The battle of the egos: How can creative professionals collaborate effectively?
I had an interesting discussion on twitter recently about whether it is realistic for creative freelancers to outsource their work in busy times or when projects are above their capabilities. The discussion arose from one creative professional who had missed out on a job after the potential client realised the creative was a one man band and he wouldn't be able to cope with the scale of the work. My initial response to such situations is to always suggest working in collaboration with other freelancers, as usually a larger project would involve more than one specialist area, encompassing art direction, design and artworking skills.
I have sometimes outsourced elements of projects that I've either not been able to do or not had the capacity for – such as jobs that involve a lot of technical coding for instance, but that's about as far as my collaboration has stretched. Now, admittedly, I have been known to be a little too keen to collaborate with other creatives (what can I say, I get giddy over creative work) and perhaps my idyllic view of working collaboratively is slightly unrealistic (cue The Waltons theme tune). But is it possible that if it's done well it can open up greater possibilities?
In my enthusiasm to work in collaboration, it's easy to forget that this often presents other big challenges for many freelancers: which other creatives can you really trust? How will you project manage? Are you making yourself too vulnerable or more open to your work being exploited? Would you be able to collaborate with a direct competitor or would this ruffle one too many feathers? If you're a creative that's not particularly used to art directing or project managing, this could lead to badly managed projects or a difficulty in sourcing the right people to use. Not to mention the whole issue of how each freelancer prices their work completely differently.
So back to my conversation on Twitter, a Creative Director of a design agency then entered into the discussion, suggesting that creative freelancers should approach smaller design agencies to collaborate with. I found this approach really refreshing, especially coming from a Creative Director, but how often does this truly happen? Is it realistic to think that a freelancer could approach an agency with a hope of having an equal footing in the process and outcome? How would costs be worked out? How would working arrangements be agreed without the agency taking over the project completely? Is it possible to work in true partnership with one another?
In the past I have approached a few design agencies with this idea in mind; agencies whose work I love and see potential to work together. To be honest it has never had the desired response, with Art Directors often misinterpreting my interest in their work for a desperation for commissions, or simply batting out of my league. But ironically, it's often when I'm the busiest that I will reach out to people or seek to do personal projects because I want my work to stay fresh and be challenged. Of course, I also see how I could specifically benefit the people I approach or it would be pointless me contacting them – at the end of the day, we all want projects that lead to more work and pay our wages. But maybe there needs to be more of a shift in thought in order to get the most out of freelancers and benefit both parties effectively. In recent years I've noticed a lot more design agencies using the term 'collaboration', giving credit to creatives who they have worked alongside. I love this approach, but what is the difference to this as opposed to just commissioning a freelancer that has created something under clear art direction and then simply giving them credit? Is there more to it than that? (genuine question).
I often look out for people - other creatives - who I can keep in mind to work with. Usually, this is not just about their skills, but about the way they approach their work. If I were to call them up with a relevant project I know that they would work in collaboration with me to produce amazing work (that is, should they want to work with me and I had the right budgets of course). Whether the process would be easy to manage or not would be a whole other matter, but the fact is that freelancers are more than just the work they produce, they are about the way they deal with people and their attitude to their work. I would far sooner work with someone with slightly less skill and a more professional attititude. But is it naive to think that working in closer collaboration would work well? Undoubtably there will be tales of disaster, but there are also plenty of success stories too.
When I hear examples of collaboration I'm always drawn to the work, not only because I am intrigued as to what sort of work two different artists can come up with, but also because there is a thought that these people must be personable human beings. Perhaps this is not always the case, but if creatives complete a successful project together I think it says a lot about them and their attitude to their work; they are about the bigger picture; the need to produce brilliant ideas that go beyond ego and the need to fully 'own' the project. Collaborating opens up opportunities to learn new skills from one other and to develop work that has more potential to be better. But with that comes a lot of extra communication; a lot of time trying to compromise and agree on outcomes. Can the hard work pay off?
For me the problem lies less in the ability to find trustworthy creatives to work with, and more in the issue with style and consistency. As a creative who, in recent years, has found an increased demand for a specialism, it becomes harder to outsource work. Few could work in my exact illustrative style, and obviously I wouldn't ever feel comfortable about outsourcing this aspect of my work. The reason why people commission me is for a unique approach and that is a big selling point which has helped me to get the clients I have. There comes a point, though, when I think, do I only want to be known for one specialism when I have a variety of skills and passions, including projects that involve art direction? There are situations where clients ask me to illustrate something for them and the Illustrator in me wants to do the job, but another part of me wants to say "I'm not the right illustrator for this, this job would look great if such and such an illustrator was used or if such and such a photographer was commissioned." You feel a sort of moral dilemma as to whether you should be doing the job exactly as the client has suggested or whether you should be pushing for what the project really needs in order to be the most effective. Besides which, there's often part of me that wants to experiment with more of my own, say, photography, typography or painting skills and so on (or just anything I can get my creative mitts on), but that is always difficult ground to tread on when you've started to make a name for yourself for one particular thing.
Of course, these are all teething problems of getting to grips with running your own business. Although I've had a lot of experience in the creative industry, I'm still relatively new to working entirely for myself. Perhaps I'm not in a position to enthusiastically suggest collaboration, but it's obvious to me that collaboration has to benefit both parties and not just be about giving a freelancer a platform, nor giving an agency an opportunity to exploit. Perhaps good collaboration only comes out of good relationship once genuine trust has been built, but I'd like to think that being open minded about who you collaborate with might open new doors. I'd like to think there's hope that the creative industry could be less hierarchical, and stop favouring those who shout the loudest over genuinely good craft or well thought through ideas. Am I too optimistic? (What's that music? I hear you ask. Oh that's just The Waltons theme tune again.)
So, what do you think? Can creative freelancers effectively collaborate with others? Have you done so? Is it possible for creative agencies to work more in partnership with creative freelancers? I'd love to know your thoughts.