THELINK TANK;A FLIP THROUGH THE VIRTUAL ROLODEX: WEB CONNECTIONS FOR CREATIVE FREELANCERS

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A FREELANCER HAS ONE PRIMARY SURVIVAL NEED:

connections. Because they lead to work, they're more important than talent, experience or creative panache. And because the Internet is all about connecting, it makes sense to use it as a marketing and survival tool.

If only you can figure out how. Visits to a few sites make it apparent that the sorts of online services available to art directors and copywriters, photographers and producers are as different as the visions and backgrounds of those who created them. The founders see the potential of a major creative intersection on the Net, but most are still struggling with how to set it up, how to charge for it and how to evolve it from a small, regional hideaway (sometimes one gets the feeling most of the people listed worked together at an agency once) to a national hot spot.

Be forewarned. I'm writing this on a Wednesday. By Monday, any or all of the sites may have added features, dropped features, moved, changed pricing or found a new niche. This is not uncommon on the Net and should not be perceived negatively; in fact, such quick-change artistry is one of the attributes that freelancers who are marketing themselves can take advantage of.

If only they can figure out how.

When he began developing his OASYS (On-line Advertising Systems) Network (www.oasysnet.com) in mid-1994, Richard Price relied on his 14 years of experience as an agency account manager and corporate marketing manager. He knew that people in those positions needed a stable of freelancers, and he also knew that when their Rolodex network ran dry they would turn to printed directories.

No matter how hot off the presses those are, "they're always at least 20 percent out of date," says Price. "Once, in the first four pages, I got two dead people." Price felt it made more sense to create a database on a floppy or make one available via modem. "But our biggest fear was that if we had to maintain the database, it would eat us alive."

The Internet solved that problem. With his current service, up since November, freelancers can maintain their own listings, updating them when necessary. Although Price had intended to limit the service to Chicago, it quickly became apparent that the demand was broader than that. Now his listings include more than 1,000 freelancers in various categories (writers, graphic designers and illustrators are the largest), and they hail from all over the world, including Iceland, Russia and South America. About five to seven a day come onto the service, he says; he screens each one to make sure it's legitimate. Listings are free. Price reasoned he is really serving the corporate and agency world, so he charges employers $2,400 a year for a single site and $800 for each additional connection. He claims it can pay for itself in one use, assuming that assembling a topnotch freelance team for a large project takes perhaps 100 hours, at billing rates of $130 to $160 an hour.

Employers get a password, unlimited search time, plus Netscape and a direct Internet connection if they need it. The service includes a Profile, an extremely detailed questionnaire designed to establish search criteria that range from experience to billing practices to computer platforms to awards (although some major award categories were missing at last check; no One Show, for instance). Once the Profiler is as complete as you want it to be, OASYS offers up to 100 names in descending order of relevance, depending on how many criteria they match. In one pass, I asked for an award-winning TV and print writer who had worked on soft drinks and beer (at which point I realized the more selective I got, the fewer names I might recognize). On the low-match end, my worldwide search turned up a fellow journalist; but toward the top, it also turned up Sean Burguet, who teaches at Portfolio Center and has worked on Coca-Cola for McCann-Erickson and Anheuser-Busch for Saatchi & Saatchi. He said, via e-mail, that he stumbled upon the service some time ago but had gotten only one query: mine.

"I think the concept is probably a bit advanced in that the computer world, in advertising, is dominated by art director and illustrator types," he wrote. "I hope this Net thing takes off with our industry because we are going to have to learn to bring our skills and crafts to it in order to motivate, persuade and entice consumers in the not too distant future. And just having a home page is not going to be enough."

Price agrees, expressing frustration that even his corporate subscribers-about a dozen so far-have trouble understanding the technology's potential. The portfolios, however, speak for themselves. The freelancers, who average 16 years of traditional experience, are not just the Web site builders and interactive specialists usually found in such directories; even a Pulitzer Prize winner is here, Price says.

Bob McCarroll, principal at McCarroll Advertising & Design in Tempe, Ariz., took a different approach when he launched PortfolioNet (www.portfolionet.com) in November. He wanted to provide access to "the world of creative services," including talent for hire, products for sale (art, art supplies, photographic equipment), electronic and print media, consultants and educators, and classified ads, where creatives could display their resumes for six months for $25. Revenue comes from subscribers, who now number about 40 and are mostly artists and photographers who want to display their portfolios. For $450 a year, they get a page of text plus two pages of images, as well as benefits that include free site design and a personal e-mail address. This service is unusual in that it also offers promotion via quarterly mailings to Fortune 500 corporations, although currently the mailing list is limited to the Southwest.

McCarroll says the service is getting 1,000 hits a day, although he thinks it could do better. He is planning to streamline it, dropping several sections, such as products and education. "They're either before their time or just plain wrong," he says, although providing a portfolio service for visual artists seems to do well.

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"It's a little early on for the medium," agrees photographer Richard Weston, who says he has gotten no direct work from his site. "People are still a bit overwhelmed, and maybe it's a little slow for them, too. Art directors are still saying, 'Give me a source book and let me look quick.'"

Designlink, an "online resource for the creative professions"(www.designlink.com, but you have to download the free software), also puts visual portfolios on the Web for a fee. Ash Mehta has a somewhat different approach. "In this day and age of info glut, we're trying to organize the information creatives need and provide it through our interface," he says.

The primary service, for $39 a year, is four hours a day of e-mail services and bulletin board access, which links you to shareware, reference archives and support networks as well as portfolios. The 40 to 50 people who put their portfolios online pay $250 for the first year for up to 15 images. The service also offers links for $95 a year if you already have a site.

"Everybody is lining up to do the Web thing, but most of the sites are big yawns. Like mine," laughs Sandi Bachom, New York-based freelance agency producer. She is accessible via Advertising Professionals On Line (www.adpros.com/apo/), which so far has yielded her a shot at a substantial Intel job (which she had to turn down). Her site, which her Media Lab graduate cousin has promised to overhaul soon, complements her e-mail addresses and rounds out the communication loop she has created with her Wizard, Mac Duo with fax, cell phone, and international beeper.

he service is the latest venture of Ann Storm, erstwhile staff producer at Hal Riney & Partners. Storm's vision: Eighteen months ago, she wanted to create a listing of freelance producers that would be accurate, up-to-date and easy to get. Why stop with producers, she asked herself. Why not all freelancers? And why not advertising agencies and the companies that hire them?

She learned HTML and set up the site on her own. "It's a lot easier than it sounds. The hardest thing about getting on the Web is getting the connection in the first place," she says. When hers was named a Cool Site by Netscape, it was "completely thrilling. That's the thumbs up you've got to get."

The site is comprehensive, although it skews somewhat towards the broadcast end of the business. It includes free postings for help and positions wanted. Storm says she has links to 45 agencies, although some failed to respond to her request. She charges about $250 for a company link, and $50 to $75 for an individual one. An individual page starts at about $150 a year, a company page at $1,000, not including custom design, which is available on an hourly basis. Storm says her pricing is "sort of fluid," which appears true of other services as well. Philosophically opposed to charging for access, Storm also plans to sell banner advertising for site links, probably at about $75 per 1,000 hits, which she says is more or less standard.

Adpros gets about 500 hits a day (which means about 150 people are visiting and clicking around in different areas). She also plans to upgrade the site, adding

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