Building the Best Platform to Hire Creative Talent: The Story Behind Working Not Working
“We first built Working Not Working to help our clients manage about 300 people, and most of them were our friends. Today, there are over 70,000 creatives and over 4,000 companies hiring from the platform. We never thought this would happen. It’s crazy.”
In late 2011, Adam Tompkins and Justin Gignac were working as Freelance Art Directors in New York’s busy advertising scene. The two had been good friends for more than a decade, since starting their careers together at Ogilvy & Mather.
“The big idea wasn’t that big at the start. We didn’t set out to build a company. From our own experiences, we knew the process to hire creative freelancers was broken. It was a pain in the ass when we worked at agencies, and it was a pain in the ass after we’d both gone freelance,” Justin said.
So, the two put their heads together and built a platform to hire and get hired. Working Not Working gained momentum because it truly was a platform for creatives and companies — and now it brings together gifted people from all over the world.
In this interview with Adam & Justin, we’ll talk about why they got started and how they’re trying to build the best platform for companies to hire creative talent — as well as what’s in store for the future.
Note: Are you looking for top-notch creative talent to join your team or elevate your next project? Get access to the 70,000 creatives on WorkingWorking today.
Why They Got Started
Justin went fully freelance in 2007, which confirmed something he already knew: Getting hired as a freelancer was a nightmare process.
He’d call around his agency contacts and ask about new work, but nobody ever had anything going at the right time. Within days of being booked, he’d get five different agencies calling up trying to hire him at the same time. This was a stupidly inefficient process, and it was frustrating for everyone involved.
The calling-and-emailing merry-go-round was nobody’s idea of time well spent, and there was a total lack of clarity about upcoming jobs.
“I wanted to fix this for myself, so I designed something obnoxious that would eventually be the catalyst for Working Not Working. I placed a giant, blinking, neon sign on my portfolio site to show if I was available, unavailable, or available soon. I called it “The Justin Gignac Freelance Status Apparatus,” Justin recalled.
Justin hooked this up to Facebook, Twitter, and a mailing list — and soon he had more than 40 agency recruiters tracking his availability in real-time.
“Whenever I flicked the switch to “Available,” I’d get two or three job offers immediately. The jobs I couldn’t take, I was able to pass onto other great people in my network,” he said.
This was perfect for everyone: The agencies had a “vouched-for” pool of talent to tap into, and freelance creatives had a new way to get great work.
At the same time, Adam had been struggling on both sides of the fence. He had his own freelance woes, but it was the experience of trying to build a smartphone app that really got him thinking. Finding high-quality developers and designers at the right time proved to be impossible.
“I’d hire part-timers, only for them to leave for other roles without giving notice. The next developer wouldn’t work with the previous code, so they’d need to start over,” Adam said. “It was an 18-month rollercoaster that sank time, energy, and a lot of cash. The project was shelved.”
Both of the guys had suffered demoralizing experiences, and this kicked off a conversation about how the process for hiring creative talent was broken.
“We considered Justin’s neon sign to be a sort of “mini minimum-viable product” because it had turned him into an unofficial hiring rep for his network. The demand had been proven. We got super excited, drew up wireframes, and contacted a studio to build the platform. Working Not Working was born,” Adam said.
What They’re Building
“We started by fixing the hiring mess for ourselves, our friends, and our agency contacts. It was built by creatives, for creatives. The idea was to create a central platform to make everyone’s lives easier: for freelancers to find work, and for companies to find great freelancers who wanted work.”
As Working Not Working gained momentum, they saw a unique opportunity to build a creative community. This has been at the core of their mission ever since.
From the start of the journey as a platform, Working Not Working has been focused on helping companies find the very best talent — elite creatives with a proven track record.
They started out with advertising agencies and freelancers. Soon enough, they had design studios, tech companies, and startups on the roster. Over the years, this variety has grown hugely.
Why? Because companies are prioritizing design and creativity like never before. The big brands are building in-house creative departments, and companies who’d never have needed creative teams ten years ago are now investing in this side of their workforce.
It’s a huge cultural shift, and more of their hirers are now companies and brands who are hiring for full-time internal roles. Working Not Working is not just for agencies, and it’s not just for freelancers.
Regardless of whether businesses are hiring for full-time or freelance roles, Justin says the goal is to make the process easier...
“When we started back in 2011, hiring creatives was a painful experience. Recruiters would have an outdated spreadsheet, and they’d fire out dozens of emails and calls to see who was available. If that wasn’t successful, they’d go to their creative department and ask friends, or friends of friends. When all else failed, they’d enlist the help of a headhunter who’d happily grab a markup of anything between 20%-120%.”
