As a freelancer you’re in the trenches. You’re often left in the dark about where your next job is going to come from or who it’s going to be with. You’re a bit like a flag blowing in the wind, helpless to predict which direction you’ll sway next. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a bigger game being played above you, if only you could see the industry from a god’s eye perspective. While you’re used to seeing the industry as the means of the production, the production managers can see the whole chess board. If you too knew the position of these chess pieces, you would know when work will be scarce and when it will be plentiful. You would know who needs work and when they need it. You could be proactive and approach companies when they need your help instead of throwing your line in the water after all the fish have already been fed.
With this post I wanted to demystify much of the frustration that permeates life as a freelancer. Not finding work, not getting hired, not hearing back from applications; when we run into these problems its easy to look inward and say we’re just not good enough. But to see the whole truth, we need to see the industry from a different vantage point. There’s a litany of forces at work that we’re unaware of until we feel their effects. So what exactly is going on behind the scenes that makes our lives a pain in the ass, and once we know what’s causing them what can we do to take action? Let’s dive in.
FRUSTRATING MYSTERY #1
IT SEEMS LIKE THERE’S BEEN NO JOB OPPORTUNITIES OUT THERE FOR THE LAST MONTH OR SO
WHATS GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES
“I just work off what I know: the busy season and the slow season. [When you know this] as a freelancer at least you don’t lose your mind because you just know this is when companies aren’t typically hiring.”Rob Hoffman, Atrium Staffing
SLOW MONTHS: WORD ON THE STREET
“People typically say there are slow summer months. At least the advertising world is slow then.”
Will Arnold, Imaginary Forces
“The industry can be a fickle beast. My clients typically are slow in the summer.”
Rob Hoffman, Atrium Staffing
“For freelance: I guess there’s really not a cut and dry time. When people ask, it’s just generally August and December.”
Theresa Reilly, Vitamin T
WHAT FACTORS CAUSE THINGS TO BE BUSY OR SLOW?
FISCAL YEARS AND BUDGETS
At the top level, a company’s budget determines how much work they have an appetite for and therefore how much opportunity they can create for you, the freelancer. This budget is regulated by many factors, but the one we’re going to talk about is the fiscal calendar. Aislinn Haggherty from Creative Circle, did a good job explaining the cause and effect of this to me during our interview:
“You can look at seasonal schedules of the agencies and have sort of an idea of when things will come through. A lot of it is tied into budget and whenever their year starts. For example, if I’m Pepsi and my fiscal year starts in July, I might start to reevaluate my agencies in July and put my business up to the pitch. While all the businesses scramble, I’ll award in August and get the campaign out in December.”
Aislinn Haggerty, Creative Circle
COMPANIES SPEND MORE TOWARDS THE END OF THEIR FISCAL YEAR
- THEY NEED TO USE UP THE REST OF THE YEAR’S BUDGET: If the end of the fiscal year is approaching and companies have any extra money in their budget they will want to spend it to ensure they don’t get their budget reduced the following year. “Sometimes you’ll find that clients haven’t spent all of their marketing budget by the end of their fiscal year so they really need to spend it ASAP to ensure that their marketing budget doesn’t go down next year. A lot of time in Q4, agencies have extra money to use and are more open to going over budget and bringing in freelancers because they’re never going to give a client money back that they’ve already been given.”
- FULL-TIME VERSUS FREELANCE: These same budgets also effects a company’s ability to hire full-time employees. And that effects us because when companies are hiring more full-time people they are hiring less freelancers. “By the time January rolls around, more companies get their headcount so they’re more focused on bringing in full-time instead of freelancers.“
EMPLOYEES LIKE TO VACATION THE SAME TIMES YOU LIKE TO VACATION
“Summer is maybe slowest because people take vacation.” People don’t want to be at work when the weather is nice, including executives, so work slows down as there’s less appetite to get things done. BUT “On the flip side, for freelancers this creates an opportunity: During vacation periods for full-time employees, things pick up on the freelance side to fill in for the employees who are out. This is usually for short periods of time like a week or two.”
TELEVISION AND MOVIES OPERATE ON A CYCLE
“The lead up to holiday advertising or big sporting events is maybe the busiest.” When do all your favorite TV shows come back on air? For the most part, in the fall and spring. (Unless you watched GLOW which was kinda awesome for a summer show….) In the post production industry people work around the release schedules for TV and movies. As simple as it is, for this reason, work is abundant during those times.
HOW TO TAKE CONTROL
The most logical way to circumvent the industry slump is to find out which studios are getting work and target them. “If you can get the facts on who’s winning what business, and therefore if you like the work that brand does or love the brand itself, you can apply to the companies that are making that happen.” (Lauren Scottow, Creative Circle) So if we could just know which projects are coming up on the calendar at any given studio, we could just target the ones that are busiest. Right? Well… these production calendars aren’t publicly available information it turns out. And believe me I asked.
