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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in freelance (4)


    yet another reason that Samuel Johnson is smarter than me

    For someone who was a math geek through high school, and who today can still add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers without a calculator, and probably even still swing a pretty mean square root, the dread that this time of year brings is inexplicable. Because I ordinarily love numbers. I'll happily jump into a spreadsheet jammed with client data, filled with media spends or call volumes or whatever, and I really love crunching them.

    But ask me to do my expenses, or my timesheets, or, when I was freelancing, my invoices, and I will find any excuse to hide. I will clean my desk, or call clients to see if they want to go for lunch, or come down with the flu. Tax time is the worst of all.

    I hate money, or rather, the need to do any kind of examination of my own money. I have an absolute aversion to dealing with numbers in a business context when my own money is on the line. When any such topic comes up – expensing a lunch, submitting mileage – I get the sinking feeling that I'm about to make a mistake that will cost me personally thousands of dollars. Somehow I will do something wrong on a form and the accounting police will swoop in and I will be charged and life as I know it will be over.

    It's irrational and stupid, yes, I'm aware of that.

    When you're a full-time employee at an agency, and a creative, there's usually a little bit of leeway accorded you. Agency accounting departments expect creatives to ill-tempered innumerate children, and so I've been able to use this low set of expectations to cover my guilty tracks.

    As a freelancer, you can't afford this level of unreason. Otherwise, you don't eat. So you find some sort of minimum requirement that you can meet, day in and day out. For me, for instance, that meant dropping all my bills and receipts into a shopping bag near my desk. I could manage that. It meant that I'd have to spend several hours before meeting my accountant every year, tallying and cross-checking everything, but I could manage that, too. I'm sure that would horrify the suits, as it did my accountant. No weekly or monthly tracking of anything. No sense of what my accounts payable or receivable were. But I muddled through it pretty well.

    Needless to say, I was slack with my invoices as well. This I really don't advise. I may be one of the few freelancers I know who never got seriously burned by an unpaid bill, but this was pure dumb luck on my part. The best thing you can do is get your invoices in quickly, and if you're doing an ongoing gig, as regularly as your client will take them.

    Not many clients value work they get for free.

    As every writer's friend Sam Johnson once said, "No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."


    maybe not the laziest freelancer in the world, but I was close

    Thanks to M.'s email this past weekend, and Terry's tweet to this article about when freelancers should walk away from clients, it seems like all things freelance are in the air today. Which is the perfect (if slightly pathetic) excuse for dredging up some of my old experiences under the guise of infotainment, or edumation, or just content.

    I was most comfortable working for agencies. They tended not to haggle or openly balk at my rate, and when the job was done they almost always paid promptly. Folks there knew what my job was and what they should give me to accomplish my job, i.e., a decent brief. They also handled potentially sticky things like client feedback and production.

    Working directly with my own clients was always a little more free form. I suppose you could spin this as being entrepreneurial, but it wasn't really my style. I had one client expect me to create and handle printer-ready files, and then to find a printer. Given that I'd signed up to write a simple brochure, the extra "opportunities" were a gnawing source of anxiety for about two weeks, until I found a freelance print producer/broker who took the thing off my hands. Some might see it as a lost chance to enhance my service delivery and make it big; being more stereotypically Canadian, I was happy that I had rid myself of the potential to screw up badly doing something I had no interest in and had never done before, something I would have had to work at a lot to get very little from.

    As a freelancer, I saw myself as more of a craftsman for hire. This is what I do, I would think; take it or leave it. (But the fact is, I never actually said that to clients or potential clients.)

    To the point of the Freelance Folder post, I only ever had one client that I parted ways with, but I didn't walk; it was mutual.

    They were a digital signage company who wanted to redo all the brochures for multiple product lines. Their salespeople were finding that the brochures weren't communicating everything that potential customers needed; they didn't talk about benefits enough.

    I spent a couple of days going through all the brochures. It wasn't the most exciting subject in the world, but their products had about a billion and a half uses in all kinds of business and consumer contexts. It wasn't too big a stretch to find compelling reasons to install their signage. I gave the client a quote and a timeline, they accepted, I started in.

