Waiting for the Right Opportunity and the Serendipitous Future of Work
Steven Townsend is a multiplatform storyteller that has created and sold an original TV series to Bravo, written Emmy-nominated content for The North Face, and multiple Super Bowl commercials for Toyota. He’s designed games and original comics for brands, and even stepped in and directed commercials for a global campaign. When he’s not working, he’s gaming, skateboarding, or working on a comic. See his work at www.townsendsteven.com
FREELANCER MAGAZINE: So just working chronologically, I see you worked in reality TV for a few years before working in advertising. During that time you were a freelance creative manager at YouTube as well. Could you define that role for me? How was it freelance, and how did you manage it at the same time as your full-time job?
STEVEN TOWNSEND: Well I started in entertainment, in scripted TV and Film, right out of film school from USC. I had a pilot in development and I was hired to write a film and another pilot. It was crazy, I was super lucky. The scripted world was really amazing prep for advertising in a weird way. I got to pitch to some pretty big names, studios, companies, etc. I’d go in with incredibly sweaty palms, excusing myself to the bathroom so I could dry them. I was just in the most pressure filled meetings. Pitching, generally you are working for free. If you sell that script or that treatment or that package, then you get paid. But here’s what’s fucked up. Most of the time you only get paid if it gets made, so the pressure was so much bigger in regard to everything. The meetings, the money, it was just super nerve wracking. By the time I got to advertising, pitching to a client, or a creative director, or an executive, did not make me nervous at all haha.
Anyway, when the writers’ strike hit in 07-08 and those jobs for people like me who were first entering the business dried up, I switched over to unscripted. That's when I worked for YouTube. They were just starting to make that leap from shitty cat videos to more long form content. They didn’t have any original series yet, and Google gave them an exorbitant amount of money to create this new content. We took pitches from the Kardashians, famous athletes and musicians, the lot. They brought me to sit in on those meetings to determine which pitches had the most potential. It was cool, I was taking the entertainment experience I had to a world that was very much a bunch of Stanford MBAs.
FM: You mentioned that you weren’t going to get paid until you sold something or until that thing got made. In that time did you feel like a freelancer?
ST: Oh you totally are. When I left film school I got really lucky and had a pilot, this was in 2006, in development at CBS. What that did is give me the clout to pitch other concepts. I had a manager, an agent, an attorney, I was a member of the WGA. On paper it all looked great, but I wasn't getting paid. I was taking meetings and trying to develop and sell, all on my own dime. I was working with someone on a film for Sundance, so we’d meet at the Soho House and work for a couple hours; also all on my own dime. The weirdest part about it was people would call you who were really big names. Halle Berry’s agent called me and told me she’s interested in a script I wrote. The agent said I would need to rewrite it because she would like the character to be more like this this and this. So I make these changes to the script for free, completely free, as if Halle Berry can’t afford to pay me. It’s ridiculous. If you ask any writer in LA how many times they’ve made changes to scripts for free, it’s an epidemic. So there was a point where I was like "fuck you I don’t work for free."
FM: When did it click in your mind that you thought “I can’t keep doing this for free?”
ST: During the writer’s strike. For about a year I was working for free, but I had this script in development at CBS so I felt okay because once the show is made I’ll get paid. I was feeling really good about myself, but of course it was fool’s gold because it never got made. Me, my partner, and my agent would discuss what the networks were looking for and then go on this round of meeting with executives, studios, networks, just constantly trying to sell shit without making any money. That all dried up though with the strike, so even the promise of money was gone. What I ended up doing, to make money, was I ended up working as a reality TV producer, starting with this show Gallery Girls that I sold to Bravo.
FM: So working in reality TV was just a way to pay the bills. Did your job at YouTube function the same way?
ST: Well the first "pay the bills" job I had was as a legal “consultant” at MGM which was kind of cool. I was there for a few years before my gig at YouTube. YouTube only lasted six months because I sold Gallery Girls, and from that point on it was all reality. I’ve sold a bunch of reality shows to different networks, working with a bunch of different production companies. One was called Go Go Lucky. I worked on their show Raising McCain. I was also a casting producer for Extreme Makeover Home Edition. All these jobs were just ways to pay the bills so I could keep writing and pitching.
