Playing the field

Self-employment might look like fun, but new clients can be tricky – making you appreciate those long-standing connections even more, says Jim Davies

Of course, working for yourself has its advantages: no kind of scratching is inappropriate; you can eat as much garlic as you want; you can make naked phone calls; you can take 40 winks after lunch; you can tell the boss he can shove it on a daily basis, with absolutely no risk to your livelihood.

But, if you really think you’re a free agent, you’re deluding yourself. OK, you may have your own cosy little nook where you can indulge your inner Homer Simpson, but, ultimately, you’re still part of a complex ecosystem, defined by hierarchies and interconnections, supply and demand.

As a commercial writer, sometimes it’s difficult to judge precisely where you sit in this arcane pecking order – I guess the same holds true for a photographer, illustrator or anyone else touting their specialist creative skills to design consultancies. You may call the shots in your own domain, but, when you’re subcontracted to contribute to a one-off project, the dynamics suddenly change.

Now you’re expected to doff your cap to senior figures who mean nothing to you, adopt the values and assumptions of the people you’re dealing with, and subsume your instincts and experience to theirs – simply because you’re being paid to do so. Where there’s a new client promising you oodles of work, you don’t want to appear prickly or know-it-all on day one, but, on the other hand, this critical early stage sets the tone.

But what if you’re asked to produce something that you feel is really naff, incoherent or simply substandard? Is it your place to swallow your pride, follow the brief you’ve been handed without question and resign yourself to the fact that this isn’t one for the portfolio?

I found myself in just such a quandary recently, when I was asked to take direction from a few lines of copy supplied by a creative director, whose response to my earlier fine efforts was on the lukewarm side. His, however, was full of typos, grammatical errors and contained a word that doesn’t exist – well, it does, but, in my dictionary, ‘aspiration’ means a deep exhalation of breath, and that’s certainly not what he meant. I tried calling him for a better steer, but he was either too busy, too important or too rude to get back to me – not my idea of positive collaboration.

Getting together with a new client for the first time is a bit like speed-dating – you quickly get a feel of whether you’re going to rub along fine or whether it would be better if you never clapped eyes on each other again. Inevitably, there are risks on both sides, but ultimately it’s the consultancy’s responsibility to make sure the contractor feels welcome, well briefed, well handled and really feels part of the team.

It’s easy for an outsider to feel left out on a limb – a disposable commodity, rather than a valued creative entity. Time may be precious, but, if you want to get the best from your specialists, you need to give them room and respect, and make sure they feel included, valued and comfortable about asking questions, no matter how obvious they appear at face value.

Playing the field also makes you realise just how lucky you are with your long-standing clients. Here, rapport and trust are part of the natural order. These are people who have become your friends, who know how to play to your strengths, who listen to you even if they disagree. Hell, you even feel comfortable about having a good old scratch in their company.

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