Once again we return to our So You Want My Job  series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
Today we feature the coolest job you’ve never heard of: freelance namer. A freelance what? Think about the difficulty you and your wife had in coming up with a name for your kid, a name only a few thousand people will ever use. Companies need names for their products, services, and websites, names that millions of people will remember and respond to. That’s where people like Mark Gunnion come in. He helps people and companies come up with just the right name for their new whatchamacallit. And he does it at home, sitting in his library, listening to music, and hanging out with his wife. If Mark’s job doesn’t make you want to run screaming from your cubicle, nothing will.
You can learn more about Mark at his website.  Thanks for this thoroughly interesting interview, Mark! And thank you for that uber-manly beard. It is an inspiration to us all.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).
I was born in 1961 in Indianapolis. After high school, I got a film degree in Chicago and came out to California to be a rock star. I wrote lots of songs and formed lots of bands, recorded tons of demos and played a zillion gigs. I had a lot of fun – but only made a teensy-weensy amount of money. Maybe it was the very competitive San Francisco music scene of the 1980s, maybe it was being out of sync with the very corporate musical era, or maybe it was just insufficient chops – but after 15 years and just a few small brushes with greatness, I knew it was time to try something else.
I started naming in 1996, after hearing about the job on the radio. I did the job part-time for about four years, then in 2000 got hired by a big downtown design and interactive services agency as a full-time namer (yeah, 2000 was a boom year, alright!). So, I bought some slacks and some shiny shoes and went to work downtown for a year. After they went belly-up in the tech crash, I had enough momentum to start my own business, naming and writing taglines full-time. And I’ve been doing it freelance, full-time, ever since.
As a freelance namer, I get hired by new companies that need a name, or by established companies coming out with a new product that needs a name or a tagline. The clients typically telephone me, or write me an e-mail, checking my availability. Then I get a brief on the project, either in an e-mail or over the phone, and I go to work. I do almost all of my work at home, in my home library, or in the office I share with my wife.
2. Why did you want to become a name consultant? When did you know it’s what you wanted to do?
I had worked as a video cameraman, a market researcher, and a tape transcriber – turning audio recordings of interviews into computer documents. The transcription gig was pretty successful, to the point where I’d hired two or three other transcribers to help me out with the volume of tapes I was getting. But man, it was boring.
Then, one afternoon, I was listening to a radio show on NPR, something about “weird jobs” or something, and I heard an interview with a woman who was a “freelance namer.” As soon as I heard her describe the job, a bell went off in my head – BING! – and I said to myself, I could TOTALLY do that job! It took creativity, which I had. It took a great awareness and love for language, which I had, but it didn’t require the long, long dedication to a single idea that writing a book or teaching a class did. And I could listen to music while I did it! I didn’t have to listen to people in market research groups ramble on and on about their ATM usage or what kind of features they wanted in a mobile phone.
The woman who was interviewed on the radio show was (and is) a great namer and serious Scrabble player named Andrea Michaels, and she lived right there in San Francisco, where my wife and I lived at the time. She was in the phone book, and I called her up, and she was just wonderfully nice and generous to me, advising me where I might apply for naming work, who paid well, how it worked to be a creative freelancer, just everything I needed to know to get started. She was really helpful and open-hearted, and I couldn’t have gotten started in the business without her.
Taking her advice, I wrote up a saucy introductory e-mail, full of what I thought was catchy, punchy language, emphasizing (okay, overstating) my experience as a lyricist, touting my college degree, and claiming special interest in naming and names. I talked about the transcription business, and how that affected my appreciation for language, and talked about how I had named all my bands, and listed them all! I re-edited the e-mail a dozen times, then sent it out to the local branding and naming companies Andrea had recommended. Turned out that San Francisco at the time (January, 1996) was one of the international hubs of the naming business, due to our proximity to the name-hungry tech sector and the generally high number of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists swirling around the city. Just from the impact of those e-mails, within a week I was offered a “rush” job, a weekend gig for a great naming company called Metaphor. A few days later, the biggest player in the naming business, Landor Associates, hired me for another rush job, for more money. When I got the check from that first job, I held it in my hands, staring in disbelief. It was twice as much money as I’d ever earned playing a musical gig! After that, I was off and running and never looked back.
3. Being a name consultant is a pretty unique job and not something you can exactly major in in college. If a man wants to become a namer, what should he study and what kinds of experiences and skills should he seek to prepare for the job?
Anything that has to do with a wide knowledge of words helps. I know people who came to naming after working as English professors, poets, crossword puzzle builders, proofreaders, novelists, museum researchers, even semi-pro game show contestants. As I said, I bluffed my way in with experience as a songwriter, balanced that with my years of typing and listening to the way people really talk, and learning every way that language can be bent, twisted and used by actual people. There’s also a big component of the job that’s derived from marketing, advertising, brand management, and design, so experience in those fields could be helpful, especially if you’re seeking agency work.