FM: No matter what job you were doing, when someone asked "what do you do," would you say writer first?
ST: Oh yeah totally. That’s what I wanted. Even now I still feel connected to that world. I just left a full-time job a few months ago so I could spend more time writing. Especially when talking to people in the entertainment industry, I wanted to say I was a writer and that I was developing shows, which was technically true. Everybody did that though. They would say what they wanted to be, not what they were actually doing.
FM: So how did your pivot toward marketing come about?
ST: Eventually I got offered a freelance gig through a friend who was working in advertising. It was with a pretty well-known ad agency, Droga 5, to write some commercials. When I was working at Go Go Lucky we had about $350,000 to spend on an hour of television, but the real budget was probably closer to 150. This was for an hour of television. Working with Droga 5, I was writing treatments for commercials that had five-million-dollar budgets, for one minute. I had a friend at Activision too who was making one-minute spots for 5 million bucks and working with incredible talents like this French director Romain Gavras. It was hard to leave my freelance gig and go back to my regular job after that; knowing how little resources we had.
FM: So advertising was actually more prestigious than you thought?
ST: I've got to be honest, I never even thought of advertising as a job. That’s weird to say because of Mad Men, but back then, that had never even occurred to me. But when I looked at the amount of money that they were getting and of course the quality of work, it was just too cool to deny. Of course not all advertising is like that, but you could say that about movies. It’s easy to be snobbish about advertising, but I would make a really strong argument now that most film is commerce driven anyway, and no different or “better” than advertising.
FM: What came next?
ST: From working with Droga 5 I was able to start freelancing at 72andSunny, a big LA based agency. The culture at 72andSunny was gnarly. The hours were so much longer than they were in television. When I finished my run at 72 I was like "fuck this I’m going back to TV" hahaha. But then Saatchi called me and asked if wanted to work on a Super Bowl spot. They were working on a spot for the Toyota Camry. The stakes were really high so they brought in a ton of freelancers to work on the project. As fun as it was, I didn’t plan on going full-time after that. I was freelancing there for about three months before they offered me a full-time job, and I only took it because they partnered me up with an art director who was full-time there; this guy Verner Soler. He was an incredible artist, won a ton of advertising awards, he was a fucking genius. There was also this guy Jason Schragger who was an immensely talented creative director. They're the reason I said yes to the job. When these people sit across the table from you and offer you a job, you say yes.
FM: How long were you full-time for?
ST: I was at Saatchi for a little over a year and then at Chiat/Day as a creative director for about three years. Then Ayzenburg called and they gave me a nice bump in salary and title which felt like a good idea. Going from three major shops like 72andSunny, Saatchi, and Chiat, to a smaller independent shop like Ayzenburg was radically different. It just didn’t suit me and I thought, "I don’t want to be full-time at a shop that I don’t love, so I’m going to freelance for a while until I find a shop that I did love." So I freelanced at Deutsch and a couple other agencies. I honestly thought I wouldn’t ever go back to full-time. Then SID LEE, this little shop down the street from where I lived in Culver City, I could literally walk there, called me up. They wanted to bring me on as a freelancer to pitch Dickies. I grew up a skateboarder, I still skateboard, I love that brand, and it was just a great opportunity. We won the pitch and a bunch of awards. Because of the success of our Dickies campaign, the agency had seven pitches that summer, which meant they needed a ton of help. They offered me a full-time position, said I would get to run Dickies, and I would get to work on North Face as well, which is another brand they had. It was too awesome of an opportunity to turn down.
FM: So the only thing that would have brought you back to full-time is it really had to be great? It had to be a perfect fit?
