In February I published a guide on How to Freelance in Advertising.

It’s been downloaded 5,000 times from 65 countries. And I’ve had some really lovely feedback. Just last week I was sent this bloody nice message:

“I’ve just gone freelance and it’s been my bible. I’ve now got a financial framework (I wouldn’t have had the foggiest) and have even upped my rate thanks to you. I just wanted to say a big thanks! Keep doing stuff!”

But something interesting happened as I was writing the conclusion. Getting a little self reflective, it triggered a long term need for something more fulfilling. Clients and projects I could sink my teeth into and do some proper damage with. (Maybe not the best analogy.)

And the stars aligned. After freelancing with Ogilvy Melbourne for a few months, they asked me to come on board. Today I start with them permanently. Still only four days a week, of course.

Time for the next chapter. 👊🏻

Two clichĂ©s I hear often from agencies are “Good ideas can come from anywhere” and “Every brief is an opportunity”.

The former is true, although ideas are almost always better when they come from the people who are briefed, accountable and experienced.

The latter is false. Not all client problems are equal. Many are not opportunities, for the client or the agency. The smart ones treat these efficiently, pushing simple ads out fast.

Strategy is the same. There’s three ways a planner can write a creative brief.

#1 Write A Decent Brief

We unnecessarily fetishise insights. Sometimes you don’t need a deep cultural truth or an undiscovered human insight. For some problems, you just need a simple articulation of the challenge.

Distill what the client has given the agency, and give the creatives a roadmap so they don’t get lost.

I recently worked on an FMCG brand who were introducing a new flavour. They had a small budget, and pre-booked six second Facebook ads. The problem only needed a decent, clean brief. Some direction on what the answer could look like. In this case a challenge to make it visually compelling, giving the “new” announcement some impact.

The concept the client bought was lovely, and everyone was happy. (It actually allow us additional time to craft the art direction, rare these days.)

Sometimes the best thing a planner can do is very quickly get out of the way.

#2 Write A Good Brief

Better creative briefs bring something new to the table. Something that makes you think “Oh fuck, that’s true and I haven’t thought about it that way.”

They inject something interesting. Setting a richer playground for the creatives by telling them (and the client) something they don’t know.

Then, they sacrifice the alternatives. If strategy is just a fancy word for “focus”, good briefs draw a line in the ground and declare this is the insight to build on, and shape the messaging around.

#3 Write A Killer Brief

This is where the brilliance happens. Where you solve the problem.

It’s a misconception that it’s creative’s job to do the heavy lifting. Because it’s the planner who answers the brief. If you’re just providing the direction, that’s a decent brief. If you’re scarifying with inspiration, that’s a good brief. But when you find the opportunity and make the problem go away, you’re really doing killer work.

These are the kinds of briefs when you observe a behaviour that leads to new product development. Or uncover a new segment which grows the category. Or find a new benefit that’s never been communicated before. Or a way to reposition which kills a competitor.

Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy at R/GA, disagrees. He says “If you solve the problem for Creatives, you’re a dictator.” But sometimes the job of creative is to make the solution more compelling.

If you write two of these in 12 months you’re having a blinder of a year.

– – –

I had an old boss who said “simple or wonderful, but nothing in between”.

You can’t spend your whole career writing wonderful briefs. Sometimes the best strategy is getting out the way, especially when it allows you to focus on the opportunities instead.

When you decide to freelance, the most common advice you’re given is to expect quiet Januarys.

Well, I had a quiet January. So I wrote How to Freelance in Advertising – a practical guide to getting started and not being homeless, by someone who’s been doing it a while. It’s real long tail stuff.

A blog post accidentally became 12,000 words. Turns out I have a lot of advice and a few battle stories. These are my tools and truths for taking the leap.

Revised August 2019.

If y’all read it, let me know.

There’s a famous joke called The Aristocrats:

A family walk into a talent agent’s office. The agent asks what their act is. The family get on stage, and do the most vile things to each other. Eventually, the agent asks what the act is called. “The Aristocrats.”

It’s a favourite among comedians, a rite of passage. The setup and the punchline always remain the same, but each person can make it their own, riffing on the middle. Usually it’s an excuse to be as filthy and offensive as possible. This is South Park’s version.

Good advertising works the same way.

