More On Deadlines

April 5th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Several people commented on yesterday’s article on deadlines, both via the comments here and via e-mail. So I thought I’d follow up on a few other thoughts about deadlines.

Shawn chimed in to say that, despite the financial uncertainty, he’s glad he made the jump to freelancing. With regard to freelancing versus employment, he says:

“There’s so many arguments for either side. I personally find that I’m more satisfied and work harder for myself at home than in an office environment for a company. The trick is time and money management.”

I am also glad to be freelancing successfully. That said, it isn’t as much of a choice as a necessity for an illustrator. There just simply aren’t many full time employment jobs out there for illustrators, period. It’s rare to find a position with a steady paycheck and benefits as an illustrator. Most illustrators are freelance as it is the only way to do what we do.

Canadian caricaturist/illustrator Lar deSouza agrees about the difficulty in turning down job, even if he is already swamped. He also writes:

“One of the real struggles with being a freelancer is finding those new clients. You are in the enviable position of having regular clients like MAD, as well as a professional reputation that precedes you. I bet you still self-promote regularly though, and that is undoubtedly a big part of your success.”

Getting that phone to ring at all is a big part of making a living as a freelancer. I am very lucky in that I’ve been doing this long enough and have enough steady clients that a lot of my work comes from previous jobs, art director’s talking amongst themselves and referrals. I still invest time and money in self promotion, however. This year I will be back in Serbin’s Directory of Illustration sourcebook, and I have done some direct marketing by sending postcards with images and my website info to potential clients. You can never stop searching for new clients, as even the best of the steady ones eventually change art directors or take a different visual approach to their publications and the work dries up from that source. You have to find new steady clients to replace them, preferably before you lose them in the first place.

Minnesota Illustrator Cedric Honstadt agrees that much of the burden of deadline issues rests with the freelancer for accepting the deadline in the first place. He also says:

“I too find it difficult to turn down work, but I’ve learned that if I am *really* busy it is better for me to be honest and tell the client how busy I am rather than take on a project and make a promise I can’t keep.”

That is an excellent policy, one I practice as well. I never make a promise I cannot keep with respect to a deadline. That is unfair to the client and ultimately garners the offender a bad reputation which is the kiss of death in the freelance world. Illustrators that art directors know they can count on to come through on a deadline with good work are worth their weight in gold, and they will get jobs over other artists based on their reliability. Once you blow a deadline with a client, there is very little chance you will get another call from them… or from any art directors they are acquainted with.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got on freelancing came from the great David Levine. He was peeing in the urinal next to me (true story) during a break from a panel discussion on caricature he was a part of at an AAEC convention here in Minneapolis. Like all men who are urinating next to one another in a restroom, we were staring straight ahead at the brick wall and ignoring the fact that we had our dicks in our hands. Actually we had been talking about freelancing on our way into the bathroom, and while we did our business he told me that relationships were the key to successful freelancing. His philosophy was that self promotion and marketing only got you the first job with a client. It is how well you do the job and how you relate to the art director that will not only mean a future job with that same client, but also will determine if that AD recommends you to other ADs. Apparently there is a secret AD network out there and crossing it is a bad idea. Levine said that it’s those relationships that are the key to expanding your client base and keeping the phone ringing. After imparting this advice, he did the customary double-shake, zipped up and fastidiously washed his hands on the way out of the bathroom. Shithouse wisdom… the best kind.

One more thing about deadlines. I have never blown one (knock on wood) insofar as I have turned in a job too late to make publication…but that doesn’t mean I have never turned in a job late. There have been plenty of times I have called my AD and asked if it would be e problem if I got the finals to them on Thursday instead of Wednesday for example. Most ADs are smart enough to say they need something on a certain day when they really don’t need it until several days later. It’s dangerous to assume that is automatically the case, however. Communication is always the key. If I need an extra day, or I have promised a pencil rough and am having trouble delivering it at the promised time, I always call the AD at least the day before and ask if it’s okay to take the extra time. I make it plain that I will have it done at the specified time if necessary, but if there is any cushion I’d like to use it. 99% of the time they say no problem, and are happy you kept them informed. What most ADs are looking for is accountability and communication, which they equate to reliability. Missing a soft deadline but keeping your AD up to date as to your progress is as good as making the deadline. Hard deadlines are different. Miss one of those and that’s it for that client and an untold number of others they influence.

It’s just common sense professionalism to live up to your promises and demonstrate reliability so your clients understand you are a freelancer that they can count on. That is one of the most important things you can do to be successful.


  1. SteveH says:

    Great and very interesting posts on this particular subject Tom, along with some very cool comments too! There is some cross over for us live gig guys as well, you have work hard at marketing yourself and securing new clients, most of which are one off’s but many will use you again. David Levine has some very wise words, its about people and how you create a relationship with that customer/client. Artists in general find this difficult and thats a shame as there is so much talent out there that deserves greater success! Now back to those deadlines… I always thought deadlines were the one’s you had to rub out? (bad joke huh!)

  2. Bucky says:

    Tom, I’ve read through everything you have offered up in this post and I have broken it down to one thing___ you say you were ignoring the fact that you had your dick in your hand.___ Dude, how is that humanly possible? And I’ve spoken to Levine and he said he caught you ‘sneaking a peek’. Smooth move, Tom.

  3. saamvisual says:

    I have been enjoying reading your blog in the last few weeks Tom. Thanks for taking the time to share. May I ask you what your perspective is on the difference between UK and US freelance situations? Certainly there appears to be an entirely different set of fashions across the atlantic, but is there much more difference in your view?


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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