    A week later I sent them a first draft of the first batch of brochures. My marketing client liked them, had a few revisions which I made quickly, and then she sent the second draft to sales.

    Can we guess what happened?

    Yes, the bitter copywriter in the back row is correct. The deck came back from sales as an ugly, angry mess seething with red ink. Not enough about their product. Too much about the user. A whole lot of negativity. I did what I could, but with every line it was apparent that, as far as sales was concerned, I could have changed about a word per paragraph in the original briefs I'd been given. I finished the revisions, got everyone as happy as possible, and before my marketing client wasted any more time, suggested that they look elsewhere for a lot less money. She agreed, a little more quickly than I might have liked.

    I really don't see this as laziness. Okay, maybe a little. But I also hate waste and inefficiency. And to paraphrase a brilliant developer, I'd like to think that, in addition to great ideas, my freelance career was also about simply trying to find the most efficient solution.


    "Great, now people associate freelancers with Donald Rumsfeld"

    I hope never to have enough power that my words may make such a horrible thing so. However, this was the subject line of the email that reader M. recently sent regarding my post about virtual agencies and freelancers, followed by:

    I realize you wrote this in the context of virtual agencies, but I'd dispute your opening take on freelancers. "All you leave behind is your reputation" applies particularly to freelancers. The open-ended nature of the relationship means they have to consistently push their work to be considered for future gigs. Those full timers, on the other hand, can easily become too comfortable ... and even complacent.

    I agree with M. that, as a freelancer, you have to do your best work for the sake of your lingering reputation. It's just that for me personally, the nature of the situation works against this happening. It's not easy. You often don't have time to build up knowledge about the client or the brand; you're thrown into a new situation and the only thing you can rely on are your abilities to brainstorm and create with the information your temporary employers give you.

    When I was freelancing, I found this a hit-and-miss proposition. Sometimes you brought a fresh perspective that was really appreciated. Other times your "fresh take" was taken as evidence that you had no idea what was really going on, and you were quickly out on the street. All you can do is keep pushing out the best work you can, and that discipline is what becomes your reputation.

    As for complacency, well, there I'll have to disagree with M. These days no one gets too comfortable, not in any agency I know, and not in the client world either. Complacency has been weeded out by the same Darwinian processes that changed dinosaurs into birds, newspaper classified pages into Craigslist, and everything, in some shape or form, into Google.


    virtually anything you can do...

    Found this link ages ago about the strategy of the Iraq war, but I can't remember who from:

    In October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his chief military and civilian subordinates for an assessment of the “Global War on Terrorism,” noting that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing” and asking numerous broad yet focused questions, all of which came down to the question of strategy. It took several years and still the Joint Chiefs of Staff required help from contractors—contractors—to come up with a system to measure what is clearly the most pressing security threat facing the United States in a generation. 

    A profession that surrenders jurisdiction over its most basic areas of expertise, no matter what the reason, risks its own destruction.

    Digging it up, it seems extremely relevant in light of the recent spate of virtual agencies that are starting up around Toronto.

    I've been freelance, and I work with several freelancers now. It's not easy for freelancers to do their best work. Not because of their own abilities or intentions, but I think because there are inherent problems caused by the open-ended nature of the relationship with the agency. When your contract is ending in a matter of days or weeks, and you don't know whether it will be extended, how do you keep pushing your work? How do you build relationships with other creatives or clients?

    Creatives are the obvious crux of the issue, just because so many of them work on a freelance basis, but there's also account management and production – and they're far more difficult to find and retain while freelancing. They're key to basic agency processes (so are creatives of course) but unlike creatives, these two groups are also responsible for how the agency makes money.

    It's not to say that a virtual agency can't work, or do great work. But I'll be very interested in knowing how they're going to build relationships over the long term between clients and more than a few senior agency people.

    My best work has come from being deeply involved with clients. And that's far harder to do when you're being brought in by the hour, and being encouraged to piss off once your defined and specific business is done.

    Commitment to clients isn't virtual. It's actual. And that's any agency's most basic area of expertise.