Art & Commerce: From Virtual To Reality

Up until recently, a very interesting and powerful phenomenon had been gaining ground in the advertising industry: the virtual office.

The trend started about a decade ago. Enabled by communications technology, an increasing number of seasoned creative directors, art directors, copywriters, account/brand managers, public relations executives, graphic designers and production artists began going it alone as independent contractors. They faxed, e-mailed and phoned in their work from home offices—even from ski lodges, surf shacks and boat decks. They traded commutes, dress codes and structure for fulltime flex-time, flip-flops and freedom and, more often than not, they provided their services directly to clients or to “virtual agencies.”

What is a virtual agency? Typically, it consists of two or three full-time employees who choose from a pool of freelance talent to address a specific client need or project. The office space is generally small and overhead is low. Between the mid-’90s and just a few years ago, the trend exploded.

Then, bam! A paradigm shift, once again. Many once-independent workers have been giving up their “virtual” organizations to move in with a real team under one roof. Talented designers, copywriters and account managers are seeking the type of camaraderie and synergy that comes from consistently working with a team on a face-to-face basis. Team members now get together and brainstorm, although, as a vestige of their prior lives, they often choose offbeat locations like parks and restaurants.

Why the reversal? While independent work is productive and efficient, there is an inherent personal need for socialization and the group dynamic. These professions attract “people” people, and they enjoy the social process of the work as much as the work itself. And there’s always the side benefit of a little office gossip, an expanded circle of friends and the clarity of being able to say: “This is my office. That is my home. And I know the difference.”

These former independent workers often don’t want a fully structured corporate world. As a result, more and more small agencies that authentically live the team mentality have the opportunity to snap up good talent that has been honed over years of freelance work.

Many former “indies” are veterans of larger agencies who are seeking a more balanced work/life structure. Often, they find nirvana in smaller agencies with the core competencies of a larger counterpart—seasoned staff, slick portfolios and fancy Web sites—but without the bureaucracy, needless personnel layers and transparent “agency-speak.”

The real key behind the success of these smaller boutiques is the ability to handpick talent and personalities in order to assemble the right teams for each project.

Not surprisingly, the same technology that helped independent workers work at home is playing a major role in wooing contractors to go in-house. Through the efficient use of the Internet, teleconferencing, electronic messaging, e-mail and digital production capabilities, creative and account management executives can work together on specialized accounts from across the city, state or country. This technology is now giving full-time staff the flexibility of working hours that fit their schedule while still reaping the benefits of a team environment.

Since recent freelance converts understand the dynamics of running a business, they are usually interested in the big picture rather than their individual success and are more likely to carry the project through with unwavering enthusiasm.

In creating a team culled from the ranks of former freelancers, be true to yourself and your clients. Be honest and upfront with your business model. Build the business and those talents around you with the goals and passions that brought you to the advertising business in the first place. Choose your partners carefully. Make sure the chemistry and value are there for both parties: Do they offer the same ideals and beliefs you have for the agency?

Looking forward, expect more independent freelancers to join the ranks of agency teams full-time, seeking personal interaction and a return to a true “team” environment that fosters creativity and great ideas. And be on the lookout for the results.