- “A lot of that is really inside”
- “Companies aren’t going to tell you. There’s too many intangibles there.”
- “They typically don’t tell you for various reasons. Everyone usually keeps that information hush-hush. The client doesn’t want you to know who your competition is when you’re pitching“
Getting the information required to make predictions about fiscal calendars out to be difficult for 2 reasons:
- SECRECY: As discussed further below, private companies just don’t give out budgetary/ scheduling information to everyone, you need to work inside that company.
- FISCAL YEARS VARY: Also Will Arnold elaborated that a company can choose whenever they want their fiscal year to end “…companies’ fiscal year calendars vary so it’s hard to pinpoint months for that.” For this reason, it’s hard to generalize our predictions when dealing with private companies. 65% of companies do just use the regular calendar year as their fiscal calendar but companies have the freedom to align it with whatever end dates they want. For example, broadcast and media companies often use the broadcast calendar instead, which aligns to the purchasing of radio/ television ad spaces.
So unless you’re working for that company you aren’t SUPPOSED to know these things but that doesn’t mean you can’t. Here are some ways you CAN learn what a company is working on at any given time.
HOW TO LEARN WHICH STUDIOS ARE WORKING ON WHICH ACCOUNTS
When asked, many producers emphasized that the best (and only) way to get information on what a studio’s calendar looks like is to ask someone who works there. It just turns out there’s no database of this information online, you need to network a bit to find out. If you reach out to someone who has access to that information, then it’s not crazy to assume they’ll talk to you about it.
- “If you have a really great relationship with a creative director they’ll probably let you know what’s coming down the pipe or what the schedule is.”
- “If you have friends who are producers they can tell you if they’re not super top-secret.”
- “If you have friends that work at another company then you can find out through your freelance network, it’s not uncommon.”
- “Keeping an eye on simple things like people moving in LinkedIn, if someone is moving up to a big company you can use them to get a relationship with the company.“
TRADE PUBLICATIONS (ADVERTISING INDUSTRY)
The advertising industry is a bit more transparent about movements of their clients and what agencies they belong to. It becomes obvious then if you’re having trouble finding work, then reach out to the studios that are being awarded work, and you’re odds will be better of being needed. That information is actually published and easily available in resources such as:
The motion graphics industry is a little more secretive about what clients are working with who. The easiest way to find out who’s working with who is to just check out work produced by that studio/ company and see who did it/ who it was for. If you look at people’s reels you can see what companies have done multiple years of work for the same company. It’s pretty simple but here’s how:
*The only caveat is that sometimes studios can have clients that you won’t find on their sites because some companies don’t allow their vendors to promote the work they do for them.
1. Hit up studio’s website, LOGAN:
2. Looking through their content I see several repeats:
- Nike, Reebok
3. And several trends:
- CARS: Cadillac, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Volkswagon, Lincoln, Lexus, Kia, Toyota, Audi, Chevy, Citroen, Mitsubishi, Goodyear
- MOVIES: Marvel: X-men, The avengers, Spiderman 2, Spiderman, Iron Man 3
- VIDEO-GAMES: Skyrim, Borderlands 2, The Order, Resistance 2, Call of Duty, Skylanders, Xbox One, Nintendo, Metal Gear Solid 4
4. You can reasonably assume the repeats are clients you might expect to work on if you apply there and the other trends give you in insight into where else your talents will be spread.
FRUSTRATING MYSTERY #2
I HAVE HOLDS BUT THEY KEEP FALLING THROUGH
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES
ONLY ABOUT 10-30% OF HOLDS TURN INTO BOOKINGS!
“For every 10 people I have on hold, we’ll book 1-3 of them… BUT this probably doesn’t make sense for you or actually matter to you. As a producer, constantly planning on projects that may not even award or run the production schedule we’re told during the pitch, it’s just a part of the job to try to always have as much talent lined up as possible for the longest hold length in case something comes in or production gets delayed.”
Pitches. Pitches are the bane of the motion graphics industry because they require studios to do work for free. They are also probably the reason why a lot of your holds fall through. This all makes sense once you learn that companies line up their holds before they actually win a pitch. If they don’t win the pitch, you are released and probably at least a little bit pissed. Here’s why it happens over and over again.
PITCH JOB PROCESS
Even before any producers get involved there’s a whole bunch of work to create the pitch itself. The agency that is coordinating the pitch creates a strategic brief for their clients before they even send the bid out. The strategic brief goes something like:
“In 2018, our company plans to do ______, so we’re going to go out and try to create a brief that tells the studios what______ is so they can create work that will help us accomplish______ goal.”
