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Industry News

How to Be a Freelance Ally

Provoking perspectives on how to support and uplift freelancers

By Laurel Stark

and Andrew Dickson

April 27, 2020
12 minute read

Mt Freelancemtfreelance.com

The original concept for this article was to outline the important (and often overlooked) role that freelancers can play in boosting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the creative fields. But given the current uncertainty in the world and with many working from home, we think our suggestions for remote freelancers could help any creatives build a more equitable future — even from the comfort of our quarantined couches.

The backstory

Laurel Stark: Andrew and I are freelance copywriters based on the West Coast. We’ve both got quite a bit of experience — and privilege — that’s fueled our careers: We’re white, college educated, in heteronormative relationships, and have a handful of shiny honors and recognizable names on our resumes. All of that has benefited us in an industry that still struggles when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

We met when I joined Mt. Freelance, which Andrew co-founded with Aaron James. (The company is currently offering its Level 1 course free to support freelancers during the pandemic). Because I’ve spent much of my last few years championing diverse talent through my work with the 3% Movement and The One Club, I saw an opportunity in partnering with Andrew and Mt. Freelance to arm our community with the skills needed to become better allies to our less-represented freelancer counterparts (womxn, POC, the LGBTQ+, the disabled, neuro-diverse, and even the over-forty set).

Andrew Dickson: As freelance talent, it can be tempting to think that we’re removed from our industry’s discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since we don’t actually work for an agency or company, we don’t have the power to hire, dictate company policy, or shape culture. But we have more power than we think: We bring a fresh pair of eyes to projects, cultures, and initiatives. Plus, we have the ability to model more inclusive behavior and refer more diverse talent. 

Laurel: A lack of diversity impacts us all, full time or otherwise. It affects workplace culture, making the work less innovative, less creative, less successful. We also know that diverse teams generate more revenue. And when there is more revenue, everyone tends to benefit — including freelancers. So, if you think you have room to improve as an ally (we all do), below are simple steps you can take to help our industry be more inclusive even as you practice safe social distancing.

Unpack your privilege

It’s a chance to focus on the unique leverage you have to make a difference for people with fewer opportunities built into the system for them.

Andrew: Privilege tends to feel like a touchy subject, especially for white guys, like me. It can be even harder to acknowledge when we feel unsure about our futures, like during the pandemic.

But privilege isn’t a dirty word. It’s a chance to focus on the unique leverage you have to make a difference for people with fewer opportunities built into the system for them. Now, when you have the space and time, you can examine how the success you’ve likely enjoyed has nothing to do with your capabilities, talent, or intellect, because the very things that helped you along the way have also worked against someone else.

Laurel: One of the best analogies I’ve heard about privilege is that we’re all playing the same video game but that being a straight, white, cis-gendered man means you’re playing at level 1, the lowest difficulty level. It doesn’t mean you won’t face adversity or that you don’t have to overcome challenges to win. Ultimately, though, the game’s rigged in your favor.

But imagine being a queer, disabled woman of color. That’s like playing at level 10, the most challenging level. The game’s been set up to thwart you at every turn and make winning extremely difficult. So, if you’re playing on any level that’s not the gnarliest one, you have some degree of privilege.

Andrew: Just acknowledging and better understanding your own privilege is the first step in learning how to be a good ally. Not sure how? Try answering a series of questions that outline what it means to be privileged in America: Are you male? Are you straight? Are you white? Do you identify as cis-gender? Are you financially stable? Are you college educated? Are you able bodied? Are you mentally able? And so on. The more times you answer yes, the more privilege you have. 

Talk openly about rates 

Laurel: Today’s business climate may make you financially nervous, but that’s all the more reason to talk openly about money. Equity queen Cindy Gallop, ex-agency executive and feminist figurehead, says, “You’re not taken seriously until you’re taken seriously financially.” Unfortunately, she’s right, which means the biggest and easiest way to be an ally as a freelancer is to talk transparently about your rates. It can help underrepresented talent know what to charge and ensure they’re compensated fairly, which legitimizes them financially and otherwise. 

Although white guys aren’t the only ones who should do this, odds are they’re the ones being paid at the higher end of the spectrum. Lift fellow freelancers up — especially women, POC, and other underrepresented groups — by being transparent about what you make. You never know who you’ll end up helping or how far one little conversation will go.

