ (US vernacular) out of the flames but the associations of how one comes to be working with them are so psychologically scarring that however perfectly they answer the brief, it is never a joyous thing.
And this is leaving aside the occasions when you have to hire someone to cover for that copywriter who did THAT THING and who you were forced to ‘let go’ while you interview all of the ludicrously inappropriate candidates sent to you by today’s equivalent of the Eighties estate agent, the expert head-hunter (sorry head-hunters, many of you are excellent, but you will know who I mean) or indeed those departments run on the premise that ‘it’s cheaper to pay a freelancer to work here for three months of the year at short notice’ than to staff up properly.
I hope Lord McKelvey will at last be satisfied that I have attempted to answer his question. And I hope that I haven’t offended any potential employers (that would be very foolish) but now that the other foot is be-booted I can do no more.
So here’s ALL HAIL to the freelancer, the industry’s neglected crack-force, succouring angels to the benighted CD, interpreters of a thousand different briefing formats, partners to the most unpartnerable – saviours of the day – may you continue to raise one slightly sardonic eyebrow at the garrulous planner and then just get on with doing our work for us. After all, until that phone rings with that superlative full-time job offer, I am one of you…for now.

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

 

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