Also, any type of creative work adds to your ability to improvise and try new approaches. While naming is a little bit art, it’s also business, and the business considerations definitely rule the day. But a name is so important to market success these days; it’s got to show some creativity, some energy – some life! – to function in the modern marketplace.
4. What makes a great namer? How does a man know if he has the right stuff?
You have to know the language, and you have to be able to make leaps of imagination, and you have to know the wider culture. You’re creating a tool, a commercial tool, that has to work in certain ways and have specific qualities out in the real world. So, you have to have an inkling of how an idea will fit into the howling storm of names and brands and languages and voices and sounds out there already.
You need a few minimal computer skills to deliver the product and to find the clients.
You have to be thick-skinned – 99.9 percent of what you create is rejected, usually without a second glance or any explanation.
But what you really need to succeed is to be relentless. Lots of people, if they had a thesaurus, a set of Scrabble tiles, a Swahili dictionary, and five minutes, could come up with an idea for a name. But to make it as a namer, you need to come up with a name in five minutes, and then another name five minutes later, and another one five minutes after that…for eight hours a day. For three or four days.
So, even when you think you’ve squeezed the stone dry, you need to bang your head on the table again, and again, and again, and put another CD on, and look up the key words in one more language – I have scores and scores of foreign language books, Scrabble dictionaries, slang compendia, a complete 1967 Encyclopedia Britannica – whatever it takes. Because that client is going to go through that list and go, “No, no, no, no, no, no….wellll, maybe that one….no, no, no… ooh, yick!…no, no, no…Oh! That’s a good one!” So, you have to treat it as a manufacturing process as well as a creative one, and you have to try idea after idea after idea. Because if ten percent of your ideas are good ones, it’s not like you get ten good ideas and then 90 duds. You get nine duds, then a live one, then nine more duds, then another good one, and so on. You gotta bang ’em out.
5. How competitive is it to get a job as a creative namer? What sets a person apart from other candidates who are applying for a job?
Like a lot of creative jobs – and like being a musician in a big city – there’s always a new kid in town who’s hungry, and who’s ready to do the job cheaper, because they’re getting started. Also, it’s a pretty recent idea for corporations and small businesses to accept the idea of paying somebody to help with their name. Used to be, you thought up a company name you liked, and that made sense to you, or just used your family name, and you painted it on the front of the store. These days, every name idea can be instantly checked against the worldwide list out there, and people want names that work, not just in the next town or the next state, but all the way around the world, wherever they can find a customer. So, some customers still shop by price, and they get inexperienced people who can’t really check things out and analyze what ideas are going to work in the big picture as well as I can.
And besides the newbies, now I have to compete with things like online “crowdsourcing” sites, or naming contests, where hundreds of people around the world, boy scouts or housewives or out-of-work rock stars may chime in on a project, with little more thought than they’d put into a Twitter tweet, in hopes of claiming a $50 prize or something like that. But like so many things related to identity and brands, you get what you pay for. There’s so many moving parts involved in most naming projects that it really is worth it to have an experienced person working on it. And there’s hardly anything else a company will spend money on that they will use as often, or in as many ways, as the name.
So, I’ve found that what clients value the most is my actual experience in naming. Since I’m now approaching fourteen years in the business, I qualify for “grizzled veteran” status among namers. Lots of people try the job out for a short time, or they do it as an adjunct to another job in product development or PR writing. But having the actual experience I’ve had, over hundreds and hundreds of naming projects, literally, I don’t waste a lot of time on ideas that have a fatal flaw, and I can foresee problems and obstacles in proposed name ideas that folks with fewer miles on this road may miss.
6. You’ve worked for corporations and are now a freelance namer. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each situation?
Well, of course, the advantage to working for a corporation is that steady paycheck, the health care, the free sodas in the break room – do they still do that? But really, I have never been a corporation man, working within a hierarchy, playing the office games. That’s why I got a film degree, played guitar, extended my adolescence – and heck, I had a great time, found my wife, met David Bowie, grew a big beard. Being your own boss is a sure way to stay manly.
Of course, the downside to being a freelancer is that you’re always looking for work. When I’m not on the clock, I’m at my computer, searching the world over – literally – for new ad agencies, brand consultants, corporate identity specialists, as well as searching directly for corporations I believe to be in growth industries, places where new companies will be arising, where new alliances and mergers may be happening.