ST: Exactly it really had to be perfect, and I feel that again now. I’m waiting for another perfect opportunity. Because I was the creative director at a bunch of shops, I hired freelancers all the time, and I got to meet all this amazing talent. They are, in my opinion, some of the most creative people in the world. I have to say something about advertising creatives as opposed to television creatives. There is something unique about advertising creatives that you don’t find in any other industry. It was something that completely blew me away coming into this industry. I’m still blown away by creatives at every level in advertising, and actually, that's a big part of the "fit" for me. Obviously the clients, the location, and a bunch of other stuff have to be right, but for me to work full-time again, the people and the talent have to be really special too.
FM: Among all the freelancers that you hired, were there any similarities you noticed?
ST: I can’t speak for all of them of course, but what you notice is that there is this love of ideation and cracking the big idea, that is so much stronger than the love of producing the work. There are creatives that love brainstorming and coming up with the big idea and creatives that love making the big idea. There are those who like both of course, but freelancers, for the most part, love the former. They love the pure creativity. They don’t want to spend time on the side of a mountain trying to shoot the commercial, they want to just be the one who had the mountain idea. I actually just had an interview with a tech company, they did not offer me the job haha, but the only reason I was considering it is because this company wants to do a lot of good for the world. The person interviewing me said that most of what I’ll be doing in this job is indulging juniors that think they should be getting a lot more than they are. Once he said that I was completely uninterested. That’s the worst part of being full-time. The politics of the agency, the egos you have to manage. I don’t have to do that as a freelancer at all.
FM: It’s interesting to me that you’re a freelance Creative Director. It’s rare for someone who’s technically management to be freelance.
ST: It is pretty rare. It hasn’t happened a lot. At SID LEE I had incredibly independent junior and mid-level teams who didn’t have strong egos, and so they were fine with a freelance creative director. To come in and run a team as a freelance CD, it can be challenging. You need to be able to make friends and impress super quickly. Also, being really tough on the work, but being really kind and generous to co-workers is key. I had creative directors who were really tough on me, rather than the work, and I can’t say it made me a better creative. Also, whether you’re coming in above or below someone, you need to let the people at a company know that you are there to try and make them look good, both to clients, and to their superiors. That’s the reason I hired freelancers as a creative director, to make me look good. When one of your freelancers is successful you think “man I look really smart.”
FM: Do most of your friends work in advertising? Are most of them freelancers?
ST: Most of them used to be full-time and then became freelancers. A pretty similar trajectory to myself. But now a lot of them went back to full-time because of the pandemic. A lot of them actually got scooped up by Apple and other tech companies as creative talent for internal ad campaigns. So these days I would say about 50% full-time and 50% freelance.
FM: What does freelancing give your lifestyle that’s hard to give up?
ST: Oh the flexibility is so dope. My wife and I want to take my son to get the shot as soon as he’s eligible. I’m going to bring him because she has work constraints as a full-timer. I don’t. Even just basic stuff like that is a big deal. I also love to skateboard and I love to go to art galleries across the city. I just have more time to do that kind of stuff, and I have way more time to write the shit that I care about. When I was full time, there was a project I wanted to do for years that I finally feel like I can do now. Like any craft, you need to show up to get better at writing. When I was full-time I never showed up. As a freelancer, I show up.
FM: Does your wife being full-time make freelancing easier for you?
ST: Oh totally. A lot of couples I know are freelance and full-time. She provides the health benefits which is super helpful.
FM: Finally, how would you define freelancing? What is it to you?
ST: So you’re talking to a guy who's been slightly crazy. I’ve worked in so many different industries. I wasn’t good enough to remain in one industry, hahaha. I couldn’t work up the corporate ladder I guess. To me freelancing allows you to do all the things you want to do in the way that you love. Freelancing allows you to be open to the serendipitous nature of work that the future is bringing. You open yourself up to working with new companies, new agencies, or switching industries entirely. The hardest part is knowing what to say no to because there is so much work out there now as a freelancer. There’s so much to try. A variety of roles, no matter the title, are open to freelancers that wouldn’t necessarily be open to full-timers, and you can make a lot of fucking money doing it.
FM: Well thank you so much Steven!
ST: No problem. It’s all about encouraging other creatives and freelancers to fucking go for it man. It’s like the wild west out there these days.