How creative freelancers can ride the upturn

The freelance creative jobs market has undoubtedly been through a tough time in 2009, says Mike Berry, managing director of creative staffing agency Xchangeteam.

Due to the steepest economic downturn in living memory, he says many businesses are still operating with no creative freelancers, where possible, or with the very minimal level of freelance support.

And although the signs are looking better for 2010, certain sectors of the creative industries have been “hit hard.” As a result, the recruiter believes that when the upturn takes hold, and new project briefs come through, even the most talented creative freelancers will need to be at the front of the queue to avoid missing out.

But exactly how do creative freelancers get ahead of the crowd? Here’s 10 top tips:

Plan to upskill, or just plan

For creative freelancers wanting to prepare for the upturn, any time out of work should be used productively and resting on your laurels is a no-no, says Berry. He recommends that creative freelancers ‘sitting on the bench’ ask the following questions: What training needs do I have? Are there courses I can do to broaden my technical knowledge or client pool? Are there any online courses that will get me into a new industry?

Network with new, and old

Don't expect the upturn to knock on your door - go out and network, either in person or via an online group, says Xchangeteam. Social networking websites, such as LinkedIn, allow freelancers to keep up-to-date with trends and topics in the workplace. Creative freelancers with an online presence or business profile will more quickly spot if their skills are wanting and, at the same time, have an ‘always-on’ hub that their network of contacts can pass work to. Events and meet-ups in the real-world, particularly those inspired by creative networks, remain invaluable for securing future opportunities, Berry says. They also provide freelancers with a much-needed break from their solo and often sedentary careers.

Making sure they re-connect with existing contacts is also a must for creative freelancers, says Gill Hunt, director of freelance staff portal Skillfair. Nurturing these older connections should safeguard your reputation as a creative freelancer, which, in turn, should inspire new ones to step forward.

I’ll scratch your back if…

Neither new nor veteran freelancers should batten down the hatches and treat fellow freelancers as dangerous competitors ahead of the upturn, says Hunt. In fact, a growing number of freelancers on her site receive work having agreed with other freelancers to refer contracts to each other, or to pool their talents and bid for work as a syndicate. Freelancers who opt-out of this 'peer referral' model forego opportunities to work with new clients, she says, and effectively close a window to maximise pay rates when the market improves.

Price sensibly

Although the economic downturn appears to be approaching its end, freelancers should keep an eye on their ‘market rate’ so they don't 'out-price' themselves when setting their own fee, says freelance PR consultant Rona Levin. Unless there is sudden upturn in business conditions, she believes the time to pitch fees at the lower end of the scale is about now, without falling into the obvious trap of under valuing your service.

Earlier this year, the Cranfield School of Management advised businesses to raise their prices, even if it cost them some of their customers in the short-term. But Levin says that today's client companies are being driven by financial awareness and constraints more than ever before, and currently insist upon value for money.

Try something new

Don't dismiss companies and roles because you haven't heard of them or because they don’t initially match your expectations, says Emma Brierley, Xchangeteam’s founder. You might envisage freelancing for a well-known brand on a specific contract, but every big agency or company had to start from somewhere and, most of the time, from scratch. She also points out that a lot of big businesses have been successful from setting up in a recession and from being at the 'front of the game' with great people. Typically, such businesses will remember the professional freelancer who saved the day at short notice, and will have few reasons not to keep them on longer-term when conditions pick up. If the upturn is only slight, having work available beyond the near-term will rise to the top of the agenda for most freelancers.

Ready the CV(s)

With the availability of creatives looking for work at a historically high level, a 'thrown together' CV will fail where it once succeeded, warns Berry. The CV for a freelance creative must convey to the reader the services and/or products on offer, he says, more clearly and instantly than ever before, mainly because today’s hirers have to sift through so many. Thinking about your career details from the point of view of the reader/potential employer is crucial. He says creatives must ask themselves whether their key skills and work history are easily readable, and prominent enough, and whether the CV is relevant enough to the role it is submitted for. The most astute freelancers ensure relevancy, he says, by having 2 or 3 CV templates that they can quickly tailor to a variety of roles.

Dust off your portfolio

Like the CV, a portfolio of a creative freelancer needs to be up-to-date. Concerned that his recent entries of urban life were too few, one freelance photographer says he refreshed part of his ‘London at dusk’ portfolio by using a trip to France to photograph Paris by night. His next challenge is to ensure that the new images are added to an online sample of his portfolio, which he says prospective clients request to see more often than the fuller, physical portfolio.

Show your charitable side

Taking on a project for a charitable organisation is a tried and tested way of updating your portfolio and keeping your hand in with contacts when commercial work has dried up, says Levin. The chance of repeat assignments can also be healthy, she says, as is the sign it sends about your character and personal work ethic to prospective commercial clients in the future.

Explore failure like it’s success

It can be tough for one-person freelancers to take knock backs, but the best freelancers analyse why their applications missed by seeking feedback from their recruiter and/or client, says Berry. The key is not to feel downhearted but to instead ask the breaker of the bad news two questions. First, “how do I stack up against the other people you have met?" and second, "how close am I to being the right person for the project?” At interview/application/pitch stage, where things don’t go to plan, seek feedback so you can improve next time. Where you experience good results, take note of what you did, so you can reproduce it again.

Prepare a Plan B

As some of the world’s best-known companies have shown, a downturn can be a unique opening to set up something new or improved, sometimes owing to less nimble operators passing up the opportunity. If building a new empire is out of the question, and your funds are dwindling, part-time projects and jobs can provide the answer, says Levin. She says such roles, even if 9-5, don’t necessarily need to betray the freelancer’s preferred area of work. Typically as a result, a creative can take on a relevant job as a fixed-term temp and then return to freelancing, once demand looks strong enough, while keeping their prospects as an independent consultant intact.


Nov 18, 2009
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