Until now, that is. Led by the US, where freelancers have a well established place at the very heart of the advertising business, the market has undergone a real transformation. Freelancing is no longer the refuge of the jobless but the chosen route for thousands who want more variety and professional challenge. If you're not convinced, ask Naresh Ramchandani and Dave Buonaguidi why they left St Luke's or ask Graham Fink if he still does ads. Indeed, you might ask James Dyson why he chose a single man, Tony Muranka, rather than an agency to launch his revolutionary vacuum cleaners.
Of course, it would be naive to think that freelancing is right for everyone, despite the fact that the recession has left larger numbers contemplating it. The disorganised or awards-obsessed need not apply, for example, Martin Handyside, a director of the temporary placement specialist White Door, says.
"Not everyone is right for it, not everyone can cope, he says. "You need to be flexible and open-minded, on top of being well organised. Confident rather than arrogant, and thick-skinned enough to not mind when your book is rejected simply because you don't have the right experience. "Above all, he warns, "the most successful freelancers are always those who are prepared to network with people."
Temporary creative assignments last anything from half a day for a brainstorming session to several days for cracking a brief. Sometimes they can even extend to six months if a client wants you to see a campaign through to the finish. In any event, Handyside warns, the in-between bits are not easy. Times are a lot tougher than they were a year ago. This is because even though agencies are leaner these days - and therefore need more freelancers - they also have a huge pool of their own staff redundancies to dip into.
There's no getting away from the fact, however, that many top names are now choosing to freelance. Some do it to make more time for their children, or to work on other creative projects. Others want to sample a variety of different agency cultures before settling in one place. The more itinerant just want to travel more.
The former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creative Victoria Martin began freelancing seriously after her second baby. She wanted more time with the children, but, she says, the new life has also brought other freedoms. In particular, the liberation of being able to focus on the brief and the product, rather than get bogged down with the distractions of office politics or constant client intervention.
Muranka, known in the industry as Mr Dyson, holds an entirely different view. He hit the independent trail 15 years ago after a career at CDP and Still Price Court Twivy d'Souza, precisely to spend more time with the client. "I want to meet the most senior man, get the brief and handle strategy, he declares. "I want to learn about the product, understand what's good about it and turn that into advertising. Even more, I want to be responsible for the effect that that advertising has on sales, so there's no getting off the hook. If the client wonders why the logo is so small, I want to be the one to tell him."
Nonetheless, the principal market for freelancers is still agencies. There's no real trend here either. Big agencies are just as likely to bus in talent to try to save a wavering client as small ones, and all sizes and types also need maternity or holiday cover. However, it tends to be the smaller ones who have to buy in special expertise. A below-the-line agency might need a one-off campaign on TV, for instance, or a creative boutique might need more sales promotion expertise. For small companies, of course, London's pool of freelancers can also be a strategic resource. Taken when needed, and released once the project is over.
In the UK, however, pitches do not seem to be the main reason for hiring freelancers. Americans, it appears, still value their freelancers more than we do, and often call in the hired big guns to crack briefs for special pitches. Our US cousins therefore earn more cash freelancing. UK day rates vary from £250 to £500, depending on the person, the job and its timing (although this can rise to as much as £1,000 for a top name). In contrast, US freelancers can expect to earn anything from $800 to $3,000 a day.
But perhaps the most telling difference is that American creative directors are not ashamed to keep freelance names on their work, even when it goes for awards. Here, the names of freelancers are often quietly changed to that of the creative director, a practice which many find understandably galling. Others, however, also can find it liberating.
"When I was employed, I'd really, really push my favourite idea, the one that was going to get me in the D&AD book again this year, one freelancer confides. "Now I'm not so picky about which one they choose, so I'll show the client two or three concepts, and they seem to like that."
Other agency professionals also have a healthy freelance market: account managers, planners, database managers, traffic controllers all do it, and each area is slightly different. Account management placements, for example, tend to be longer than creative ones, because they are often an agency's prime contact with a client. Few are willing to change faces on an account too often and assignments can last from a month to six months, or even a year.
