Don’t bring a hired gun to the amazing technicolor rubber chicken fight

Feb 2, 2016

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Surf enough workplaces in this business we’re still calling ‘advertising’ and you meet the handful of freelance thinkers peacefully coexisting in open floorplans alongside hard-working and full-time staff.

These contract cogs of innovation aren’t exactly fresh news to modern day Mad Men and Women. Agencies and in-house departments deliver on rapidly evolving client demands – and hiring freelancers has long been a way to keep perspectives fresh and the gears running during normal business cycles.

But what’s startling is how this once foreign concept in corporations has become de rigueur in workforces tout de suite all across America. Our economy is alive with 700,000 additional freelancers in 2015 alone, according to research firm Edelman Berland, taking the number of contract employees in this country close to 54 million. In his WaPo article “Solopreneurs,” Shane Snow even throws a study at us decreeing independent workers will outnumber salaried employees as early as 2020.

So, this isn’t your parents’ workforce. Heck, statistically speaking, it’s not even your workforce from two years ago. How do you protect your growing investment in this unique labor supply – and who out there is going to give you an honest perspective when it comes to companies wasting money and time on freelancers?

The last seven years, full disclosure, I’ve worked as one of these freelancers playing musical Herman Miller Aeron Chairs through advertising agencies and Fortune 500 marketing departments. I love what I do.

The more experience you have, your skin thickens like alligator boots. But to ignore the whirlwind pace of the biz completely is harder than finding an amazing Technicolor rubber chicken.

Which is what one of my co-workers calls our elusive eureka! moment in this idea business. (What can I say? We have a way with words.)

So, here’s a few survival tactics for hiring a freelancer from a working freelancer:

First things first. Don’t run.

We’re many, yes. But what I’m saying is, we’re here for you. Maybe more than your over-worked staff. The misperception of the freelancer as an asocial, lone entity seems to be about as common as it is wrong.

We come armed with perfected customer service skills. Do the math. There is no bi-weekly paycheck safety net for us. Our very existence is expendable and we know it. So it makes sense, constructive networking is more vital to us than your long-established employee. We have to. The only driver of business we have is our name and our reputation – and we don’t break ‘em for nobody. Apologies, Al Pacino.

But seriously, prepare for an employee who proactively seeks what you need – and asks how to best help you.

Join Freelancers Union (it's free!)

Become a member

Vet your freelancer like you would a full-timer.

I’m amazed when I get an email blindly asking me to start a project without so much as a phone conversation, let alone a face-to-face meeting. The point is, you’re cultivating a very specific office culture. Does the freelancer fit into it? Your entire staff is now interacting with this person.

Office chemistry is a weird thing. Some say it’s like dating. I tend to think it’s like joining an extremely productive cult. Can your short-term hire mindmeld with the rest of your cult, I mean, staff?

Don’t shortchange your customers by judging a freelancer book solely by its cover (or website or resume or LinkedIn page). Make time to interview freelancers, grab coffee, do lunch, talk on the phone, comically shout, investigate if the work in their portfolio is honestly theirs (and how big a role did they truly play), check whether they do their talking through a sock puppet. You get the picture.

Put a hole in the Hired Gun.

There’s a misperception in the workplace that one person can change the fortune of an entire cube village. Maybe there’s a tumbleweed of truth to that, who knows? But you’re not hiring Elon Musk or a reanimated Steve Jobs. You’re fitting a temporary cog into your organization. When your freelancer walks into a meeting spinning their trophies at their sides, bragging about the number of savages they bumped off in any given business, you got troubles.

There’s typically no quick fix for this and, if I find myself seated across from a hired gun, I grin and bear it because I get paid to do that. Still, it usually involves time wading through a lot of snark jungle and sucking the poison out from what could otherwise be a pleasant experience. Imagine what it’s doing to the rest of your staff. Every blue moon, given enough rope, hired guns are known to hang themselves. So that helps me sleep.

The point is, it takes a team. And you remember that tried and true saying? There’s no rhinestone-holstered-gun-slinger in team. Don’t prop up these destructive workers no matter your industry – whether it’s a rockstar video game programmer, a sales guy who blows up his numbers three quarters in a row, or an engineer with too much hubris. It seldom ends well.

The best freelancers like to be in the moment – knowing they’re only as good as what we’re coming up with this very minute. No amount of past laurels guarantees success today – and every project is different.

The rules? Chew them up. Swallow.

It used to be a three-day freelancer, when I first embarked on this crazy career path, was a failure. That’s because after three days if the person didn’t get their shit together, they got kicked out of the building. Now freelancers are stringing together hundreds of gigs a year. We have to. Some projects are two-days, others are four months. Some are remote. Others are onsite. It’s all good.

Craig Likhite, VP Creative Manager/Recruiter at award-winning Cramer-Krasselt understands you often get what you pay for – he employs “burst” freelancers for new biz and big campaigns. He believes high-level thinking (senior level creatives at higher day rates) will get to greater spaces, faster for a fraction of the time.

Throw away the rules and hire bold. It’s not like you really have to fire a freelancer.

I know of an agency that uses the freelance dynamic as an opportunity to work with improv comedians from Second City. My friend Matt McLaughlin, director of Reebok Productions, engages students right out of film school as well as seasoned agency Creative Directors. Whatever your project, use this opportunity to find your Kid Dynamite, even if they’re fifty. There are a lot of talented people splashing about in this muck – of all ages and stripes and backgrounds. Both parties are often the better for it.

Okay, let’s ride off into the sunset.

Contrary to popular opinion, nobody wants to make a day rate sitting in an empty office with nothing going on. And you’re investing a lot of money in this new freelancer economy. Spend time with a host of candidates and get to know them. Make them feel valued and engaged. Know you’ll get there with the right freelancers and trust in our ability to deliver the treasure.

We all want to see you succeed. The collaborating power of the blank slate, the scary white paper (I believe it’s Pantone Solid Uncoated 649 U) we all face at the outset of a project is a useful tool of camaraderie. Digital ninjas, don’t get me started, will undoubtedly point out it’s HEX #FFFFFF. Hire the right freelancer and it’s an incredible experience.

Awarded with both Copywriting and Art Direction credits from the ADDYs, Charlie Noback is a whole solution thinker. A proven freelance resource for leading advertising agencies and fortune 500 companies, Charlie is just as comfortable contributing on a team as he is leading presentations to Chief Marketing Officers.