How going freelance gave me back my freedom
By Vicki Sinclair
Vicki talks openly about the pressures she felt working in advertising, and how they inspired her to go freelance.
When I got the call offering me a place on the grad scheme I literally screamed with excitement down the phone at my future boss. I’d miraculously been given a golden ticket into the world of London advertising. I was, and still am, very proud of that achievement, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
I don’t think I was particularly cognisant of this at the time, but the roadmap of the next 10 - 20 years was pretty much laid out for me; you work hard, battle for promotions and pay rises, over and over until you’re at the top of the proverbial ladder and have to decide which upper-management role you want to pursue. And I was eager to do well; I moved to one of the most highly-regarded agencies in the industry just two years into my career, and could easily see myself staying there and steadily progressing upwards.
But this appetite for success did nothing to prevent - indeed it likely compounded - how much the daily grind of account management contributed to my anxiety (which is, at best, background and generalised and, at worst, acute). I often worried I wasn’t good enough at my job and yet, somewhat conversely, that I needed to be more confident with expressing my professional opinions at work. But this is difficult when you’re a young woman in what can still be a misogynistic and hierarchical industry, and someone who hates any kind of conflict or confrontation. I felt very disrespected at times, yet unable to stand up for myself, whether it be in a (one-sided) heated conversation with a Creative Director over some client feedback (it’s exhausting being shot at constantly when you really are just the messenger), or in a pay-review meeting with my Board Account Director.
After three years of working in advertising, whilst I had grown a stronger backbone and started to believe I was actually alright at my job, I was still not loving work and my mental health was suffering. I wanted a change. My boyfriend is in the industry (although in a very different role to me) and had gone freelance the year before, and seeing his largely positive experience of it gave me the confidence to take the plunge myself. I handed in my notice on January 2nd, 2018 and haven’t looked back since.
I suspected that going freelance would not be the best thing for my career progression; I would no longer be part of an agency that was invested in my future. I would miss out on meetings with my line manager in which we could discuss my taking on more responsibility or agreeing on a plan to help me reach my next promotion. However, I’ve come to understand that this isn’t the right way to think about it at all. Rather than focusing on what I’ve lost by going freelance, instead I recognise that I have taken up the reins and gained back the control I was sorely missing as a permanent employee.
When a more senior role arises now, it is completely my prerogative to decide whether or not I want to go for it. Granted, it would be more speculative, and the risk greater; I would have no line manager or colleague to reassure me I’m ready for the challenge. And of course I would still be at the mercy of the interviewer, but the fact remains that I’d be putting myself in that position because of my own resolution to do so. Now that I’m a freelancer I can try to progress as quickly, or as steadily, as I choose.
I can be more selective with agencies and brands, only going for roles that I feel comfortable with and excited by. Looking for shorter contracts means I can stay out of the internal agency politics and social cliques, as there simply isn’t the time to get sucked in to all that. I have a strong work ethic and still care a lot about the work I do, even if I am only a part of the team for a short period of time; having removed the pressure of feeling like I have to constantly prove myself to the powers that be, I’m able to focus instead on doing the best job I can.
Freelancing has also given me the distance and headspace I need to think more carefully about the path I’m on, and what the future of my career holds. In honesty, I’ve reached the point where I look at my seniors in account management and, try as I may, I cannot picture myself in their position in ten years’ time. I’ve come to realise that advertising as I’ve experienced it so far is not what I want to do for the rest of my working life. But rather than making the huge decision to jump to the bottom of another unknown career ladder, I’ve decided to use freelancing as an opportunity to explore other areas and find out what really gives me fulfillment and happiness, both personally and professionally. Indeed, I have the flexibility and - lest I be indelicate – the money (freelance rates are much better than perm contract rates) to take time off between contracts, like I did for a couple of months last summer. With this time, I started an open-learning interior design course and upped my volunteering at London Zoo, two things which give me great joy. I also took some time to simply slow down and let my anxious mind rest, something I never felt truly able to do when I was in a perm role.
The combination of all of these factors has made a notable difference to my mindset about work and life in general; I feel more confident in my abilities, believe I deserve to be respected, and feel like my opinion is valued. And if I find myself in a role where it’s not then I don’t need to feel trapped in the way I have done in the past. I can see out the contract or, if it is really awful, I can give my one week’s notice and move on to the next, or even take some more time to focus on what matters to me outside of work.
I still feel a societal pressure to climb as high as possible up a fixed career ladder in the first ten years of working life – that there are expectations on us to reach specific career milestones by certain ages. And with this comes an unwelcome feeling of not being good enough, that others are doing better than you, and that you’re somehow less successful because you have taken a slightly different path. I know this perception is changing, particularly amongst our generation, but whilst I still feel its presence I have to consciously remind myself that it is meaningless - that what matters is the way I feel about my own life, and how I can shape it to give me happiness. I know now that I would rather move a little more slowly but feel in control of the decisions I make. By going freelance I have given myself permission to try new things, to make mistakes, and, ultimately, to define my own course.
Image by unknown Pinterest artist.