Effective brands find new ways to say the same thing again and again. Gareth Price says “Advertising must find new ways of repeating itself.”

This is the power of a brand platform, like Specsavers’ Should’ve Gone To Specsavers and Snickers’ You’re Not You When You’re Hungry. Consistent messaging for decades, not weeks. Sadly it’s often the first thing a new agency or client kills.

I love what UberEats are doing, in the early stages of building their Aristocrats:

 

 

This is good advertising. It’s product heavy, uses celebrities to grab attention, and is establishing a clever brand mnemonic in the doorbell.

And it has longevity. As sponsors of the Australian Open, the template was adapted with some very cute executions like this:

 

 

The effectiveness in these is not a big idea. They aren’t creatively sexy. But they are good advertising. It’s far from boring and fits their brand platform template. Mark Ritson would call it “disruptively consistent”.

Not all ads need a big idea.

This camping store won’t be winning any creative awards, but the campaign will work its guts off. This car ad doesn’t have a human insight or big idea, and yet is distinctive and positions them as the fun SUV. Especially if they run quirky ads like this for the next decade.

The Nordics have been doing it forever.

As I write this we’re hours away from Superbowl. There will be plenty of big swings, and many of them will hit. But if you’re ever worked in an agency, you know getting to a big idea is hard, and making one is even harder.

Occasionally I read something which completely challenges a long held belief.

Most recently it was BBH planner Mel Arrow’s piece Forget Human Truth, Brands Should Be Talking Human Fiction. She suggests we spend too long obsessing over insights, when humans are just as attracted to fiction and narrative. It’s a good argument – Homo sapiens lasted by sharing stories.

There is no insight in Justice4Grenfell’s 3 Billboard campaign. It’s simply a cracking media idea.

As a subscriber to “strong opinions, lightly held”, I’m suddenly questioning my philosophy on how advertising works.

I’ve long been fascinated by how agencies treat insights. (I’m partial to Mark Pollard’s definition: “an unspoken truth that sheds new light on the problem”.) One of the great things about freelancing is being exposed to a variety of strategic frameworks. When you flirt with eight agencies in a year, you see their differences in how each uncovers, uses, respects and encourages insightful thinking. (Or rather, how similar everyone is!)

Almost always, at the foundation of every brief template is the coveted ‘human truth’. Surprisingly no one seems to agree exactly what this is:

  • An evolutionary truth – human behaviour that has always been true and will always be true
  • A pop-cultural truth – a long or short trend to exploit which may only be true right now
  • A target market truth – a unique behaviour true only to our audience and no one else
    1.  

Arrow asks a bigger question – do we need a truth at all? (And no, it’s a cop out to say “the human truth is humans like fiction” – I’m talking about writing a useful creative brief).

Walmart’s Famous Cars campaign is a glorified product demonstration. There’s no insight in this work, but it is fame-building excellence.

Agencies worship their human insights like deities. Yet there are a number of schools of thought suggesting they may not be as critical as we once believed:

  1. Low Involvement Processing theory suggests most comms are processed relatively passively. Simply by being exposed to an ad builds preference through familiarity, irrespective of message (see mere exposure effect).
  2. The value of advertising is in its signal as much as its message. Ads create (a self fulfilling) faith in the future popularity of something.
  3. Byron Sharp’s research on distinctiveness, where being famous for something, even when it’s not technically different from competitors, creates memory structures which influence you at purchase.


Ads do not need a human truth to be effective. Which is a compelling notion having worked on two automative clients last year, where uncovering an insight on yet another retail brief isn’t easy (or necessarily helpful).

Instead, perhaps the role of the planner remains simplifying the problem (not to be underestimated), ensuring the approach to advertising is theoretically effective, and then getting out of the way. 

In many cases the brilliance in an ad comes from a well told story. This is what makes the product or brand famous for something. Like the greatest product demonstration ever made, for Volvo Trucks, which is entirely devoid of truth:

John Hegarty said “Advertising is 80% idea and 80% execution.” That doesn’t leave much room for a human insight.

So when do you need one, and when do you not? I don’t know. If you’re a strategist who’s stretched (lol, joking, that’s everyone) ditching them on retail campaigns might be somewhere to start. Campaigns that focus on specific product attributes might be another. If you have a thought, let me know in the comments below.

