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ONE BY ONE, UNEMPLOYED OR JUST plain unfulfilled creatives are clearing out their cubicles, packing their laptops and heading down the freelance trail, following accounts wherever that trail may lead. Yet the freelance route is often an arbitrary, tortuous journey in which success relies on contacts, recruiters and a lot of luck.

Chicago-based Gary Gusick is setting out to pave that bumpy road with The Freelance Network, a service he started last month that will represent about 100 full-time freelancers to agencies.

Gusick, formerly creative director at Chicago's Arian, Lowe, Travis & Gusick, left the agency two months ago to start the network, which he's running with his wife out their home, handling portfolios for everyone from senior creative talent to juniors. (He says he embarked on the venture simply because he was ready to try something new.) Calling his roster the "top talent" in the business-Gusick says his creative resources are nationally distributed, though a majority of Networkers are based in New York and Chicago-it comprises individual freelancers, teams, producers and creatives from boutique shops that seek to supplement their billings with additional projects. An upbeat Gusick says he's already placed a half dozen creatives and is presently talking to two megashops about the possibility of using his services on a retainer basis. "It's just like Hollywood in the '50s," he says, referring to the era when actors broke away from exclusive studio contracts.

The freelance wave has been spurred, of course, chiefly by agency cutbacks that have downsized many creative departments. In New York, as a fairly typical example, DDB Needham roughly halved its creative staff to about 15 people this year. Mid-size and small shops have long relied on freelancers to supplement their staffs during pitches and for accounts that can't support full-time staff. Moreover, many creatives are also frustrated with trying to squeeze work through bureaucracy-muddled agencies.

Gusick's idea certainly isn't new, however. In 1986 an adwoman named Monica Buchanan started repping her husband and his partner as a freelance team. Word soon spread through the New York ad community and before she knew it she was peddling over a dozen teams' portfolios, which turned into The Teamworks, a freelance referral business for agencies and advertisers that represented over 100 teams, with offices in New York and Michigan. When it shut down in '91, close to 2,500 creatives were registered with the firm.

Portfolios would be duped and distributed to prospective employers and a comprehensive computer system tracked information on everything from phone numbers of a creative's parents (for those last-minute holiday rushes) to whether said creative had a driver's license.

When the business peaked Buchanan recalls they had close to 30 teams on assignment at one time. But when the recession hit, business began to wane as creatives sought out agencies on their own. "It was an issue of control," she says, "so after a while we realized this was ridiculous." While the referral business may still have its pitfalls-for instance, Buchanan notes that the IRS once tried to tax Teamworks as a 3,000-employee operation-she believes the time is right for another such service. "Ten years ago freelancing was rare. Now it's a viable way of life."

Headhunters sometimes pinch hit as freelance recruiters, but their main priorities lie elsewhere. Marc Deschenes of Deschenes/Brandalise, Headhunters, Los Angeles, says freelance placements compose a fraction of their business, usually in last minute crunches. "We do it as a service to agencies to help them out."

Gusick addresses the control issue by keeping his creative roster confidential, relying on the honor system and working out retainer contracts with agencies to use his services on a monthly basis.

"It's about talent," Gusick says, "not about control of a vast sea of data." While he has a database, he'll rely more on people's credentials, awards and specialties. And while he won't initially be competing with agencies, if the market dries up he says he's open to direct client relationships, as well as to marketing his talent to British and Pacific Rim shops.

In cheeky Arian Lowe ad style, Gusick even whipped up a slogan for his baby: "Why own if you can rent." "Everyone is talking about the virtual agency," he

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