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Freelancing isn’t for everyone, but it will be soon

Let’s get this out of the way.

I work in a very insular world known as advertising. I mention this because it informs my point of view on labor trends and the global workforce. This is also relevant because advertising tends to be at the forefront of many cultural trends. The nature of how we work is no exception.

How did I get here?

It wasn’t a spontaneous decision like signing up for Zumba or buying a People magazine in a supermarket checkout. I had a job I outgrew. It took me a while to figure out what was happening. First I looked for ways to find a new role within the organization. When that didn’t work I started looking for the emergency exit.

I realized that my job was a daily prescription for abject misery. This isn’t a particularly original story. In fact, according to a recent study, 70% of advertising professionals want to quit their job. Seventy percent! That’s only eclipsed by iPhone factory assembly and Donald Trump’s public relations team.

I tiptoed into freelancing...

...because no one cannonballs into it like a Daytona motel pool during spring break. I soon found that I wasn’t exactly out of my element. I’m connected. I have a kickass portfolio. I have more experience at creative ideation than Kanye West has at being narcissistic. I can write all day, indefatigably, as long as I’m connected to caffeine. I’m a nice guy – affable, self-aware, not too neurotic. I like making stuff and I exude a ton of passion for my work.

I stayed busy. Really, REALLY busy!

Here’s the thing about freelancing that you don’t completely understand until you experience it: No one calls you when things are just kind of busy. Agencies try really hard to be properly staffed. Hiring freelancers is expensive. You don’t want to know what my hourly rate is. It’s high! I have to cover my own medical. I pay self-employment tax “for the joy of being self-employed” as my accountant sarcastically intoned. And I have to plan for gaps between projects.

You have to come to the rescue.

When I get a call it’s because the walls are closing in. Deadlines are getting tighter. Unexpected briefs are surfacing. Someone had a nervous breakdown and quit abruptly. An adroit creative director is highly skilled at planning their vacations at just the right time. This is the perfect climate to sell yourself as a freelancer. In fact, it requires very little selling. It’s more of a right place / right time kind of thing. If you’re trying to sell yourself to an entity that’s not immediately interested, my advice is to put it on the backburner and look for hotter temperatures.

That’s all great Nico, what’s your point?

My point is that this is becoming the predominant way to work. Nearly one in four professionals perform some part of their job on a freelance basis. It’s not just the “sharing economy” either. The advertising sector provides an interesting barometer for the rest of the economy. Here’s what’s happening in my industry: Fees are shrinking. The category is getting more fragmented. The big agencies are turning into sweatshops relying more and more on youth (interns and recent graduates). Keenan Beasly wrote an excellent article for Forbes on what’s happening in adland. But that’s not all.

Digital has taken over but the power didn’t coalesce with the agencies.

All the money and power was consolidated by the media aggregators. Four companies sell 61% of online media. Think about that for a second. Google is obviously at the top of the list. What happens when you type “I will obey you for all eternity” into the Google search bar? I don’t know and I don’t want to find out.

In this economic picture, all of the big agencies – the majority are owned by publically traded holding companies – will find ways to streamline costs. Again, being properly staffed is ideal, but almost impossible given all the upheaval. Leveraging a freelance economy is increasingly relied on to deliver value to their clients.

What does this mean for the future?

The pessimistic view is that we’ll all be huddled around the dying embers of the creative economy as we’re supplanted by more sophisticated automation. There’s no reason to think that Google can’t code software to write fully-optimized headlines for display ads. They probably have already done it. If machines can win at Go they can probably write algorithms that track the success rate of online ads and duplicates them with minor variable for buyers.

After that, Skynet will send a terminator back in time to assassinate me before I publish this article.

Now you’re scaring me. What’s the upside?

The upside is that the economy is a reflection of our desires. We want to be free to prosper and be happy. Humans will strive to order their affairs for the common good. We’ll all adapt and be free to do the things we love to do. We just have to figure out how to get paid for checking out articles on social media.

Hey Linkedin, looking for any freelance writers? (making telephone gesture with fingers),

Call me.

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.

Nicholas Cialdini Nicholas Cialdini is a freelance writer and creative director based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He drinks lots of coffee and tries to solve problems for clients in PR, media and advertising.