Purpose is just one way to do brand positioning.

Marketers are embarrassed. It’s an industry which has become ashamed to admit we influence behaviour and make businesses profit.

It’s why we call it “content” instead of “ads”. Or worse, “films”. It’s why we set objectives for engagement, despite little evidence it does anything meaningful. Likewise building experiences, brand love and ‘having a conversation’ all fall under the same banner.

On the other side, it’s one of the endearing things about Russel Howcroft (Gruen panelist and my first boss). He bloody loves ads. He likes big ideas and big agencies. He gets off on advertising – from Cottee’s-jingle-old-school to Koala-mattress-modern. He understands successful businesses grow the economy, keep people employed and fund the nation’s retirement. Nothing embarrassing about that.

Yet selling is dirty.

The lack of feel-goods in the industry has led to 2018’s most dangerous word: purpose.

(Here I use “purpose” in the context of brands aligning with and promoting social causes. Almost always seemingly out of nowhere.)

We’re offsetting this embarrassment by steering brands to fight for the greater good. We’re putting our personal fulfilment ahead of sound marketing strategy.

This may be controversial, but when Corona raise awareness for plastic in the ocean, it’s off-brand. Likewise when Airbnb fight marriage inequality, it’s a distraction. I am, of course, on board with the causes and don’t mind either concept. But they do not deliver brand growth.

The fad seems to driven by the likes of Simon Sinek, who notoriously said: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why do you it.” But Simon is wrong. It’s a claim made without substantiation. And with repeated reference to Apple, who he arbitrarily claims have the attribute of ‘purpose’ (rather than the more realistic ‘good at brand building and product development’.)

The often-quoted seminal research that goes hand-in-hand with the above suggests brands with purpose outperform those without. But this research is flawed, and Richard Shotton writes a good take down of it.

Despite a few millennials claiming purpose is the biggest influence on their decisions (which is stated behaviour only), there are other ways to do brand positioning.

Take Koala mattresses. They do not have a noble mission. They simply position themselves as challengers in a category run by old-school conventions. Which is why their ads take the piss.

Koala's category challenging advertising.

Yes, they donate money to wildlife charities. But this isn’t their “why”. They spend most of their marketing effort building the brand (reinforcing their positioning), or selling through product demonstrations and five star reviews.

If you’re doing brand communications, your job to create and refresh memory cues, then reinforce a long term positioning strategy. Anything else is brand noise.

There’s also the problem with conservative customers, who, while a minority, are finding their voice online which is echoed by the media. Byron Sharp says never give someone a reason not to buy your brand.

But none of this offensive marketing – only potentially ineffective. Unlike what must be 2018’s worst idea – Ikea’s Say No To Bullying.

This is more than brand noise. This is desperation to be on trend. And in doing so fabricating an experiment, presenting pseudo science disguised as research. This kind of irresponsibleness is why we have anti-vaxxers. I’m not a fan of the word “authenticity” but this lacks it, and is purpose at its worst.

At the same time, don’t confuse last week’s killer work from Nike as purpose driven. (From the worst ad of 2018 to the best.)

Nike's Colin Kaepernick Ad

It might be progressive, but as seen in the follow up Dream Crazy ad, this is a campaign about self-belief, perseverance and sacrifice. Brought to you by the world’s greatest athletes. This is not purpose, this is thirty years of brand positioning reinforcement.

The best rebuttal for purpose is its ability to attract talent. When used internally, doing good in the world helps people not hate their job. But that doesn’t mean it needs to drive your consumer-facing activity.

Not every brand needs a social cause to fight for. In fact, when everyone zigs maybe it’s a good time to zag. Andy Whitlock has good advice to keep your positioning grounded, which right now might just be the most effective way to be distinctive.

A mate and I were working on a killer product idea. We’d come up with the concept, done renders, built prototypes and spoken to factories in China about manufacturing. We even had a killer logo and visual identity done. But all that took us two years – the way side projects tend to inevitably be side tracked.

In the end, I killed it. We’d spent time and money getting to a place where we still didn’t know if people wanted it.

So for my next project, I’m trying something different.

Feel Good Socks is an idea I’ve had for a while. Trendy AF socks, where every pair sold raises money for charity. They feel good on your feet and good in your heart.