Andrew: If you do happen to be someone who commands a high day rate, let other freelancers now you’re open to talking about money. Be honest about what you charge and why and let them know if they’re undercharging. We can all use a little encouragement in asking for what we’re worth, especially during uncertain times. 

Remember, while freelancers can make what looks like an insane amount on paper, there are solid reasons for that. We have to pay for our own health insurance and retirement, and we don’t get vacation, sick, or personal days or holiday bonuses. Plus, freelancing can be fickle, so we don’t always have work. (Case in point: the global pandemic.) This volatility has to be reflected in what we charge, and we need to help each other feel comfortable charging equitable rates.

We have to pay for our own health insurance and retirement, and we don’t get vacation, sick, or personal days or holiday bonuses.

 

Being a strong negotiator takes a lot of confidence, though. Let’s return to the video-game analogy: If you’re kicking ass on level 1, you might find it pretty easy to ask for a higher rate or hit a counter-offer with another counter-offer. But if you’ve been stuck at level 7, your skills have probably been underestimated, and you may be less confident about demanding the rate you deserve or are more timid about negotiating. If you're a shrewd negotiator, though, share your best negotiating tactics. Be a pal.

Audit your network 

Andrew: For freelancers, networks are their lifeline. Even when social distanced, we live and die by our collaborators and clients, so we should always be growing our network thoughtfully. If you don’t keep a list of fellow freelancers and collaborators, make one. Start a spreadsheet and enter names, roles, contacts, and websites. Extra credit for listing skills or deliverables they’re particularly good at. 

Now review your full list. Is it reflective of the world at large? Does it include people who don’t look, pray, love, or think like you? If you’re serious about allyship, it will. 

Laurel: If it turns out your network could use some diversification (and whose couldn’t?), the easiest place to start is by connecting with diversity and inclusion leaders, calling out bias, and championing underrepresented talent in Ad Land. Follow them on social media, attend their events, support their initiatives, take their advice, do their recommended micro actions. My personal favorites include:

  • Tiffany Warren (AdColor) and Kat Gordon (3% Movement), a couple of OGs tackling racism, sexism, and bias in advertising. Their speaker line-ups and student programs are a great place to look for new contacts.
  • Cindy Gallop is a loud voice for diversity, equity, and inclusion in advertising and tech, not just for women and POC, but for those affected by ageism as well.
  • Derek Walker is a black agency owner who uses Twitter to challenge bias and racism and highlight black advertising professionals during Black History Month. 
  • Margaux Joffe, founder of Kaleidoscope Society, a global community for women with ADHD; Verizon Media’s first neuro diversity resource group and The Disability Collection, a partnership to change the media representation of people with disabilities.
  • Andy “Rooney” Simmons is a brilliant queer designer/illustrator and advocate responsible for LGBTQ+ focused collabs with brands like Google, Facebook, and Vans.

You can also check out organizations working to highlight and employ diverse creative talent. Connect with their folx, support their work, and partner with them:

  • Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP): A 22-week talent-development program for diverse young leaders seeking careers in advertising.
  • The Dame Collective: Tackles the intersection of sexism, racism, and ageism by highlighting and helping women and women of color over forty get hired.
  • inVisible Creatives: Huge global database of women creatives. It focuses on midlevel and junior talent but includes more senior folks too.
  • Gradient Group: Staffing platform dedicated to getting diverse and passionate talent across marketing, media, and entertainment hired into equitable and inclusive situations.
  • We Are Rosie: A thriving and diverse community of independent experts for hire. 
  • Free the Work: Originally Free the Bid, this platform helps underrepresented creators get discovered.
  • Posture Media: Creative studio that works with women, POC, and LGBTQ+ folx.

Last but not least, let your inner circle know that you’re building out a more representative network and are genuinely interested in making new connections and working with new collaborators. Ask for referrals and intros. When in doubt, reach out to people involved in diversity and inclusion efforts in advertising (like me). We rarely turn down a well-intentioned outreach and are generally happy to make connections that’ll support our efforts to make the industry kinder, more inclusive, and equitable.

Think before you refer 

Andrew: In leaner times, it’s hard to remember the power we have as freelancers, but when we’re in a position to either take a job or recommend other people instead, that’s a pretty big deal. Since most companies aren’t putting the weight of their DEI efforts behind hiring diverse freelancers, we’re in the unique position to ensure it’s not just the same people getting hired again and again for the best opportunities. A little known bonus? Gaining a reputation for being a thoughtful referrer is an amazing way to boost your own business, because it keeps you top of mind with recruiters.

