Dealing with the F-word

Nick Oldham

can-do communications

I used to be an agency director in another life. You know – presentations, office politics and helpful PAs abusing organising my diary. I gave it up a billion years back and have been freelance ever since. But recently, an ex-colleague said I should be wary of the term.

In his eyes, freelance suggests redundancy, uncertain hours and a cavalier approach to clients. Crap as we copywriters sometimes say – but it made me think about the word in more detail.

Freelance can be a bit of an oxymoron, of course,  as – except when we’re wearing our angel wings – most of us charge for our services. Indeed, that’s where the word’s real meaning lies. Our lances (modern-day skills) are free of obligation to an overlord (or permanent employer) and are therefore available for temporary hire – normal T&Cs apply.

According to some sources, Sir Walter Scott coined the term when he described mercenary warriors as free lances in Ivanhoe (1820). Other references link the word to the “free companies” of disbanded soldiery who sold their services in 14th-century France.


(And more recently of course, Game of Thrones has put its own spin on the term – describing soldiers of fortune as “sell-swords”. But as we copywriters know, “the sell-pen is mightier than the sell-sword”.)

Whatever its provenance, the word and its connotations are now well established – and this is where I take issue with my critical colleague of years gone by. To him, scale and structure are the glues that keep clients on board. He’s right in part, one-man-bands can’t hope to play every note in a concert score. But he’s also a little off-key as well.

Because this is where freelance copywriters come in. The comms industry has made a paradigm shift in recent years. Whereas there were once separate arenas for advertising, DM, PR, Sales Promotion, POS & Packaging etc, the ground has moved and everyone shares the same piece of turf.

That’s not the end of specialisation or expertise in specific areas, it’s an acknowledgment that content and ideas are shared across multiple channels. Not-invented-here syndrome still exists of course. But co-operation (not conflict) is the order of the day.

That’s why I’m careful to badge myself as a freelancer whenever and wherever I can – be it web, social media, chat or on good old business cards. It suggests flexibility, availability and compatibility – whether I’m white-labelling for agencies, adding an extra mind to a pitch team or working for clients direct.

But above all, it’s my for-hire sign for life – the amber light on a London taxi-cab cruising through the night. (And I reckon I’m cheaper per hour than they are nowadays. With no annoying emissions or backchat either!)

I may have a company name, but the essential proposition of my freelance life is still the same. My overheads are low, my expertise high and I have a wealth of experience to apply to the next job in hand.

This brings me back to where this post began. I stopped being an agency director because I’d stopped doing the things which had seen me rise to that position in the first place. Instead of writing, thinking, and creating, I was managing, manoeuvring and watching the rear-view mirror.

Which made me use the F-word more times than I should.

And switch to the one that has been my working life for the last 15 years…

What do you think? PAYE security or self-employed freedom? And what made you make the F-word switch if you’ve followed a similar path. Comments always welcome. Thanks…

First published on

What do you think?

Your email will not be published. ProCopywriters members: log in before commenting so your comment links to your profile.

Become a member

Join ProCopywriters

Connect with peers, develop your skills and extend your reach on our blog.

Become a member
Learn online

Online workshops

Every month we get an expert, an author or a professional trainer to deliver a one-hour presentation on copywriting, marketing or digital media.

Browse events