This time I’m following Justin Jackson‘s advice. He says before you do anything, prove (if only to yourself) market fit by getting 100 people to give your their email address. Even if it’s your Mum, it’s people taking action in favour of your idea. And when you launch it, you have an warm audience ready to go.

So here it is. If 100 people register their interest for Feel Good Socks, that’s enough demand for me to start design and production on the first pair. And if not, I’ve lost only an hour on the landing page and a few bucks for the temporary crappy logo.

It means I’m giving away the idea. And I haven’t even registered a domain yet. But at least it won’t hang around for two years only to collect dust.

12 months ago I took a leap and decided to freelance. One year later, these are some of the things I talk about when people ask me what it’s like.

#1 Managing your own hours is a superpower.

The ability to choose your hours, in terms of when and how many, does incredible things to your happiness. Early on I decided to work no more than four days a week in big agencies. This created time to work on other projects (paid and unpaid), chase new ones or just enjoy a sleep in on a Friday.

The changing cadence also keeps you interested and interesting. I did everything from a three month contract to one project which was literally half an hour. You can choose to focus on one big thing, or juggle ten smaller ones. The latter meant I could do a 15km run in March, which was only possible because I dropped everything at 11am and went for a jog when I wanted to.

You do need to be buttoned down on your calendar management. Even then sometimes things don’t always line up. I’ve accepted a few days of work, then 10 minutes later had to turn down a bigger gig because you’re already committed. Sometimes work just disappears too – I was three days into a month-long pitch which got pushed out by months. Annoying when you’ve already turned down two other jobs to be there.

But that’s freelancing life. The contracts always favour the employer (but you only get them from bigger agencies). It’s why they pay you more.

Despite being the master of my own calendar, my grand plans to work on side projects failed miserably. It’s rather easy to take on more paid work or spend time meeting people for coffee while passion projects collect dust.

#2 Choosing who you work with and what you work on, helps navigate your career.

Freelancing allows you to pick the types of brands, agencies and people you work with. And the projects you want to invest time in.

This year I worked with big agencies, small agencies, entrepreneurs, starts up and consulting my own clients. But you also have flexibility in the role you play in the work you say yes to.

You can reinvent your job title (and yourself) with every new project, pushing into uncomfortable spaces to play around with. One of my favourite adventures this year was developing the marketing strategy to launch a gluten-free brewery. Not quite my heartland of creative strategy, but a category close to my stomach, and a rewarding project which has become ongoing. Throughout the year I picked up everything from writing content strategies through to delivering full service campaigns white labelling freelance creatives under Pigs Don’t Fly.

You get to flirt around and try on different hats. One year later I have a much closer idea of where the intersection is between what I like doing, what I’m good at, and where the money is.

#3 The market for freelance strategists is good right now.

I am fortunate. I have a good-sized network built from nearly a decade in two large agencies. This created most of my opportunities.

I also have somewhat of an audience (you suckers) – writing here and on places like Mumbrella helps keep me top of mind as a potential resource. In two cases it also opened new doors which turned into work.

I also realise I fell into an attractive role. I’d suggest large parts of my success aren’t because of how good I am, but rather a lack of freelancer planners in Melbourne. If I was a designer, I’m not sure if I’d be writing such a romantic post.

I also managed the whole year without using a recruiter. They eat a decent piece of your day rate.

Without being arrogant, honestly my biggest challenge was learning to say no to work. Especially early when I wasn’t sure what my income would average out to. Even still it’s bloody challenging turning people down – knowing the opportunity cost and wondering if you can find time after hours to make it happen. Even to this day I wonder if I got lucky and am still in a honeymoon period, and should be making more hay while it shines.

With the ebbs and flows you do sometimes find everything crashes at once. I’m doing more weekend work now than in my permanent life (which my former colleagues will tell you wasn’t much). Other times it’s quieter than you want it to be. I got some advice to make the most of those days – get out of Melbourne and spend time at your beach house. If only I had a beach house.

#4 The money is great, but you have to learn how to earn it.

The money is really good. I finished the year 36% up on my old salary.

But it takes time to learn what you’re worth. And even longer to be confident enough to ask for it. I sold myself short for at least my first two gigs. To this day still need to stop negotiating myself down unnecessarily, often before the other person has even responded. Never has your imposter syndrome screamed louder than when someone looks you in the eye and asks your day rate. At least these conversations happen frequently, so you get good at it fast. You learn to throw your number out there and then stop talking.

