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How to Choose Between Freelance or Full-Time Creative

5 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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So, you’ve decided to enter the fascinating career of advertising. You’re ready after reading my post on the secrets to the perfect portfolio. 

But ready for what? I mean, you want a job, but you don’t want to just send your portfolio out into the abyss. What kind of clients do you want to work on? What kind of agency/life balance are you looking for? Are you willing to relocate? Internship, freelance, or full-time? These are all the kinds of things nobody is really talking about. It’s about time someone gives you a straight answer.

I Just Need a Friggin Job

When you’re entering the advertising industry, you have a big blank spot on your resumé and you need to fill it in. Don’t worry, it’s how we all started out. Try to be as picky as possible, keeping in mind my notes about the biases agencies carry with them. But, when it comes down to it, there are still choices you need to make about the next step in your career.

0) Internships

Oh, internships. They’re the closest thing to indentured servants you’ll find in the advertising industry. But, this is often how you’ll get a foot in the door of an agency you may want to work out longer-term. Or at the very least, have something nice to put on your resume.

Now, when it comes to internships, there’s a spectrum of what you can expect to do:

  • Student Programs - These are reserved for creatives who are still students. There’s no plan to hire people straight out of these programs, usually, because they look for students who still have another semester or year of school ahead of them. You’ll learn a lot, because they treat these like school. Just don’t expect much, if any, real-world production.
  • Worthless Grunts - This is the stereotype of an intern. You’ll be grabbing coffee, building decks, assembling printouts, and pretty much doing anything that you’re told to do. Honestly, not many of these types of internships exist anymore. You’ll find these at large, old-school agencies. Beware, because these internships rarely lead to actual employment.
  • Near-Junior Creatives - This is becoming more and more common. Agencies want to get some milk without buying the cow. The hope is that you’ll prove yourself during your internship and then they can bring someone on that can jump into real work without any onboarding. These internships are great, because you will definitely be in the weeds of produced work. You most likely will help comp up ideas for a pitch, help design or write some lower-level creative, or sometimes you may even lead a project on your own.

1) Freelance

Agencies are always looking for freelancers. They’re the best way to stay agile and finish up projects without worrying about the person after the project is done.

On one hand, freelancing has some upsides:

  • Variety - If you’re looking to work on a lot of different projects and clients, get lots of experience, and really get those creative juices flowing, then freelancing might be calling your name. Your book will reflect lots of different clients, making you a nice option for an agency to hire when looking for experience in a specific genre.
  • Sneak In - It’s probably the easiest way to get a foot in the door of any agency (even easier than an internship) because it might be as short as a week or two.
  • Money - The pay is pretty good, too.

On the other hand, there are some realities of the situation:

  • Grunt Work - Freelancers rarely produce work to the end, meaning that they will do the grunt work, but when it comes to the final production stages, they are left out.
  • Why more money? - There are a lot of hidden fees for agencies when hiring someone full-time: healthcare, insurance, other benefits. Those things are on you now, as a freelancer. Some of that is made up by extra pay, but not all of it.
  • Inconsistency - If you choose to pursue freelance work, understand you’ll probably not be working 100% of the time. You may work two weeks, then have nothing for a week, then work for a month, then nothing for another few weeks. You’ll grab at whatever work there is available. To avoid this, make sure you’re always reaching out to your network to find available work (more on that coming in another blog post).

The trick is, when reaching out to agencies, make it clear that you’re looking for freelance work, or at least open to it. They’ll treat you totally differently, giving you the opportunity to get into the building easier than a full-time position.

2) Full Time

Like I said earlier, there are a lot of things that agencies have to do to bring someone on full-time. Along with insurance, healthcare, salary, etc., you’ll have some more subtle benefits of full-time.

  • Creative Control - As a full-timer, you’ll be much more involved in the creative process. Even as a junior, you will work closely with the lead creative team (if you aren’t already it). Your input will matter (somewhat).
  • Well-Developed Portfolio - You’ll have complete, comprehensive projects to put in your book that you usually won’t get from being a freelancer. It makes you more appealing to potential employers when you want to make a move.
  • Stability - No job is 100% guaranteed, but for full-timers, it’s much easier to take a breath and relax into your position. You don’t have to worry about your contract ending in a week, needing to look for another job, then rinsing and repeating.
  • All Those Benefits - Healthcare, 401k, etc. All those grown-up things that suck to think about...well, full-time positions take care of them for you.

Now, full-time isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There’s one big downside:

  • Long Hours and No Overtime - You’ll work nights. You’ll work weekends. Not all the time, but sometimes...and you won’t get paid extra. In theory, this balances out the times that you won’t have much going on, but that doesn’t really happen much at a good agency.

Being full-time definitely has more upsides than downsides, but it’s not for everyone.

Fully Free

After my first internship, I had a couple job offers: a freelance position at a well-known agency out of town and a full-time job at a smaller agency near me. In the end, I chose the local full-time position, because it was right for what I wanted from my career and my life at the time.

There are lots of ways to go about it, but as a junior, your first step is to get the experience you need to get to the point where you can pick where you want to work, not just settle for anyone that will hire you.

The decision to go freelance or full-time is not as easy one. But there’s no right or wrong answer. It all comes down to what your expectations are, and what you’re looking for right now.

Just remember, no matter which you choose, you’re fully free to change your mind.

Thanks for reading!

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