The rhythm of the market is set by a constant flow both into and out of the freelance pool, and there are almost as many reasons people leave as enter it in the first place. The US creative Michael Long, for example, arrived in the UK fresh from a career in Chicago and opted to freelance as a way of sampling different agency cultures before finding a permanent home. Now happily at Saatchi & Saatchi London, he says his new job suits him better: "You can make a lot of money freelancing, but you don't have control and can't follow through. You can't build relationships with the client and the people around you, and that can be hard."
It will always be a private decision, and Muranka has a good rule of thumb for how to make it. "When it comes to important decisions in my life, such as going freelance, I use the deathbed test. I imagine I am looking back on my life from my deathbed, and I ask myself: which would I regret more, doing it or not even trying?"
US FREELANCING - DOLLARS 800 TO DOLLARS 3,000 A DAY
Name: Dion Hughes
Career: DMB&B and George Patterson Bates Brisbane, Still Price Court Twivy d'Souza London, Chiat/Day Los Angeles, Fallon McElligott Minneapolis and New York
Campaigns: Fosters "Australian for beer in the US; Nynex
Comment: "I love the flexibility of freelancing, but agencies are fun places to work, and sometimes I miss the camaraderie."
A sense of adventure took Dion Hughes (left in picture) from his native Brisbane to London, and from there his heart and future wife led him on to the US. Eventually, however, Hughes found life as a group creative director at Fallon McElligott too hectic for enough trips home to Australia, so he went freelance.
"Now I go for a month at a time, he says. "And if I need to work while I'm there, I do. Hughes works in conjunction with another former creative director at Fallon, Mark Johnson, and they have neighbouring offices in Minneapolis. "It's ideal because Minneapolis is only a day trip from both the east and west coasts, so a lot of our work is done long-distance anyway."
Hughes and Johnson mainly work for agencies, and usually find assignments by word of mouth, with only 15 to 20 per cent coming through a placement agency. A lot of his work, Hughes says, is helping agencies out with big pitches. "For people who find pitches exhilarating rather than draining, freelancing is a very good job, he says. "And another thing we love about it is the size of the project. When agencies get to call you it's because they really need you, and so you always get very attentive ears."
When work comes in, Hughes and Johnson usually travel to the agency for a briefing, and then return to Minneapolis to work together on the project.
If it's a pitch, then there will usually be a return trip or two to the agency, culminating in an overnighter to liaise with the rest of the pitch team and smooth out last minute details.
"We aim for 100 per cent employment, he says, "and we seem able to fill our dance tickets."
UK FREELANCING - POUNDS 250 TO POUNDS 500 A DAY
Name: Victoria Martin
Career: Horner Hollis Kirvan, BMP DDB, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Campaigns: One2One "Kate2Elvis", "John 2Yuri", Levi's "Mermaid", Audi "Number one", BT: "Tell someone about it".
Comment: "Freelancing gives you a truly objective position, there's no political baggage, just you and the brief."
Victoria Martin went freelance earlier this year following the birth of her second child. This not only gave her more time for the children, but also to tackle other creative projects, such as writing a book.
"For me, freelancing has kept the excitement of advertising without the relentless series of briefs, she says. "Although not everyone will find it successful. Some people find it difficult because they need to see work right through to the very end. For me it's ideal because my favourite part is cracking concepts in the first place."
Another benefit for Martin, who works as part of a loose grouping of individuals called Treatment, is that freelancing clearly defines her role. "In England, once you're a top creative, the dilemma is what to do next. Become a creative director and get distracted by office politics or by managing people? Or stay where you are and see your creative peers rise above you? I didn't want to be just another old creative, I wanted to have the time to do other things as well."
Martin ostensibly has an office where she can work at the top of the large house she shares in Chiswick with her family. However, she is just as likely to go out. "Even when I was working full-time I wasn't often in the office much, my best work was usually done in galleries, bookshops or parks."
The hardest part of freelancing, she says, is sorting out childcare that is flexible enough for the stop-start nature of the work. She found the solution by employing two part-time helpers, each of which can do extra hours should the phone start to ring.
But however well it works for her, Martin still warns that freelancing is not the way to make your name.
"If you're starting out it's not easy to make yourself known. However, once you've made a name for yourself, then freelancing is wonderful because people already know what you're capable of."