Getting Creative Work in the Gig Economy

Most creative professionals aren’t ready for the business challenges of the gig economy, but Ilise Benun believes that everybody can learn

In 1988, Ilise Benun was fired from her job as the operations director for a travel agency. It was her second job out of college. She was furious. “I never wanted to work for anyone again,” she says. “I realized since then that I’m, in fact, unemployable.” With more free time on her hands, Benun visited with her creative friends. She noticed stacks of paper strewn about their desks. Each pile was bursting with opportunity for more business, better marketing and self-promotion. Benun used her newly found free time to help her friends with marketing and bookkeeping, finding enough opportunity under the piles of paper to start her own company. Soon, her client list grew and her status as “unemployable”—at least by anyone else—became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Benun is author of The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money and founder of Marketing Mentor, a company that helps creative professionals find “better clients with bigger budgets.” She has kept her business growing by responding to the needs of the market. Very soon, those needs will largely reside in the gig economy.

Currently, 34% of the U.S. workforce consists of gig workers, according to Intuit, a number predicted to grow to 43% by 2020. However, most creative professionals—even creative marketers—likely aren’t ready to manage their own business. That’s where Benun comes in.

Marketing News spoke with Benun about the entrepreneur mindset, how creatives can market their business and how they can prepare for the gig economy.

Q: What’s the most difficult part of getting into the business mindset for creatives?

A: Getting outside of themselves and seeing that what they want isn’t the focus of marketing their services; it’s all about the client. Self-promotion is not about you. It’s a paradox, but the idea is that even the way you answer the question “What do you do?” is not about you. What I like to say to that, for example, is, “I help clients get better clients with bigger budgets.” That tells you nothing about what I do or how I do it, but I’m speaking to a certain type of creative professional who is at a certain place in their process—they want to take [their business] to the next level.

Q: Are most people ready to run their own business? Should people in full-time jobs start preparing to be self-employed? 

A: I don’t think people are ready. Employed people think they have job security, but I don’t think there is such a thing as job security anymore. Even if you have a full-time job, you could lose it at any moment​. You have to be constantly cultivating your network and building your relationships so that, as things evolve, you know who to call, where to go and how to position yourself for whatever the next thing is—whether it’s a full-time job or a gig. I make a distinction between an employee mindset, where you’re an order-taker, versus a business-owner mindset, where you take responsibility for going after the work you want, as opposed to taking whatever comes along.

Q: What’s the most important tenet of entrepreneurial thinking for creatives?

A: It’s being ambitious enough to pursue what we want. That means you have to decide what you want, find the people and companies and approach them. You have to not care about rejection because the reality is that most of them won’t want what you have to offer. You’re looking for something better than whoever happens to find you. That is the biggest challenge for people, even people who are successfully self-employed. A lot of people are spoiled by word-of-mouth and see it as a blessing, but when it stops, it is no longer a blessing, and you have no foundation. That’s why taking responsibility for the direction of your business and pursuing the types of projects and clients that you want puts you in a much stronger position. You’re not dependent on something outside of you.

Q: So it’s marketing. It’s doing the job you already do, but doing it for yourself. That has to be a hard concept for some to grasp. 

A: It is, because you’re too close to it. And that’s why my business exists, because I’m not close to it. I can see who might benefit from your services. I can see what your strengths and weaknesses are, what needs to be shored up, what language might make sense based on who you are and what you want to pursue.

Q: What is the first step people can take toward this way of thinking? 

A: Go to networking events in research mode. A lot of people hate networking because they imagine that it’s a situation where people are just foisting their business cards on other people, but it’s not. It’s developing relationships and learning about what the world needs. If you go to a networking event in research mode, you see that this person needs this, and this other person needs that. Then you can be responsive to the needs of the market.

Author credit: Hal Conick, American Marketing Association

By Christina Moreschi
Christina Moreschi Career Development Manager Christina Moreschi