Freelance at 50: a response

A freelance creative responds to Madeleine Morris' piece on what to do if you're made redundant as an older creative.

The road to hell

…is paved with good intentions. Madeleine Morris’ piece on what to do after redundancy in your fifties is well-written, well-meaning and very well-intentioned.

Trouble is – and this is only my opinion – some of its advice could actually damage the employment prospects of the very people it’s trying to help: "newly independent" creatives in their fifties. If that’s you, you may have been given the wrong directions and I worry that you’ll end up misguided, frustrated and with Chris Rea’s famous tune going round and round in your head.

You are not a sideboard

That piece begins by describing you in a way that could be seen as less than flattering: "You’ve been in your job for years and survived countless redundancies. You’re part of the furniture." 

"Survived" suggests that you were lucky to escape previous culls and that your eventual ejection was long overdue. "Part of the furniture" implies that you’re also a dull, indolent lifer who has done nothing of value for years.

Next job?

I admire the optimism of these two words but, if you’ve been made redundant from a creative department in your fifties, there’s unlikely to be a "next job". Especially if, at your last agency, you were "part of the furniture". 

But it’s more deeply rooted than that. With Andy Knell and the Jolt academy, I’ve worked to promote diversity in our industry. Great progress has been made in recruiting women and those from black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities. However, agency leaders have proved very reluctant to hire older, more experienced people.

But, seriously, what did you expect? They don’t want seasoned pros who might remember them as juniors and who might find it hard to take them seriously in their swanky new roles. The sight of old faces more experienced and possibly more talented than they are could trigger a secret condition called "insecurity" and they can never, ever allow that to happen. So if you’re over 50, get used to it – you’re on your own.

Take time out?

Yeah, good luck with that.  This is a ruthless and unsentimental industry, so when you make your triumphant return, be prepared for that industry to neither know nor care who you are.

A word about slippers

The piece ends on a career-killing sentence: "…sit around in our slippers drinking sherry, moaning about our aches and pains and reminiscing about the good old days." Yes, I know it’s a joke, but it reinforces unconscious bias and inaccurate stereotypes. If you present yourself – even in jest – as boring, backward-looking and unfit for purpose, don’t expect potential employers to disagree with you.

So what advice would I offer instead?  Let’s start with…

Selling yourself

Never mind being a "brand" – just be good at what you do. Let your work speak for itself and remember the old maxim: "Make me laugh. Don’t tell me you’re funny." Never refer to yourself as a "freelance creative director" – it’s a contradiction in terms. A creative director looks after a piece of business or an entire creative department, and that’s a permanent role. So forget what you were and concentrate on what you do. For example…

Old Charlie

I’m not referring to a 1980s white-powdered stimulant, but to a useful way of regarding yourself. Think of an agency as a building contractor. The builder has plenty of plasterers to do the everyday stuff, but that intricate cornice work requires a craftsman like Old Charlie. So become an Old Charlie. Those bearded and beanied executive creative directors will suddenly love you. You’re no threat. They’ll probably call you a "legend". And, nowadays, the specialist tasks requiring the expertise of Old Charlie can include drawing a layout, thinking of an idea and stringing a sentence together.

The original freelancers

Think of your relationship with agencies as like the arrangement between prostitutes and their clients. It’s OK for the client to call at any time and expect them to do whatever's required, but it’s not OK for the prostitute to keep contacting them. As unfair as this arrangement seems, the tacit agreement is: "Don’t call us, we’ll call you."

So you must walk the tightrope

It’s a fine line and you must endeavour to keep your balance. You need to be visible and make the occasional call, so people know you’re around. Just don’t overdo it. We’ve all seen those "Hey! We’re available!" posts on LinkedIn and we know they translate as "Hey! We’re desperate". So, instead, cultivate your other relationships and just…

Give

Networking isn’t about what you can get, it’s about what you can give. We’re a small community, so we have to look after each other. Be kind, loyal and honourable to others who are also walking that tightrope without a net. Give your time, support and encouragement, meet up, compare notes, but never give a thought to what’s in it for you. Just trust me when I tell you that you reap what you sow.

FTJS

Try to remain calm even though FTJS – or Full-Time Job Syndrome – will drive you to the brink of Broadmoor. Put simply, people with FTJS don’t get back to you. Former colleagues – people you regarded as friends – will not return your calls or emails because they don’t have to. They get paid anyway, so what do they care? FTJSers will promise you work starting Tuesday and when you call on Monday to check it’s still on they’ll ignore you.

But when they call and say "Can I pick your brains", resist the temptation to say: "As long as I can pick your pockets." Their appalling discourtesy soon becomes mere water as you become a duck’s back. Because people you’ve never heard of will call out of the blue, offering you paid work so you don’t have to sell your children on eBay. And then you can console yourself with the certain knowledge that the day will come when every FTJSer will get the call they’ve been dreading from HR. And I’ll bet it’s coming far sooner than they think. 

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