After the bid is created, there’s a period of time where the agency decides with the brand what studios/ companies they want to work with. If it’s a pitch and its for a large project, agencies will typically require a triple bid. (which means there’s 3 people competing for the work) Sometimes they reach out directly, but sometimes there’s a middleman involved called a rep. A rep helps pair studio talent with the needs of these companies creating the bid. They’re more intimately familiar with the capabilities and strengths of different studios so they are an informed opinion. These companies can rely on them to make sure they are reaching out to the places best suited to the type of project they want to create. Once they’ve decided on who is the best fit for the job, the reps or the agencies will then reach out to those studios. They will be like “we have this job, this budget and this amount of time, are you willing to pitch on it?” The studio then has to agree to pitch on the project, usually knowing that pitches are unpaid work.
The pitch process can be as long as a week or a couple of months, and if they’re long, it’s not out of the question to get a development fee of some sort for this. If they are interested, the companies hire who they need to hire to do the pitch and give it their all. This process has earned a reputation in the industry as being one of the more intense periods of work as since companies aren’t paid well or at all, they’re really taking a gamble by hiring people to do it. They play to win, so late nights and all hands on deck are usually par the course.
Once the work is done and the pitch date has arrived, the companies do their presentation and usually wait at least a week, though up to 4 weeks to see if they are awarded the job. Once the job awards, then the producers get their ducks in a row and actually pull the trigger on booking the people they lined up for the real production work. The confusion with the hold system usually stems from this crucial fact: In order to plan the job, you try and have your team set up and everyone on hold before they know if they won the pitch. They’re waiting for the award to pull the trigger on hiring people.
“I’ve personally been hired before a project awarded and then they lost and they had to cancel my booking,” said Will Arnold. Needless to say this sucks for everyone. “It puts producers in a weird position because there’s a good chance this thing is coming in and we might want you in. So we’ll line up our entire team and their schedules before it awards so i can just hit go once it’s officially a thing.” If a job has a live action component, the nightmare is even larger. You have holds for cameramen, stages and entire crew of people. “You need to plan out and book everything because you need to shoot as soon as it’s a go.”
The alternative to pitch work is definitely more likely to guarantee a successful booking from a hold, and that’s direct award work. These jobs come from a pre-existing relationship a company has with a client, so they’ve already proven that they deserve the work. (Ex: When I met Will at Imaginary Forces, Reeses was a staple client who has produced over 100 different spots together with them) “I think it’s probably about a 50-50% direct award/ pitch work.” These studios want to get away from pitching, no one wants to do work for free. They pay tons of people and pay lots of overhead. In IF’s case, they are a 20-year-old company with a great resume, so hopefully they don’t have to pitch for free. It makes sense for unknown companies and individuals to pitch for work to prove themselves and their creative prowess, but large companies with a track record shouldn’t have to, the work should come to them.
HOW TO TAKE CONTROL:
CHEAT THE HOLD SYSTEM
A common tactic for avoiding getting caught up in the hold system is to place a permanent first hold on yourself. NEVER tell the client that you are the one with a first hold because they won’t appreciate it. But if you want the right to turn down any opportunity guilt free, this is an easy solution. I first learned about this in the excellent book The Freelancer’s Manifesto by Joey Korenman. The only caveat I’ve run into with this is that studios are less likely to hire someone who they have a second hold with than they are someone who gave them a first hold. Especially if you’re dying to work at a studio, you don’t want to take away a reason they might have to book you. But for studios that you don’t want to commit to whole heartedly you can give yourself an out by utilizing this strategy.
If you’re constantly being let down by the holds you’ve agreed to, then the only strategic choice you can make as a freelancer is to try to target companies with more direct award work than pitch work. If you’re trying to target these companies, I recommend the REEL RESEARCH strategy outlined above, to find companies with a history of steady repeat clients (direct award work) whose love they don’t need to earn with precarious unpaid pitches.
FRUSTRATING MYSTERY #3
NO ONE’S EVEN GETTING BACK TO ME WHERE I’M APPLYING
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES
The hiring process can be a bit mysterious. You shoot out your work and it’s not as if they send you a graded portfolio back with how you did. You have no idea if you’re in the ballpark of being used or if you had no shot in hell. I found this very frustrating so I reached out to someone who knows what’s going on behind the curtain and he filled in the blanks for us.
DESIGN STUDIO HIRING PROCEDURES:
IT’S ALL YOUR REEL
“It’s 100% based on reel and site. We work in a visual world, so it’s a subjective appreciation for the visuals of a portfolio (unless they’re a writer or production person). I’d never consider someone who just sent me a resume without visuals of their work even if it listed that they’d worked at good studios.”
THEN IT GOES TO THE FLOOR
HIRING AGENCY HIRING PROCEDURES:
“So let’s say I post a job, I’m going to try to call out as much as of the aesthetic as possible that the client was looking for. If a client is bringing in a freelancer, they want someone who can pick up the job right away, so they don’t want to do a bunch of training/ software etc. I’m really looking for something that very much looks like what the client wants it to look like.”
