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[Note: This essay ran in a slightly different form in Advertising Age on March 15, 2009. It appears here now for the first time.]

If we’ve learned nothing from this recession, we have learned this: Job security is an illusion (although, to paraphrase Woody Allen – as illusions go, it’s one of the best).

The good people are trundled out the door with the bad. Experienced with the inexperienced. The smart with the stupid, tall with the short, raw with the cooked, left-brained with the right-brained with the non-brained.

Which begs the question a lot of folks in this industry are already asking themselves – if there’s no job security, does it really matter whether you’re employed by an agency or by yourself?

Yes, it does. Because not everyone is cut out for self-employment. Unfortunately, they often don’t learn it until it’s too late. So here are three reasons why you should stay – or, barring that, why you should try to get hired at another agency if you get fired.

Reasons to Stay

  1. You don’t want to be responsible for EVERYTHING. – when you’re on your own, you don’t just do the work, you also find the work, manage the work, bill the work, and pay for the work. You spend an insane amount of time doing a lot of stuff that people you currently know only via email and forms in triplicate do. It’s one of the paradoxes of life, but really, it shouldn’t surprise you; a big company hires you for a specific skill set, which you do over and over again. When you’re on your own, you can’t afford to hire all those specialists – so you become them. If you don’t want to, don’t go.
  2. The world – Most agencies are part of a global organization that is truly remarkable, and if they ever put it to work in a meaningful way (you know, more than just something to mention on the website) we’d see some really incredible breakthroughs. And I have to believe that very soon, someone will figure it out, and you may not want to be on the outside looking in. By the same token, there’s very little chance that you’re going to walk out of your current set-up with an international network like the one your agency has right now. Unless, of course, your name ends in “orrell”.
  3. You may need someone to hate – look, sometimes the only thing that can get you out of bed in the morning is the fact that some idiot scheduled a meeting for 730 that you absolutely have to be in. But when you’re on your own, there’s no one to hate but yourself, and if you’re cool with yourself, well, it’s very easy to find yourself laying on the couch watching Dr. Phil all day. And while far be it for me to tell you not to hate Dr. Phil, it is way less lucrative than hating your co-workers (see Dr. Phil’s special episode: “Hating you, hating me – a guide to employment success”)

Okay, but hold on a sec. Because just as there are people who aren’t cut out for self-employment, there are some folks who aren’t really cut out for agency work. Who spend years banging their heads against the wall (because of “job security”) to find out that they’d be much happier on their own. So here are three reasons to go – whether you jump or are pushed is your call.

Reasons to Go

  1. Do the work you want to do – think your agency is going in the wrong direction? Think that the new client is killing the soul of the company – and everyone else? Fine. Hitting the bricks gives you the opportunity to design a roster and workload that’s exactly what you believe in. Only “great” work? Only “work that’s finished by 5pm”? Only work “that celebrates the mystery of kittens”? It’s up to you. It’s not easy, of course, but then neither is doing work you hate, over and over again.
  2. You may be more cost-effective – Business, of course, is always about making money. In this economy, however, it may actually be about how to lose less. Going out on your own instantly makes you more cost-effective, to your future clients sure, but also to your old employer – who is suddenly no longer saddled with paying your social security, withholding and healthcare (note to self – you now have to pay your own social security, withholding and healthcare). Admittedly, this is short term reason, but careers – and agencies – have been started on less.
  3. There’s no where else to go – just because the economy sucks doesn’t mean that brick wall (or, if you prefer, glass ceiling) that you’re banging your head against is any less real. Sometimes your career demands that you step out for a while. Especially if you have an insight into the business that your current employer can’t take advantage of. Remember – all the stuff that Jobs and Wozniak brought out under the Apple name was stuff that HP had and didn’t know what to do with. If you’re in the same boat, you’d be a fool to stick around – no matter what the economy says.

Either way, it’s up to you. And it always is. The trouble is, we forget that because we’re usually up to our, ahem, necks, in work. And we don’t learn it again until the next time the economy heads downtown.

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