Make sure you’re part of the solution when you refer. Audit who you’ve recommended in the past. Look through your outbox, search for recruiters who’ve offered you work, and see whose names you’ve given them instead. It’s one thing to have a diverse network, but if you’re a white guy and you’re only recommending the same three or four other white guys, this is something you can and should address. 

Laurel: If your default is to refer folks who are a lot like you, take a page from Free the Bid’s earlier work and, if you’re a man, commit to referring more women; if you’re white, more POC; and so on. It might take a bit more work, but having a diverse list of collaborators will help.

Want to ally even harder? Set your referrals up for success with a huge vote of confidence. Describe them using power words like capable, leader, visionary, talented, or rock star. Vouch for them personally when you can. And, when possible, level-set by clarifying their experience level and rate with the recruiter or hiring manager. This helps avoid situations where they might be taken advantage of or assumed less capable because of bias.

Whatever the creative project is, it’ll benefit from having multiple voices and perspectives in the room working together.

Andrew: This is about more than just karma points. Whatever the creative project is, it’ll benefit from having multiple voices and perspectives in the room working together. The ad world is full of work that was clearly created without the perspectives of the people it needed. (Pepsi, anyone?). By referring more diverse folks, you’re helping prevent the next Pepsi faux pas

Mentor and mean it

Laurel: We’re all familiar with the typical reasons people go freelance: flexibility, freedom, and earning potential. But non-white, non-straight, non-cis, non-male, and disabled folks also go freelance because the corporate world wasn’t designed for them — and they’re reminded of that regularly through micro-aggressions, being passed over for opportunities, being underpaid, and a host of other injustices. (As a woman, I’ve experienced a ton of this first hand even with all of the other privilege I have working in my favor.) While they may be able to better navigate those day-to-day challenges by working for themselves, they miss out on opportunities often built in to FTE roles: career enhancement, thought leadership, and genuine mentorship . That’s why it’s important for us to go out of our way to champion and mentor other freelancers, especially when we come from a place of privilege. 

Andrew: Being a mentor when you’re a freelancer takes a bit more thought and effort than it does when you’re full time. Since we don’t see the same people day in, day out, those kind of relationships don’t build naturally, and we have to stretch to make it happen. Part of the reason my business partner and I started Mt. Freelance is because we were getting so many requests from fellow freelancers to have coffee or a drink to dole out advice. Mt. Freelance is our way to share that information more readily. 

Of course, I still make time to mentor one-on-one, but I specifically seek out people who don’t look like me and who haven’t had my same opportunities. But since most of the people who reach out tend to be straight, white men like me, I’ve let my network know that I’m looking to mentor a more diverse group of folks. It’s worked out well so far. 

Laurel: In addition to mentoring women and other underrepresented groups, I make a point to act as a “peer mentor” to my straight, white male friends like Andrew. Doing so allows me to demonstrate how positive and fulfilling it can be to champion people who don’t look like them. And it helps normalize diverse relationships while offering the confidence and tools to be a better ally, which benefits all of us.

Because we’re currently social distancing, it’s worth mentioning that mentorship of any sort doesn’t require in-person or even regular meetings. Lots of well-intentioned industry folx have used WFH-friendly tools to make connecting while under quarantine easier. If you’re a senior woman, download the Fellow app and mentor other women on your own schedule. Have a slow afternoon? Log into this Google Doc Digital Review and evaluate some juniors’ books. Or take a page out of Sai He’s book (aka Dong Draper), and ask your freelance network if anyone would like to meet for a Zoom call to talk shop or share tips. It’s a great way to be an ally and expand your network while keeping a safe distance.

Ally so hard

These are weird times, but all the better to be a force for good and focus on building a future we can all get excited about. Want more tips on how to be a better freelance ally? We’ll be back, post Covid-19, with thoughts on how to ally while on site with your client.

Laurel Stark is a change-focused storyteller and diversity advocate who straddles brand, experience and product. Her desire for empathy and inclusivity has shaped award-winning work like Google’s Pride campaign, #ThisIsFamily, Intel’s AI for social good efforts, and the viral Galentine's "Forget Her Not" cards. She's also the co-founder of the One Club's Next Creative Leaders competition.
Read more by Laurel Stark