Editor’s Introduction: This is our first piece from Joel Wayne, a writer and director in Boise. He’s chosen to explore a topic that is near and dear to us. The great majority of creative people in advertising have worked freelance at one time or another, and have suffered the indignities common to the position. It’s time we eradicate the bad practices listed by Joel below.
“Don’t be evil.” Google’s motto is equal parts simple and spiritual (and a curious proverb for a company flirting with world domination). Still, even the most progressive companies make the occasional “you have the right to let us read your email” flap. And thanks to a perpetual news machine, we hear about it every twelve hours or so. What doesn’t trend, doesn’t get the bad press, or the clicks, are the day-to-day offenses perpetrated on a company’s creative freelancers — those lonely writers, designers, and programmers, workers without benefits, contractors sans contract.
Unless the current trend reverses overnight, be prepared to see more of those unfamiliar faces in the break room. And in the spirit of being less evil in business — something the youngsters seem to respond to — it may be time to rethink your temporary-workspace-side manner. From the first handshake to the day you type “we’re going in a different direction,” here are a few guidelines for clients who want to stay on the right side of Johnny Freelance.
Don’t lie on your first date.
Everybody wants to make a good first impression, even with a lowly freelancer. Whether you run a startup, a local ad agency, or you trade on the NYSE, it’s requisite to put on some makeup and decent shoes when you have coffee with a fresh face. But don’t lie in the name of politeness. If you’re halfway through your first cup of joe and your Spidey-sense is already tingling, write off their sticky bun and call it a day. Don’t tell the freelancer you’ve got an upcoming project they’d be perfect for, don’t go into detail about your expansion plans, don’t pore over Twitpics of their cat. If you’re thinking it may not be the right fit, tell them it may not be the right fit. When you expect professionalism from your contractors, have the civility (and the moxie) to offer it in return.
Don’t ask for a reduced rate, or free work.
Some companies feel a little prudish about hopping into the conference room with a new contractor. They’ve been burned in the past over rates, quality, or a freelancer’s total failure to deliver. It happens and it totally sucks. But asking a potential contractor to cut their teeth on a gratis “test” project, or to work for a reduced rate on your “exciting new opportunity” are not real-world solutions. When you hire someone to do a job – from replacing a muffler to penning a few AdWords – you will always risk unmet expectations. That’s life. If you’re obsessed with mitigating that risk, you can quit working with freelancers, hire someone full-time, or do the job yourself. Whatever you choose, promises don’t pay the mortgage and pros have already been tested.
Don’t be an S.O.B. about E.O.D.
One of the many benefits you get in exchange for hiring an employee full-time is a shorter turnaround time on projects. You can stomp into their office any day of the week, kick them off Longform, and throw a file in their lap that needs to be finished E.O.D. (Particularly if you don’t care what they say behind your back). But a freelance contractor doesn’t work for you full-time. They’re not beholden to your 8pm phone calls, your emails marked URGENT, your precarious tendency to procrastinate. So when you need something “yesterday” and you’re hounding a freelancer who’s just heard about the project for the first time, prepare to be flexible about A) the deadline and/or B) the cost.
Don’t forget the feedback.
Even the best actors need direction. Feedback is engagement, and for someone who doesn’t have the benefit of daily working alongside your team, engagement is essential. Don’t go on sabbatical when you hand a freelancer the keys to a new project. Stay in the loop, give praise when it’s earned, and some constructive feedback when it’s needed. There’s obviously a fine line between standing over a freelancer’s shoulder and disappearing entirely, but that balancing act should be part of your job. If you shirk it, don’t be surprised when a project rolls back in with tailfins and bubble domes.
Don’t dishonor your contracts.
That bold “Payment due within ___ days of delivery” on contractor invoices isn’t just a stray, Word-template leftover. Talk to any freelance contractor and you’ll find it’s not uncommon for a client to double or even triple that time frame before finally dropping the check in the mail. Twain once wrote: “Honor knows no statute of limitations.” Wise words, but honoring your freelance contracts may be the exception. A good (and slightly-updated) rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t get away with paying your employees 30 days late, or not paying them at all, don’t try it with your freelancers.
Don’t be incommunicado.
At the end of the workday, the freelance-client dynamic is a human relationship. It’s sometimes harmonious, sometimes frustrating, and it always requires some effort. Maybe you’ve been slammed at work, maybe you’ve left a lot of your emails unanswered lately. Here’s the thing: the specifics don’t really matter when you’re leaving someone high and dry. To put it another way: you either make time for people or you admit people don’t really matter to you. Be decent. Be an adult. Be a human being. Respond. (It’s the non-evil thing to do).