Eventually I worked out to be stupid and arrogant enough to ask for what I thought was a stupidly high day rate. And they said yes. And keep saying yes. I do wonder how this dance impacts men versus women.

If you’re thinking of freelancing, my advice is to add at least 25% on top of what you think you can get. Push as far as you are comfortable and then a little more. Remember you are covering down time, your own expenses, equipment, annual leave, sick leave, training, work beers, etc.

I unsuccessfully gambled with remuneration. Twice on pitches I cut my rate in half, adding 50% on top if we won. Neither paid off (although I did help win other pitches!). I also did one job for cryptocurrency – right now it’s down 60%. This year I’ll stick to cash.

Along with good calendar skills, you also need to run a tight ship with your bookkeeping. I manage mine through an unnecessarily detailed Google Sheet, which works for me. I also manage my own quarterly tax statements (it’s easier than you think). Paying your own superannuation and tax annually does take discipline – eventually I created a separate account and moved the money out of sight.

The clichĂ© of chasing invoices actually wasn’t too bad. The big agencies sometimes drag their feet, but 90% of my invoices would have been paid within three weeks.

#5 All big agencies are the same, but some have better culture.

Most agencies look and smell the same. The people who work there are kinda the same too. They tend to dislike their clients, work longer-than-healthy hours and think the chaos is unique to their agency. But they are good people who come to work every day wanting to do good work.

Culture is distinctive though. You notice it particularly as a freelancer where you see lots of it fast. It’s most evident in how much an agency encourages you to get among it or put your head down and work. It’s a bit like gravity – you can feel it immediately but it’s harder to see the cause. Sometimes you can tell in the first ten minutes, particularly when someone in IT tells you they don’t allow freelancers on the WiFi.

I didn’t realise it until this year, but in my permanent life I was spoiled with access to coffee machines. Seriously agencies, sort this out!

#6 It’s not all fun and games.

Not having a work crew sucks. I miss the daily banter. Having worked in bigger planning teams in the past, it’s also tough not having another strategist to throw something around with.

Working from home for too many days in a row isn’t heathy either. Especially in winter. For my next stint at home I’m going to find a temporary coworking space.

Unfortunately you rarely get to see work through. You come in, do your piece, and you’re out. You don’t often get the opportunity to nurture and help ideas grow. Last week I saw an ad for a strategy I wrote six months ago which I thought got killed. It wasn’t a very good ad.

It’s also challenging not working toward something bigger. Freelancing is constantly short term. You need to be comfortable with not knowing what’s happening next week, and not relying on fulfilment from big career-defining moments which take time to build up to.

You’ll be tempted into permanent work. I had a few full time and part time offers, one including equity. But while it’s not all sunshine, there’s still plenty to love because…

#7 Freelancing is awesome.

You meet heaps of people. You learn a lot, fast. You rapidly get the opportunity to steal elements you like and learn to avoid those you don’t.

Critically, you get a license to be brutal with recommendations. There’s no client baggage or incentives to get involved in politics. It sounds counterintuitive for a strategist to say, but not being committed long term allows you to approach work with an attitude of “My contract finishes tomorrow, so I don’t care what you decide – but this is the right recommendation”.

My work this year has been better because I was more empowered to take a step back and challenge the client, rather than just answering them.

And finally, I worked out that agencies only bring in freelancers when they need help. So if you can be even a little bit helpful, everyone is bloody happy.

– – –

If you’re thinking about freelancing in advertising, shoot me your questions. I’d love to share my invoice templates, advice on day rates or tell you which agencies have craft beer in their fridges.

Last year I missed a connection at Heathrow Airport. I sourced the needed documentation, filled in the forms and submitted my $201 travel insurance claim. Four weeks later I got a cheque in the mail for $1. When I enquired why it was so little, they told me there was a $200 excess. I suggested some feedback:

Me: You should consider putting a reminder at the start of the process. It would have saved us both a bit of time.
Them: It’s in the fine print of the Product Discloser Statement.
Me: Yeah… I get it… but… never mind.

