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Working Hard or Hardly Working

Covid-19 ruined my leaving drinks.

Now I know that might sound fairly minor, especially considering how many lives the Coronavirus has turned upside down. I also know that this is advertising, and if I think these are the last leaving drinks I’ll ever have, then I’m sorely mistaken. But at the time it seemed like a big deal. I wasn’t the only one finishing up either; two other people were leaving the same day as me. One was meant to be going travelling after more than six years in the agency, the other was all set to move to the Netherlands.

It was just as people were starting to take the Coronavirus seriously. I walked to Listons for my lunch, little realising it would be the last sandwich anyone other than my mother would make for me in a while. But a weird tension hung in the air, and Camden Street seemed eerily quiet. I chalked it down to being Friday the 13th (something about that date just never sat well with me).

Official word from the government was still a day or two away, but some pubs were already playing their part to flatten the curve by closing their doors, our local included. So instead of heading there after work as planned, we all gathered in the agency kitchen.

People were understandably thrown by everything that was coming out in the news, so it was no surprise when most said they couldn’t stay long. Rather than the customary handshake or hug, we elbow-bumped our goodbyes instead.

We still managed to have an enjoyable night (remember drinking with people that weren’t your immediate family?). But as we sat there in that normally bustling agency, surrounded by so much confusion and uncertainty, it felt like we were the last remnants of the human race holed-up together in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. One, admittedly, where we could still get pizza delivered.

However surreal our leaving drinks were, people would kill to have them now. One of the unexpected challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic has been not being able to give colleagues a proper send-off as they move on to their next role. And let’s face it, there’ve been quite a few of those lately.

It had been a busy twelve months, so I was looking forward to some time off. The plan was to head home to Waterford for a bit, then start emailing Creative Directors again. And here I remain, two-and-a-bit months later. No prizes for guessing where the people that finished on the same day as me are.

If I felt a bit hard done by, then my creative partner Cian had been shafted on almost epic proportions. He had been planning a move to Amsterdam for months, even handing in his notice, and had been speaking to a number of Dutch agencies. Then as luck should have it, Covid-19 hit, travel restrictions came in, and Cian’s plans were put on hold for the foreseeable.

We’d worked on loads of different projects together over the last year and had really clicked. So seeing as we were in the same boat, it seemed only natural to pair up and market ourselves as a remote creative team. We began looking into roles right away. But practically overnight, all of the jobs on the IAPI careers’ page seemed to vanish.

We started gathering the emails of Creative Directors in different agencies. CDs have no idea of the sainted tones their emails are talked about in, like the sales leads Jack Lemmon steals in Glengarry Glen Ross. I remember once even ringing an agency for a CD’s email, and being politely shot down. They directed me instead to the email on their careers’ page, the advertising equivalent of those buttons you press at pedestrian crossings to make you feel you’re getting somewhere but don’t actually do anything.

Those email addresses we couldn’t find, we had to work out ourselves through trial and error. It was time-consuming to say the least, but deeply satisfying when we did eventually get a CD’s email right, like solving a maths equation. (Pro tip: hover the cursor over the email address and if the person’s photo appears you’re onto a winner).

We loaded up over 40 emails and hit schedule send for Wednesday morning, said to be the best time to reach CDs as they’ve finally caught up on all their emails from the start of the week but it’s too early to have taken off for the weekend. Swapping out each name was incredibly laborious, and we lived in dread of typos: spell a CD’s name wrong and the only thing for it is to leave the country.

We received lots of really encouraging emails back, and a number of CDs praised our perseverance. But one way or another they all said the same thing: uncertain times, not right now, we’ll keep you in mind.

A few of the network agencies informed us that a global embargo had been placed on freelancers, and that if extra help was needed, it would have to come from a sister agency in another country. We couldn’t take issue with people looking out for their own. But with that and the freelancer’s bread and butter (events, café rebrands, tone of voice docs) after drying up, it didn’t leave us with a lot to go on. So when the CDs told us to sit tight, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here’s where Cian deserves total credit. He pointed out that now the majority of ad agencies around the world were working from home, what was to stop us doing freelance work for them? Sure, some were in different time zones, but we’d altered our sleeping patterns for less. And ruling out countries where English wasn’t the first language still left us with more than enough to work with.

So we started researching agencies in other countries, pooling the creatives’ names together, and working out their email addresses. It’s a big undertaking, especially personalising each email again and again (honestly at this point if there’s an easier way of doing it I don’t want to know). And although we still have a ways to go, we’re confident that something will turn up.

I’m not sure the Coronavirus has taught us anything, but it has reinforced a few things, namely: creatives are incredibly resilient. I don’t know of anyone that hasn’t had to seriously graft to get where they are today. You don’t make it in advertising by worrying if a seventh follow-up email might come off a bit strong, or letting a little thing like minimum level of experience get in the way of applying for a job.

Between the near-constant threat of being let go, multiple unpaid internships, and trying to pin down phantom CDs, we’ve all had to overcome a lot of adversity in our careers. The fact is many of us would do our work for free. Some of us frequently have done. And while in lots of ways the Covid-19 pandemic is catastrophic, life-altering, unprecedented, in others it’s just the latest hurdle to overcome. A hurdle with metal spikes, over a shark tank, that also happens to be on fire. But a hurdle all the same.

Before I go, there’s just a few points I want to make:

  • Don’t quibble with a freelancer’s day rate. If the last few months have shown anything, it’s that what you make in a given year could easily be cut in half, so the financial safety net their day rate provides is absolutely essential.
  • Joint leaving drinks when this is all over?
  • Hire me and Cian. We’re really, really good.

Eoin Tierney and Cian O’Connell are a freelance creative team based in Ireland.