According to Adam, it was a challenge for smaller companies to get hold of the best creatives; the big agencies often had a monopoly on great talent in the area. “The normal channels didn’t work, because LinkedIn isn’t optimized for creative portfolios and recruiters couldn’t exactly Google ‘top designers’ when they needed them,” he said.
Now, they’ve built a curated community of creatives. Companies can run a search and make contact with the very best creatives in the industry. The biggest agencies and brands can find perfect candidates, and smaller companies can access world-class talent like never before.
It’s crucial for Adam & Justin to preserve the elite caliber of the platform. Working Not Working is highly curated, because they want companies to be confident in finding the best talent. This level of quality control is mandatory for the team, but it’s been one of the biggest challenges.
“At first, every new profile was manually vetted. We had over 8,000 portfolios to review ourselves, and creatives were waiting between 6-12 months to get onto the platform. This was not cool for anyone, but we knew we couldn’t let the curation slide. So we brought in some community self-regulation in the form of a voluntary Membership Board — 400 of our leading creatives who review portfolios in their area of expertise,” Adam explained.
Now, they distinguish profiles with search filters and badges to show whether a person is vetted, a member (unvetted), or if they’re part of the Membership Board. This allows them to welcome new creatives at a fast pace, keep the standards high, and make it easy for companies to search for what they need.
FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE
According to Adam & Justin, the Working Not Working mission statement is to eliminate the obstacles between creative people and opportunities.
“Obviously, one of the biggest obstacles is finding work. We want talented creatives to have the opportunity to showcase their best work to some of the world’s top brands. We also want them to be able to create a profile which reflects their character and their unique outlook on life and work,” Justin explained.
“Yet at the core, we’re trying to do more,” he continued. “We’re building a community. Through this community, we can tackle big obstacles that block creative people — things like imposter syndrome, loneliness, and insecurity.”
The platform itself is used to bring people together from different places to work on projects. But the team also run a lot of community events, which bring people together in different settings. This fills an important gap for Working Not Working members: the social aspect of work.
Examples include the annual Holiday Party, the monthly happy hours (“Drinking Not Drinking”), and the support groups for creative professionals in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
Adam & Justin see Working Not Working as a gift to their friends, and they’ve always wanted to make life easier for people that they genuinely care about.
“This means that we’ve been extra thoughtful and empathetic about what our members need. We know that pursuing a creative career is often discouraged by culture, education, and even families. Those who survive the naysayers are misfits who choose a less-traveled path. This takes courage. We want our community to be part of a world in which creatives feel safe to thrive in their weirdness,” Adam emphasized.
What’s Next for Working Not Working?
Adam & Justin started Working Not Working back in 2011 with 300 of the best creatives in their existing network. It grew by word of mouth, which was an interesting experience for two guys from the advertising world. It didn’t hurt to have famous agencies like Wieden+Kennedy on the platform in the early days, but they know that they need to keep improving the platform for everyone.
In terms of what’s next for the platform itself, they aim to continue improving the user experience. Search functionality, filtering, and categorization of portfolios has already come a long way, but as the range of companies on Working Not Working expands, they plan to introduce further customization, since different hirers have different needs.
However, they have a bigger mission that goes beyond the platform. Here’s the unofficial mantra:
The world is fucked, and creativity will save it.
According to Adam & Justin, Creative problem-solving is the answer to the planet’s biggest questions.
“We need to tackle issues like the global climate crisis, ocean plastic, rising inequality, and the fact that 68% of the world’s population will be squeezed into urban areas by 2050. Everywhere you look, there’s a demand for new creative ideas — in art, design, and science. Let’s try to get as many out-of-the-box thinkers together as possible and see what we can achieve. Our industry needs to champion creativity in education and encourage engineering, invention, and ingenuity,” Justin said.
An example of this is when Working Not Working teamed up with VICE for an initiative called FoodFight!. In late 2017, they gathered a group of community leaders in LA to discuss the problem of homelessness and hunger. After being briefed by local charities and community projects, they pitched an idea for using ride-sharing and delivery apps to get excess food from restaurants to food banks and homeless shelters.
The project kicked off in early 2018, in partnership with Postmates and restaurants on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The aim was to make a small dent in LA’s 18 million pounds of daily food waste, and to get food to people that really need it. While this is a short-term fix to a deeper social problem, it’s just one example of what 20 creatives can come up with in just a few hours. Postmates has since launched the idea in 19 cities.
“We believe that we’re sitting on some of the best creative talent in the world, and there are really amazing things we can do if we tap into it. The bigger picture for Working Not Working involves more of this, more often, with a huge positive impact on the world around us,” Adam said.
Photos of Adam and Justin by WNW Member Jared Bernal