Should I declare independence?
2021 feels like a true watershed moment in the world of marketing employment.
Levels of employment are high, and open roles are at record levels. Businesses that were continually looking to shed or furlough staff last year are looking to onboard people at a breathless rate.
But at the same time, it’s evident that the world of work is changing. People want to set their own terms for how and when they work. Expectations of ‘good employment’ have accelerated, elevated and fragmented. And that’s why the much-hyped Great Resignation is turning into a much more systematic shift in the balance of employment.
So, declaring independence from the merry-go-round of agency and marketing department employment is at the forefront of many people’s minds.
Should I strike out on my own? Go freelance? Start my own thing? Begin consulting?
It’s a big decision.
I struck out on my own 2 years ago…in the ‘before times’.
It was one of the best decisions of my professional life.
I’ve learnt faster than ever before, I’ve balanced my life better than ever before, and I’ve felt professional freedom as never before.
Partly, that’s because I had a lot of help establishing by independence from people who had walked the road before me. So, I’ve tried to pass that knowledge on wherever it’s been needed.
But it’s clear that it’s not the right decision for everyone. Over the last 2 years I’ve probably had the independence chat with 50 or more people, and seen what happens next. For some, it’s been a fresh lease of life, for some, a happy and productive re-contracting with employers, and for some a difficult trudge through independent working.
I firmly believe that independent working will become an ever-greater part of the marketing ecosystem. Particularly in the world of strategy. But how do you know if it’s right for you?
No one can answer this question honestly for anyone else. But based on 2 years on conversations, these are the questions that I would ask yourself.
- How important is autonomy to you, really?
This single biggest reason for most to become independent isn’t wealth, and for sure it isn’t glory…it’s autonomy.
For me, this was a significant motivation: the desire to move at my own pace, to create, to make decisions for logical, not political reasons.
But ‘autonomy’ is one of those concepts that looks purely positive – like its near cousin, ‘freedom’ – but in fact contains multitudes.
The autonomy of independence doesn’t just mean the ability to set your own direction, it means that setting your own direction is absolutely mandatory.
There are few initiatives or opportunities that you don’t instigate. There are very few key decisions that you don’t make.
In traditional employment, a highly successful career can be made reactively. A wall of problems, situations and assignments progress towards you, and your job is to respond, shape and direct them. Your inbox and your diary naturally fills, and your task is to shape that as you can to a useful and productive end.
It can feel like a total pain…but you rarely, if ever have to face the sinking feeling of a blank page or an empty diary.
Autonomy means that nothing happens unless you make it happen. For some, that’s glorious, most of the time. For others, it’s a deep and unexpected challenge.
2. How comfortable are you with the ‘other stuff’?
The nature of management is that people drift from the skills that brought them into management in the first place.
People ache for the lost mastery: of strategy, or insight, or creativity, or planning, or client management, or entrepreneurialism. Mastery gets crowded out by meetings, admin, process, politics. With independence comes the allure of spending all your working time on what you are really good at.
Well, if this is really what you think independent working life is like, I have some hard truths for you.
At least 50% of your cognitive load is going to move from filling in timesheets and going to meetings, to (deep breath) business development, pitching, marketing, network building, proposal writing, invoicing, tax and legal, process definition.
And you are still going to need to go to meetings, and you should probably also still be doing some kind of timesheets too. (But this time, they really matter, because the person who needs the information is now YOU.)
Now, I’m extremely fortunate, because (in moderation) I enjoy all of these things as long as I can do them my way. I’m adequately capable at all of them, and there are one of two that I genuinely love just as much as well-tuned strategy.
But, of course, for many people that isn’t true. If you look at this list and it horrifies you, or you don’t spot at least a couple of things that you are actually pretty good at, then this may not be the right path.
Obviously it’s your mastery that will ultimately drive your success. The ability to focus on that mastery is one of the key benefits of independent working. But it’s the ‘other stuff’ that creates the oxygen that allows you to do it.
3. Can you afford to say no?
The most obvious dynamic of independent work is that income is not guaranteed, and that you need to find the right demand for what you do.
For many more the issue is that they get trapped doing the wrong work, at the wrong price, for the wrong people.
Prosperity and satisfaction as an independent worker is directly linked to your ability to say no to apparently reasonable assignments – because they aren’t appropriate to your skillsets, or they aren’t with people you want to work with, or because the price is simply wrong.
Getting to a point where you can comfortably say no may take a little time. But it requires two things: a safety net that enables you to plan over a reasonable period of time, and a confidence in the marketability of you and your personal product.
The financial safety net looks different for everyone – but almost everyone I know who has made independent work quickly has started with sight of some meaningful work. 2 or 3 reasonable concrete projects or opportunities are so helpful to making the plunge with confidence.
Your personal product demands some clear-headed examination. Your value as the holder of a place in a complex hierarchy is not the same as your ability to advise, to deliver an output, to adapt to multiplate circumstances. If your effort is going to be bought in terms of time value, it’s worth some clear thinking about where that value is the highest – and what personal development is required to make it higher.
In the world of independent work, you are the product…and the product always needs development.
4. Do you have the right network in place?
I’ve used the word ‘independent’ many times in this piece, but the truth of course is that no-one is independent. It’s essential to anyone’s mental health, prosperity and efficacy that they are able to depend on others – for support, challenge, accountability and opportunities – and that others are able to depend on them.
Marketing teams, and in particular agencies, may occasionally fall short in some of these areas, but they tend to be excellent at creating social groups of like-minded people who can offer a sense of togetherness, even if that togetherness comes in the form of rueful, gallows humour.
If you’ve spent a lot of time in these environments, you will for sure miss it when it’s gone.
That doesn’t mean at all that independence is a life of loneliness. In fact, the relationships born from situations of greater autonomy and voluntary independence can be gloriously satisfying. But they are not ready-made.
On top of a hopefully solid foundation of supportive family and friends, it’s essential to build a functioning network of collaborators, clients, supporters, advisors, partners. This is going to be essential to your success, and to your happiness. Fortunately, there are a lot of good networks out there – and if you are looking for somewhere to start, one service I can’t recommend highly enough is Leapers.co, the labour of love of my friend and collaborator Matthew Knight.
I considered many different paths as I was setting up my business, including a more traditional agency model, but inspired by a great book I settled on the ‘Company of One’. A business that is totally dedicated to producing the biggest possible impact, and the highest quality of work possible, with the smallest possible operational footprint.
I firmly believe in it as a model for the future. But it’s not about being one person alone – it’s about comfort in making your success dependent on the goodwill, talent and dedication of others. And that needs luck, and work.
One last thing: I found that the right mentorship and advice at the right time was particularly fundamental. And for anyone who needs help making that transition, please do get in touch.