Ad Agency vs. Freelance Copywriters
Two Similar Jobs, but With Big Differences
Becoming an advertising agency copywriter or freelance copywriter is an important decision that's not just for someone new to the ad industry. Many agency copywriters wonder if they should leave their cushy jobs behind to start freelancing. Many successful freelance copywriters wonder if they should close their business because they long to work in an ad agency.
There are many differences between the two career paths. Evaluate both sides of the copywriting career to decide which route is best for you:
Big name clients almost always have a large, outside ad agency on retainer. As an agency copywriter in a well-known agency that handles major clients, you'll write copy for national ad campaigns. A vast majority of copywriters won't start off working in an agency that handles these types of clients, though. The harder you work your way up the ladder to gain copywriting experience, the more recognized your clients will be among a national audience.
Most freelance copywriters will never touch any national brands on their own. It is especially true for those freelancers without any ties to national agencies through previous in-house work with that agency. Those "star" clients with high price tags attached to their advertising campaigns are usually handled in-house by the ad agency's creatives and not freelancers.
However, the clients you gain as a freelancer are your own. Your clients can be ad agencies who need a freelancer to write some of the projects their in-house copywriters are too busy for or the agency may not even have full-time copywriters on staff simply because they can't afford the overhead associated with a permanent employee. You can also work directly with business owners who need a copywriter but may not be able to justify the cost of an agency's retainer or have the need for a full-service agency.
How much you earn largely depends on where you live and how big the agency is. Salaries for a Level I copywriter generally range between the low $30Ks and low $50Ks. Some Level III copywriters report earnings in the upper $70Ks, and senior copywriters can easily earn six-figure salaries.
The money you make is roughly up to you. Full-time freelancers may see the low teens or they could earn six figures. Your salary will fluctuate based on the clients you seek out, your rates, experience and even how committed you are to bringing in new business.
Working in an ad agency is never a typical Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 job. One of the agencies I've worked with actually has services like a car wash, oil change, and hair stylist come on-site because their employees work such long hours and don't have a lot of time outside of work to get these simple tasks done in their free time.
So that basketball game you thought you were going to at seven may have to be sidelined because your copy just came back with red ink, major changes, and a yesterday deadline. Most of the time you'll be able to gauge when those long nights are required, but advertising junkies working at successful agencies will agree the long hours that are usually required are well worth it.
Once you get going in your freelance career, you can establish a fairly solid routine. You'll be able to set your hours just by the work you take on or don't take on. You will be able to extend your hours for rush projects where you may pull an all-nighter for a client, but you also pull in a rush job fee on top of your regular rate.
Ad agencies are usually a laid-back environment. Everything from the clothes you wear to the way you act can have relaxed rules.
One national agency I worked for made sure there was junk food on hand at all times. We spent years on a sugar buzz because the break room looked like a candy store at any given hour. It wasn't uncommon to down some chocolate covered raisins at your desk and then bang out a national company's product brochure. Another agency I worked for took a different approach. The boss would break out a case of beer every day at 5 p.m. for any employee who wanted one. Think about that the next time you see a national commercial and wonder what the creatives must have been up to when they came up with the ad's concept!
However, this "no rules" attitude changes on the days when clients are coming to the agency so you'll be expected to dress up and behave, so-to-speak, when the client comes for a visit.
As a freelancer, your dog can be curled up at your feet while you're in your pajamas and brushing your teeth is optional. You work alone, and that's how you'll spend your time so if you can work productively wearing a tutu and that's what you're comfortable in, there's no one stopping you.
Fast-Paced vs. Self-Paced
You might sit in a brainstorming session for a new client's ad campaign. You might travel to the location where the TV commercial script you wrote is being produced. You'll continuously have deadlines you need to meet or even beat. The pace is very fast, and many budding creatives crumble under the high stress that can come with working in an ad agency.
A freelancer's life is still hectic, but you have more control over your own pace. If you're starting to feel burned out by the number of projects you're writing, you can pull back and stop accepting so many projects with shorter deadlines.
Teamwork vs. Lone Ranger
You'll work with the Creative Director and the entire creative team to develop campaign concepts for clients, and you may even be involved in the client pitches. Your copy might get approved by 10 a.m., and at noon you're sitting down with the graphic designer to look over the layout of your copy within the ad. Teamwork is key to any ad agency's success, and your role is crucial to how well the team does on every campaign.
If you're working with local clients, you may have occasional meetings with them in person, but most of the time you will be alone. Freelancers become quite familiar with the four walls they work within, and that's something you have to consider if you're thinking about starting down this career path. If you can't tolerate spending large amounts of time in solitude, freelancing may not be the best option for you.
Work for the Boss vs. Be the Boss
You may not sit at a desk and write copy all day long as an agency copywriter. You're always a member of the creative team, and that means you have plenty of other responsibilities to your team and the clients. Your Creative Director may have you working on a client pitch, sitting in meetings, developing new concepts with other creatives, among other duties. Agencies have their methods on how they pull together to produce ad campaigns so you will have to adapt to what your boss wants from you. It means you could spend a lot of time away from your keyboard instead of hammering out new ad materials.
You're the marketing team to help grow your business. You're the accounting department to send out invoices so you can get paid. You're the creative team that writes copy for a variety of projects. You will wear many hats as a freelancer because you are the business. As your boss, you have to be disciplined enough to make every aspect of your business run smoothly. You don't get a day off just because you feel like curling up in your hammock to read a book. There's always something for you to do, no matter which department you're working in at the moment.
No matter which copywriting career track you decide upon, be flexible and keep an open mind. As an agency copywriter, you may be dead set on working within an agency for life, but you never know when layoffs or even burnout may hit you. As a freelancer, you may love the freedom you have as your boss, but then one day a better opportunity with an ad agency comes your way.
Each career path has its perks, and you're never locked into that particular route you initially chose. You can always change your mind, and every bit of copywriting experience you've gained will help you along the way.