It’s my job to make sure that every person on the planet who is going to need a new name gets my e-mail in their inbox. Naming is complicated these days – I like to tell potential clients, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” So, the freelance namer also has to be a marketing expert – of himself.
7. How does a freelance namer go about finding and securing projects and clients?
Most of my work comes through companies that I have approached directly, via e-mail. I try to figure out industries where there will be new companies forming, or sectors where marketing money seems to be moving around, and I send my introductory e-mail straight into their marketing and new product development departments. I also get a lot of work from my established clientele – repeat business from agencies and consultants. Some businesses name a lot of products every year, and once I’ve come through for them, they usually come back. Also, these days, when people need names, they go searching online for “namers” and “naming,” and they find me that way.
8. What is the naming process like? How do you go about coming up with names and tag lines?
The actual core of the job is the naming part – and that’s what I love to do the most! I retreat to my work lair/library, put on some music – preferably without English lyrics! – and pull out a blank piece of paper. Some of my peers use computers every step of the way, but I like to look at the brief, make some new notes, and then just start making a list on a piece of light-green graph paper, with a purple Flair pen.
I look at every line of the brief, review the criteria and objectives for the name, and then I start writing. I write down whatever ideas come bubbling up from the materials the client has provided. I make chains of ideas – sounds, metaphors, and words – just free-form connections between different concepts derived from the client’s briefing and any conversations we’ve had. Before long, the names are just tumbling out of me. I have hundreds of reference books on language (and everything else) that I refer to, books on slang and etymology, Shakespeare, comic books, technical manuals, any kind of word-source where the name ideas might be hiding. When I’m doing the creative part, I don’t interrupt it with the availability checking, I just let the ideas pour out on to the page, where they can connect, and re-combine, and re-arrange themselves in different configurations. At the end of eight hours, there’s usually a hundred or more names scrawled down, created just for that client, ready to organize and check out.
Most jobs are done under a 30-day consulting contract, during which I will go through 3 or 4 complete naming rounds. A “round” usually takes me about a day, during which I’ll generate a big list of name ideas, 100 or more in a day. Typically, I’ll then do some availability screening on the list and report back to the client. Once they see that first list of ideas, they’ll have all kinds of feedback about what they like and don’t like, and we’ll start a “short list” of those ideas that best meet their business needs.
Then I then go back to my library and generate another round of ideas. As we’re going through the month, I’ll be checking their ongoing, ever-changing short list of favorites for various kinds of availability. Sometimes, a business needs the exact URL in the dot.com domain; sometimes they don’t need that, but they need the name to work in another language besides English, or they need a national trademark clearance in their business sector. I’m not a lawyer, but I am able to check some databases, for example, at the US. Patent Office or at Network Solutions. Of course, these days, a Google search is often the first and most valuable tool for analyzing “availability.” But there’s lots of gray areas, and so my experience with the relative shades of just how available a name really is often comes in handy.
For most jobs, I’ll do 3 or 4 of those creative days, as I try to arm the client with a half-dozen or more ideas on their short list to take ahead to the trademark lawyers for final approval. That’s the secret of the job – a namer doesn’t come up with the one, perfect name for a project. He comes up with hundreds and hundreds of ideas for the project – and the client figures out which one is perfect.
9. What is the best part of your job?
Creating something out of nothing. Being paid to be clever. Getting to listen to music! Also, setting my own schedule is important, although it turns out I’m very regimented – usually working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
10. What is the worst part of your job?
Looking for new clients when the economy is depressed. Naming is associated with new companies and new products, and it is a leading economic indicator, so when the whole corporate structure is holding back on spending, postponing new products, being more tight-fisted with R&D, being more skittish with marketing and advertising, then the budgets for naming and branding are often under a lot of stress.
11. What’s the work/family/life balance like?
That’s one of the best parts of the job! I work at home almost all the time. My wife is a graphic designer, and like me, has clients all over that she deals with through the internet. So, we often work back to back in the same comfy home office, share all our meals, and make each other coffee in the afternoon. I get to visit with my big cat, Daisy, any time I want to. Oh, and I’m a fully-licensed napper.
12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
That I just come up with one name for a given job. That’d be great!
13. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
Naming is a fine, manly job – though lots of namers are women, too – and it’s a new enough career that you can go a long way with just a good thesaurus, a webpage, and lots of enthusiasm. It’s one of those gigs where, if you do some research and keep looking, you can get a start, and once you’ve gotten started, it’s just like any other business – you deliver the goods, out-think the competition, and keep the customer satisfied. It suits the way my mind works just perfectly, and I really enjoy hearing an excited client looking through a bunch of name ideas they like. I always feel like I’ve used a little special skill I have to solve a problem they thought was going to be a lot harder.
I love my job!