“We look at the portfolio first before the resume. (it’s super aggravating when people don’t put links to their portfolios) People might miss out on opportunities where they don’t attach their portfolios. And when we look, we’re looking for recent work, ideally work that’s been done in the past 3-5 years. I don’t want to open a portfolio and see work from 10 years ago. Once I look at the portfolio, and I see the aesthetic that the client has described to me they wanted to see, I look at the resume. Does the resume look professional, are there spelling errors? Obviously the resume carries less weight than the portfolio. Hiring managers often don’t have much time, because companies want people to start yesterday. Clients are too busy to interview their clients but they need work immediately. Clients will just reach out and it turns out we don’t that person anymore. On the talent side it can get really frustrating.”
HOW TO TAKE CONTROL:
LOWER YOUR STANDARDS:
“Would you rather be an artist or eat? “ If you’re really that passionate about only doing great work then you’re an artist. If you want to do work in the advertising industry than you’re selling a product. My end goal was to strive for 50/50 pay the bills and things I care about. If you’re doing this you’re winning. 60/40 is still pretty good.”
This sentiment was echoed by many of the people I talked to when it comes to getting work. I know I just wrote a post about being picky but that’s your action plan for the feasts not the famines. It should be needless to say, when you need work you can’t be too picky, and if you are being picky never do so publicly to the people asking you to work the job. Always let them know that you’re unavailable rather than showing any sort of fickle attitude about being too good to work on their projects. Doing so may cost you the relationship for the next time when they do have something you want to work on. Be a good team player. Here’s some more quotes on what it takes to get hired over and over again as a freelancer:
When you’re talking bout a portfolio, it’s not going to be everything you’ve ever done, usually it should be the things that are moving you towards the type of work you want to be doing consistently. BUT you should have a backup portfolio of stuff that’s maybe not so sexy but shows you can do the job that this client needs you to do. Maybe pharma/ financial isn’t the sexiest thing but you can feel good about it because its helping people get the treatment they need or it opens door in some way. People get really caught up on doing the amazing great work. As you move up it becomes more and more about being well rounded than anything. The amazing, sexy work doesn’t come around that often. There’s something to be said for a really strong worker.
Aislinn Haggerty, Lauren Scottow
“First and foremost you prove yourself to be a stellar artist, reliable, hard-working and that does all the groundwork. When i’m hiring people, unless its a very specific art style, a lot of it is just personality and assembling a team that will get along well and work hard. As young freelancers it just makes sense to hone your craft, be easy to communicate with, work hard and do a good job. As you do more and more work, you’ll be offered work and more work and it just snowballs. An easy way to hurt your chances is to turn down specific projects because you want to be picky, especially if you’re new to the freelance community. No one dreams of working on a mouthwash commercial or a sock commercial when getting into the industry, but despite that you do your job and you do it well without whining. When that type of negative attitude is exhibited by a member of a team, it can become project poison and bring others’ morale down and affect the production. The best way to get rehired by me is to prove you can maintain professionalism and work hard without complaining even when you’re not into the project.“
“Your own network is the #1 way people find jobs. You should have a really strong social media presence, including LinkedIn and an easy to find portfolio.”
LOOK IN THE MIRROR
- Make sure you’re being honest about whether you’re applying to the right roles. Are you a designer or an animator first and foremost?
- An art school background typically helps a lot. There is a certain polish that people’s reels have, when I see it and I speak to them.
- What clients you’ve worked with also matters and whether you worked with a team or completely by yourself.
- Sometimes being a one man show is great. Sometimes a team situation is great. There’s definitely jobs for both, but if your history leans one way or the other, applying to those types of jobs will be easier for you.
- Broadcast, digital media, etc. there’s a bunch of subcategories about what’s going to be a good fit. Again, focus on what you’ve done already if you’re having trouble convincing clients that you can do the job.
- Speed matters, in the end this is a business.
- When I’m working with anyone junior, my advice is “don’t try and be a Picasso on this one.” Have a clock inside your head and do the best job you can with the time allotted.
- If I’m allotted 15 hours for this job and you did it in 20 then you’re 15% over budget. If you get that slow reputation that’s it they’ll never hire you again. They have to work within the confines of their budget.
- Personality matters. It always matters. It matters with the client. There are a few prima donnas who can be a-holes but they will typically blow up jobs and relationships way more than they need to.
My hope is that this article helped you understand some of the factors that affect whether you’re employed or unemployed. It isn’t possible to control everything but there’s always an action you can take to improve your odds of success despite a job climate that may or may not be in your favor. At the very least I hope you find some comfort in shining a light on what’s going on behind the scenes, as it’s effecting your bottom line every single day.