Bait & Switch

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A prominent freelancer whom we'll call Simon was asked to help land a global account at a huge New York agency. Simon, wearing an agency name tag, walked into the pitch with the rest of the agency gang and shook hands with the client's people. He was introduced as the think tank behind a slew of stellar campaigns. Simon's history as a team player at the agency was praised -- cloaked, you understand, in Clintonese. He presented the strategy and campaign with an easy manner and bull's-eye accuracy, slowly maneuvering the client and the agency down the aisle to the altar.

The agency people didn't exactly lie: they just weren't helpful in divulging the fact that the man making such an impression was a freelancer who would not necessarily be working on the execution of the proposed campaign. Right or wrong? A harmless business fib, or an egregious breach of trust and confidence?

"From the client's perspective, I'd be looking for a good idea," says Simon, who doesn't want his real name used. "But often they're looking for someone they can work with [for some time to come]. The client found out after they awarded the business that I was not the guy who was going to be dealing with their business on a daily basis, and they were very upset. It was embarrassing. As far as I know, they're still at the agency and I think it'll be OK, but I'm very concerned with the way I'm introduced now. Before I go into a pitch I say, `If you're going to prop me up in front of this client and they shake my hand and say, `Great job. How do you like working for this agency?', I'm going to say, `In the three weeks I've worked for them, great.' So you need to be honest. If the question doesn't come up, it doesn't come up. But if it does, that's what I clear up."

At lower levels of involvement, such as when an agency has a bunch of teams working on a project and tosses in freelancers to rev things up, independent contractors get camouflaged by rote. And this seems to be OK with everyone. Marie-Claude Garneau and her partner, Alan Spindle, now have VP-ACD jobs at Lowe Lintas & Partners, but as freelancers they'd been used to residing in cubicle communes where staff teams toiled alongside them on the same business. When their freelance ideas were green-lighted and pitched to the client, "it was not divulged that we were not full-time employees," Garneau says. "It was tap-danced around." Staff creatives contributed to the whole process and campaigns got altered before they were produced, she adds, "so why bring up the freelance issue?"

Wieden & Kennedy/New York CDs Stacy Wall and Michael Prieve must have asked themselves the same question when they pitched Miller Lite -- even though they mostly had just four freelancers working on the campaign. A couple of designers and a writer chipped in a bit, too, but when Miller was pitched, the freelancers' identities got swept under the rug. "We didn't go to the pitch," says former W&K freelancer Matt Vescovo, now on staff at Fallon McElligott/NY. "We shot commercials for it and met the client at the shoot, but the freelance thing didn't come up. I don't think [W&K] wanted to advertise it, but I don't think it would have been a problem either. A lot of agencies freelance people on new business. Pieces are contributed from all over. So as long as the head person, whoever is working to direct the pitch, is there, that's the most important part."

One problem: there is undeniably a link between the level of ability in a creative department and the way it receives a hired gun. Mediocrity is resentful.

"A [creative] person saw me standing in the hallway, came up to me, and said, `Well, there goes some of our company profit sharing,' " says one A-list freelancer. "He smiled real big and I smiled back at him and said, `I'll be the reason you get a raise this year, that is, if you deserve one.' I got the agency new business. He hadn't. And he knew I was right."

Another top freelancer says he keeps a very low profile because of this chest puffing. Frequently, the creative department doesn't even know he's flying the plane. "You have to remember that by being successful you may be successful at someone else's expense," he says. "And that's avoidable if you're quiet and hand credit to others. The guy you displace at one agency is going to be the creative director at another. To waltz in on a white horse with a big bag of arrogance, especially in New York at a big agency, is suicide."

ill Miller, who gained fame for writing Rolling Stone's "Perception/Reality" campaign at Fallon McElligott, buries his ego as well. If his ads win awards, he might claim responsibility among friends. But as a rule, he says, "I won't talk about the accounts I've been freelancing on with anyone who's in the business. Agencies like to have the ink."

And agencies like to have all the credit in new business pitches, too. Their staff might be overloaded. They might not have enough creative power to handle a tricky project. Maybe rogue ideas are needed to flank the ones the client will probably buy. Or perhaps it's the eleventh hour and they have nada to show the client. Whatever the case, no agency wants to risk implying, "Hey, we couldn't figure this one out for ourselves so we spent a lot of money hiring someone who might be working for your competitors."

Freelancers, however, are sometimes paraded for existing clients, and this doesn't seem to be a problem. "From time to time it's probably necessary to bring in freelancers," says Tom Jump, Buick's general director of advertising. "They can bring a perspective to your business that people who've been working on your business for years can't." Advanced Micro Devices' director of advertising Bob Kennedy, says, "If Hill Holliday thinks it makes sense to bring in new minds on our business, I'm fine with that."

"It's not like it used to be," says freelancer Paul Spencer, " `I'd like to introduce you to this whore.' " But it's still kind of like that on new business. When a freelancer gets introduced to a prospective client, they behave like a paid escort who was told to act married. Agencies are afraid that clients might view their freelance hires as shameful acts done in weakness. Boutiques and startups don't have this problem. They flaunt freelancers on new business by saying, `We'll retain these people if you like what you see,' or `We've got bright young kids to continue the thinking for you.'

"I don't think hiring independent contractors is a bad reflection," says freelancer Ernie Schenck. "It just says that on a particular project, on a particular brand, this is the person who will take the client where they want to be. I think a lot of advertisers are willing to say, `Look, we don't care how you get it to us, just get it.' And if that means bringing in a hired assassin -- we are talking about killer work, right? -- then that's what you do."

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