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Compensation Conversations: MAARI CASEY


Oprah likes to say, “Life is always speaking to you.” For Maari Casey, an advertising creative barreling toward implosion-level burnout 10 years ago, it wasn’t just speaking, she explains, “Life was hitting me over the head and saying, ‘You’re missing it!’”

A series of health and stress-related catastrophes could have resulted in Casey’s unraveling. Instead, they fueled her to pursue an entirely different, more fulfilling direction--and pave the way for other supremely talented, stressed out creatives to do the same. As founder of Uncompany, a hybrid creative-agency-placement-firm, Casey connects ace freelancers with companies and freelance teams that need their talents.

Uncompany offers creatives an alternative to two unsavory choices they often find themselves limited to--grinding, full-time agency culture and poorly paying freelance platforms--enabling free agents to get paid their worth while still having a life. For its clients, Uncompany offers an avenue for getting top-level creative work, when they need it, without job postings and phone calls.

In October, in partnership with Wager, Uncompany is hosting a webinar to guide freelancers on how to set their rates. We talked with Casey about what’s destroying modern work culture, why the freelancer ranks are surging (spoiler alert: it’s not just layoffs), and how more of us can earn a comfortable income that reflects our contribution, without the grind.

Wager: Tell us about your own career path. Why did you decide to go freelance?

MC: I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and saw advertising as my way to see the world. I ended up going to a portfolio program in Atlanta called The Creative Circus. I worked at agencies in New York and Seattle for a couple years, before meeting my husband and settling in Durham, North Carolina. I was an art director at McKinney for five years and was working all the time. My sole existence was at the office or traveling for shoots. Around 27, shortly after getting engaged, I had my epic unraveling. There was a period of time when my health was suffering from work stress as well as the demands of having two sick parents. Also during that period, my now-husband and I were badly injured in an accident. The universe was screaming at me--STOP. Eventually, I listened. I quit my job and went freelance.

Wager: How did that work for you?

MC: It was wonderful. It allowed me to do great work and focus on some things I’d been neglecting. I realized how powerful and amazing it is to my work for myself. I freelanced for eight years, and it allowed me to dial up and dial down my life. I could have kids and actually spend time with them. I’m so lucky to have realized this in my 20s rather than my 30s or 40s.

Wager: So true. Many people don’t get the chance to see what’s possible as a free agent until we’re forced out in our 40s. How did you come up with the idea for Uncompany?

MC: Uncompany had been an idea in the back of my head for years. The advertising industry is largely based on an old model. Why do we have these giant brick buildings and no one wants to work inside them? The overhead that agencies have makes it hard to sustain when so many clients are going project-based. People are leaving full-time agencies because they are overworked and exhausted, and companies who need creative services have trouble finding good people. Freelance is still the wild west--there’s a lack of a system. At Uncompany, we understand what makes it hard for companies to engage freelancers and what makes it hard for freelancers to find and retain good clients.

Wager: How do you make it easier for companies to hire great freelancers?

MC: We offer three core services: Unagency, which builds freelance, project-based teams for creative work. This could be a two-person team or a 10-person video production project. OnDeck is fit for hourly based, task-oriented work. We develop a custom freelance bench based on the client and the work that needs to get done. And Recruiting is for longer term placements and even full-time. Companies typically lose a few days when they onboard a freelancer, so we put ours through a company-specific onboarding process, so there’s no loss of time. We also teach our clients how to work better with freelancers.

Wager: How do you help freelancers get paid fairly?

MC: We provide the client with an estimated budget after doing our best to respect and maintain our freelancers’ rates. The client approves the budget, and we charge them a standard fee on top of it.

Wager: Setting your rates as a freelancer can be so murky. What do you advise?

MC: Your business is your life when you are a sole proprietor, so I tell our freelancers to build a real P+L sheet. Your operating expenses are groceries, rent, building a nest egg, saving for retirement--all of it--and you need to price yourself to cover all of them. You also need to price high enough to allow for income smoothing--covering the inevitable slower times. Divide this number by week and then by day. This formula helps you to be a better negotiator because your number is based on facts--it’s not personal; it’s your business.

Wager: We have such complicated relationships with money. What’s your take?

MC: Think as much about what you want your ideal life to look like as what you want your paycheck to look like. What time do you want to wake up? Do you want a big house? People who are used to running constantly for their job often haven’t stopped to ask those questions. Consider your answers, and then build around that.

Wager: With cheap freelancer platforms, it can seem impossible to make the money you need to earn that life. What’s the key to succeeding?

MC: You must be clear about what you need to make and walk away when it’s not a good fit. From my experience in working with freelancers at all stages, there’s an abundance of work out there. If you let go of the fear that’s keeping you back, things open up to you. You have to be the one who’s drinking the Kool-Aid and wearing the t-shirt, because if you aren’t your biggest fan when hard times hit, you’ll be out. Believe that you’re a legitimate business--because you are.

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