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After nearly a decade of working as an art director at several leading Toronto advertising agencies, Ronnie Lebow went freelance and has since won several international awards in both advertising and design through his virtual shop “LEBOW”.

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Why Freelance?
by Ronnie Lebow

It’s Thursday, early evening, and I am sitting on a dock in cottage country with my laptop while others are just getting home from work. I have been asked to write about what it’s like to be a freelance creative. I spoke to the staff at the magazine and I asked, what part of it do you want me to cover? They replied…the money, the difference between working in an agency and on your own, how you get clients, etc. It was decided that I would write several articles because there is no way to cover everything in one unless you the reader, have an hour or so to kill.

So here I am, with the screen open in front of me, and I think the only logical way to begin is to explain why I became a freelancer in the first place. It was really quite simple. Security and freedom.

Security. You are most likely asking yourself how someone without a full-time job can consider their life secure? After working for nearly a decade as an art director and copywriter in several advertising agencies, I can honestly tell you that I never felt like my job was secure. How many of you in this industry actually do? Look around your agency…how many 40 year old creatives are you working with?

It was only when I bumped into a senior mentor from my past that my potential future hit me like a load of bricks. You see, he had won awards during his long career employed in different agencies, and here he was, working in a big box superstore, complete with a “Hello my name is” nametag pinned to his shirt, directing me to aisle 36. I came home and had a sleepless night wondering if I was doomed to the same fate.

Where do all the creatives go when they reach middle age? We all know of somebody that suddenly disappeared from the industry one day never to be heard from again. The question remained in my head…what am I going to do to ensure that this doesn’t happen to me? Do I want to be a middle-aged creative peddling my portfolio around town, competing with 20 years olds fresh out of school that will work for beer money?

I decided that morning to go off on my own and start building my clientele. My thought was that with my experience, maybe in 5-10 years I’d be established enough to have several large clients giving me consistent work so that I’d have a career doing what I love to do, and make the money I had always dreamed of. I started hustling. It took me one year.

Freedom. One only has to read my first sentence to understand what I am referring to. It is a great time to be in this business; the internet has changed everything. You can work from anywhere and everywhere. I can leave the city whenever I want. Gone are big boardrooms and presentations. Everything can happen today with three letters. Let me explain. The client checks out my WWW. The brief comes via FAX. My specs are sent to them as JPGs. The final files get uploaded to an FTP site and finally, the invoice is sent as a printable PDF. All this and I never had to meet with the client. It’s a beautiful thing.

My schedule is mine. I work when I want during the day or the evening. Have you ever been in a supermarket at 10:30 in the morning on a Thursday? How about playing golf at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning? Everything is empty because everyone’s at work.

Here are a few more questions I asked myself: Did I actually want to become a creative director for an agency? What were my chances of getting there? Did I want the hectic schedule that goes along with the position? If I didn’t become a CD then what?

I recently spoke with Heidi Ehlers of “Black Bag”, an executive recruitment company in Toronto, and I asked her what happened to a few senior creatives I used to know that dropped out of sight. She replied “they’re gone…they didn’t have a plan. I don’t care what industry you are in or what you do, you must have a plan”. Extremely wise words indeed. Words I will never forget.

So thank you Heidi and here’s my plan. I plan to get more clients. I plan to do great work for them. I plan to still be around when others are gone. I plan to watch my daughter grow up, to enjoy life, to play enough golf this year that I break 80, to stop and smell the roses, and finally, at the end of this sentence, I plan to take one more slow paddle around the lake and listen to the loons before the sun goes down.

2004, Ronnie Lebow
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