"New York City offers so much more than just working for an agency full time!"
Chris Noble never had to hustle much for freelance work. In this interview he tells us how work finds him, and why he would never work for Apple…
CHRIS NOBLE – Broadcast Producer – Brooklyn, NY
More and more people are working freelance. Do you think the process of how people work with independent contractors should be more streamlined?
It’s going to have to be. It’s the way things are heading. The big agency model is slowly dying. More and more people are independent contractors. Especially here in New York, where there is so much work and so many different kinds of work all over the place, you have a lot of different choices (as a contractor).
And the corporations or clients have lots of different choices who they want to work with. So it’s pushing in that direction. I think people will want a lot more information on how to deal with freelancers, and vice versa.
What is your background in a nutshell?
Broadcast production with an emphasis on sports marketing. For example I did spots for Nike and ESPN. I did 12 years at Wieden Kennedy, which is Nike’s agency. And then a lot of ESPN work with the same agency. So commercials, videos, documentaries, radio stuff. You name it. I did pretty much the whole scope of broadcast production. Worked with some of the top directors in the world, editors, shooting for global brands.
Because I was with Wieden Kennedy, one of the biggest independent agencies in the world, with offices on every continent pretty much, I was not only working out of Portland or New York, but also Amsterdam, Tokyo… When you’re working there, you’re thinking on a global level. For brands like Nike or Coca Cola, ESPN. In terms of good people and good ideas, this place (Wieden Kennedy) is it.
They are treating their people right?
Yeah, I mean most of the people are there for twenty, twenty five years. There are not so many options in Portland, so as soon as you get in there it’s like, why bother leaving? It’s safe, secure. Nike, too. Portland is a cool city. But New York is still New York. It’s still my home.
So moving back to New York was kinda cool. I worked there (Portland) for 12 years, but then decided to break off on my own. And you know, with Wieden you just have a really good résumé, and a great alumni network. So every job I have had since then has been somewhat connected to Wieden & Kennedy.
“I like to be able to do my own projects as well as running commercial projects.”
How did you get into production?
My dad is a producer, my sister is in production, and my brother works more on the account side, on the client side, with brands and with marketing. It’s in our blood. It’s not something I thought about. I thought I was going to go to work for the State Department or the UN.
I did an internship at a big international law firm, to see if I wanted to go to law school. But I was bored. It was just really bureaucratic, wearing ties, so I was like “Fuck it, I’m going snowboarding.”
So how did you end up at Wieden?
I was working in a sneaker store, and they came in looking for runners, because they were shooting a video for China. And they needed foot models. So I was hired as a foot model. I met a few cool people, and they were like “we should stay in touch”. And then they called the week later “we need someone to help answer the phones. Do you want to answer the phone?” So I said “Cool” and got in the door that way.
At that point you had no idea that you would end up in production?
No. I was interviewing at Nike and Adidas at the same time. I thought maybe I’d work on the marketing side. I really had no idea. But as a runner and a snowboarder I wanted to get involved with them in some aspect. But the production people were really cool. Super cool. I’m still friends and work with all of them.
So then you had your network setup and got your jobs through that.
Yeah. Forever. I got lucky. They are just a really large, talented, supporting group of people. And as a freelancer that’s everything. I was lucky, the way I went through it all was just very conducive to freelancing. And in terms of working full time: New York offers so much more than working for an agency full time. They burn people out pretty quickly in those places. I like to be able to do my own projects as well as running commercial projects.
If you have a busy week, what does that look like?
You mean, if I’m in the middle of a production? That’s pretty much 24/7. I get up at 7 and slowly get started, because I usually am up working late. I’m working with L.A. on most projects, and they don’t end their day until 11, 12 o’clock at night. So you’re getting up at 7 and connect with New York first, or wherever you’re shooting. Getting everything ready there, getting everything going. And then you’re working with the production company in L.A. at night. Also weekends. When you’re on, you’re usually on full time. Editing is good because you’re usually more focused, but the hours are brutal. You’re usually working until 11PM at night, and the deadlines are super tight.
The job is very feast and famine – when I’m on, I’m on. It’s a little bit like going into a cave. I don’t really get to see friends and family, because I’m just constantly on call. So when I’m off, I reconnect with everybody, get back to the gym, get back into the pool. And then figure out the next gig. Somehow this works for me.
“As a freelancer, you’re there to get shit done.”
On average, how long are these projects?
Three or four months.
Three months, 7 days a week, from 7AM till 11PM?
Pretty much. You get some days off here and there. But on average, that’s pretty much how it can be. It takes a couple of weeks to decompress, so I try to be active. Running, biking, swimming helps me to calm down. It’s usually one or two months before I start looking (for a gig) again. But I like the intensity. It’s kind of military style. You come in and you’re this calm force, the one who knows all the nuts and bolts to put this stuff together. You deal less with the politics, less with the drama. As a freelancer, you’re there to get shit done. People look to you to be the voice of reason.
So people hire you because they know you come in and make it happen?
Totally. Most of my jobs are word of mouth. People know I’m pretty calm, I don’t start to freak out. It’s an interesting job, and I just really like the people. You get to bond with people really quickly, because you have to do the work really quickly.
You basically started your career as a foot model and went from there. Was there a moment where you knew what you wanted to do?
No. It’s still kind of like, I have no idea. I just always went with the organic flow. There are so many different kinds of production projects out there. As long as I can keep the diversity going, as long as I don’t have to keep doing one thing. That’s another reason why I stay independent.