Good feedback ignored. Which has become the standard, particularly on social media where the general sentiment is “Thanks, we will totally pass that onto someone who matters and definitely not ignore it.”

Instead of stopping a moment to listen, businesses are too busy screaming for feedback. Last month Amex sent me three reminders to fill in a survey. Expedia asked for a review when I checked in, when I checked out and then a follow up.

You pretty much can’t interact with a business now without being prompted for a survey.

Marketers are too obsessed with their Net Promoter Score. They’re not seeking feedback for improvement, they’re trying to hit a KPI.

But unsolicited feedback is where the good stuff happens.

One of my most successful strategies used old Facebook comments from customers enquiring about a discontinued product. The client had previously dismissed them with a generic apology. Instead we used them to build a business case to bring the product back for a limited edition run. It was so successful it became a regular, and went on to do more than $4m in sales.

Too many business ignore genuine feedback because they’re soliciting feedback that’s shit. Imagine a business culture where the brand listened, recognised, implemented and then thanked. Even rewarded.

Instead, we just get fucking surveys. And useless chatbots.

Nearly 12 months ago I quit my job and started freelancing. With the opportunity for a fresh chapter, I stopped calling myself a Digital Strategist and updated LinkedIn to Creative Strategist. Here’s why.

1. Digital Strategy has changed.
When I started my career, “digital” was a blurry word. It was a grey area you could carve your own definition into. I’ve been lucky for most of my career, in agencies where I largely got to shape the kind of work I wanted to do – finding opportunities for ideas on digital channels. But increasingly, Digital Strategy has nothing to do with ideas. It’s more “transformation” and “enterprise solutions”.

These days the role requires a strong understanding of specific technology tools and data platforms. You have a seat at the table, but it’s not necessarily with marketers. The consultants would say that’s a good thing. And more profitable. But I like writing briefs and working with Creatives.

Unless you love CRM or DMPs, there’s no longer room in agencies for Digital Advertising-ish Strategists. (And rightly so, see below.)

2. Digital is just a tool.
Why do we have Digital departments in agencies? Or Digital Creative Directors? Digital Strategists belong on the same list of obsolesce.

Digital is just a channel. Usually for hosting an experience or distributing a message. But it’s not always the best place to host an experience or distribute a message. Yet if you have Digital in your title, you have a natural bias. Not making that recommendation makes you less relevant.

But Strategists are problem solvers, and they can’t have predispositions to certain tools. To a hammer, everything looks like a banner ad.

3. “Digital” makes me feel a bit sticky.
There’s too many snake oil salesmen out there. And yes they’re mostly men. With oil comes their greasiness. Too many entrepreneurs selling courses for Facebook ads. Too many videos of Gary Vaynerchuk telling you to hustle. Too many digital marketing influencers without any influence (or something to say).  Of course, I generalise. There’s plenty of legit digital thinking legends out there – it just feels like they’re getting harder to find.

4. You can charge more.
There’s more demand for Creative Strategists, and fewer in supply. A Planner who “gets” digital seems to be the sweet spot, more so than a Digital Planner who considers brand or a proposition. People don’t like talking about money, but from what I’ve gleamed, day rates are better for the agnostic problem solvers.

5. I’m finally starting to understand how advertising works.
I’ve worked in advertising for nearly decade, and am only now just starting to feel like I get how it works. And every time I read more, the way brands use digital pulls in the direction opposite of effectiveness. My (ever forming) philosophy is guided by the likes of Byron Sharp, whose work suggests brands grow through mass reach of potential buyers by building and reinforcing memory structures to increase mental availability. Even if there’s too many buzzwords in that sentence for my liking – that’s not  how most brands invest in digital.

Likewise I lean toward the notion advertising works because it is a signal. It’s an investment received socially. Traditional ads work because they are perceived to be expensive, collective and seen in unison. Digital is the opposite: cheap, individualised and sporadic. As Rory Sutherland says, “We make our wedding vows in front of a large number of people simultaneously.” Presumably at an expensive wedding.

Generalising again, but it would seem most of the people flogging digital thinking don’t have a philosophy on how advertising works, or even believes that it does.

I don’t think we can attribute this one to David, but Ogilvy sum it up best: Digital is dead. And so, I ditched the word from my title.

Although you’ll still find plenty of mentions in my bio for SEO. You can’t take digital out of the boy!