Like one year, while I was producing a lot of commercials, I also produced a book called U.F.O.. I worked with an art collective to pull it off and it was really cool. As a producer I knew how to get it done, how to get into the publishing world and get it published. This was something I was really passionate about, and kind of had to get out of my system. It took about a year to do this, and I was doing independent projects in between. And the only way I was able to do that was to work as a freelancer. If you’re working (as a producer) full time, they’ve got you 24/7. I’m not going to give someone all of my work and all of my ideas, all of my time.
It sounds like you have a lot of ideas for projects that you just want to pull off, kind of like little startups, and are using your commercial projects to finance your side projects.
Yeah, exactly. And then see where they go. For the last two years I’m trying to import a whiskey from Japan. And it’s just a great opportunity and idea, working with a friend in Tokyo. I like whiskey, so it’s just been interesting to me. It’s a whiskey that they’ve been making for like 600 years in Okinawa.
“I throw the book down and they are like – This is fucking awesome! You’ve got the job.”
So for your personal projects you try to work with people you know?
For the soccer project I was working with a friend who I knew from Nike projects. For the book I was working with an art collective that I’ve been friends with, all people I knew from Bushwick. And then this whiskey project was with a friend from college. So for the next project I’m waiting for some inspiration. It’s very entrepreneurial. You can not really expect to make money right away. With the soccer project we eventually made money when the concept was bought. The book never made money, but I’ll walk into an interview, I throw the book down and they are like “This is fucking awesome. You’ve got the job.”. So the book is getting me more jobs then anything.
That’s what I like to do with my free time, I just like to make stuff. And I think New Yorkers like to see that. Especially good agencies want to see what people do with their passions. They like to see people who have a bit more going on then just the next commercial they want to do.
You’ve pretty much already answered my next question “What do you like most about the freelance lifestyle”…
Freedom! Pick and choose. Doing your own thing. At the end of the day you’re still your own boss. When you’re working with bigger groups and you come in, they tend to recognize that. There is a bit more respect. Like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction. The Cleaner. Everyone knows you’re there to make things happen. Whether it’s cleaning up a mess or making a production run smoothly.
Do you have experience hiring freelancers yourself?
When I come into a production I usually hire the director, the production team, the editor. So I do work with a lot of people independently.
What are you looking for in the people you hire?
Someone who understands the project and can bring good ideas into it. Not just someone who looks good on paper, but people who I know can elevate the project. Who can take the base idea and go beyond what we thought was possible. People who can be professional.
“I wouldn’t say small ego. You need a bit of an ego.”
How do you define “being professional”?
It’s understanding that there are more people then just you involved in this project. Who can work with me, with the agencies, with the brands? Commercials are such a collaborative effort that you can’t be an island. You have to be collaborative and you have to all live in that mind space, respect it, and appreciate it. Sometimes you get these primadonnas … I don’t have time for your shit.
You have other people making decisions here. Get on board. Be a team player. It’s a very collaborative environment. Sometimes you have these feature directors coming into the commercial world, and they don’t always have as much experience in that. With a features person, they have their own ideas about shooting, editing. If you bring them into a commercial context, they don’t necessarily understand that process, that it is collaborative this way. And then it can get really messy – fast. So you have to be very upfront with people.
So someone who is collaborative, who is respectful, small ego…
I wouldn’t say small ego. You need a bit of an ego. Just people who
understand the game. A big ego might also get you some big ideas. People
who are not afraid to just go for it. But I worked with all kinds.
And what are you looking for in a client?
Their creative reputation. If I know people over there. What does their reel look like, what have they been doing. Sometimes small agencies might not be able to offer so much, but they really appreciate your work a lot. Where a big agency might be more like “You are one of 30 producers now, get to work. Don’t fuck it up.” …
If you’re getting into a place that only has 25 people, you’re instantly part of the family. They appreciate your work, that someone with experience can come in and help them. I like smaller agencies for sure. They want to make more noise. If you watch a small agency become a bigger agency, you can watch the evolution of them getting a little more careful, a little more structured, a little more corporate, and they are not as bold with their ideas anymore.
“At apple the box is super small. But in that box they try to be as creative as possible.”
Has a client been too corporate for you to work with?
I did a stint at Apple a couple of years ago. Just to experience that was interesting. But in terms of working there: Way too structured and corporate. I’m not built that way. The levels you have to deal with over there, and the politics can be difficult. If you don’t work there full time you might not know all those politics and might get frustrated. It’s less about the work and more about the politics. You have to understand that going into it.
So it’s difficult if you have a more out of the box idea?
At Apple the box is super small. But in that box they try to be as creative as possible and they do fantastic work. It’s a whole other world, and it’s good to know how to navigate it. But doing it full time, I can’t do that. I respect people who can though.
Do you attribute your good freelance experiences to your selection process for projects and clients?
Totally. Having the Wieden experience as your background, having that high standard before you knock on anyone’s door, is good. And most of my jobs come from referrals, so even if (the client and I) do not know each other, we both have someone in common that is a talented person that both of us respect, so there is something at stake there already. There is some level of commitment instantly because we both know these people and work in the same circles.
But people who come out of nowhere and no one knows each other, there’s no foundation like that, and that’s where things get tough. That’s how you get screwed over. If you’re in the same circles word gets back about you screwing someone over, and no one wants to lose face that way. Because of the network of people that I know I’ve never really gotten screwed over.
Sometimes it takes them a month to pay, because of internal stuff, but they are going to pay me. And they let you know “Hey, we just have to wait for the next round.” Alright, I’ll wait. I don’t live paycheck to paycheck. If you’re starting to freelance, just building your network, living paycheck to paycheck, you have this disadvantage. You need the paycheck right away and sometimes places can’t pay you right away for internal accounting reasons. If you’re just starting out, you better have some money set aside. That would be my big advice to a person just getting into this world: Have something set aside. Have a cushion. Because clients can’t pay you instantly all the time. That’s just the reality.