How to freelance in the credit crunch

After years of plentiful, lucrative contracts, freelance creatives are scrapping their casual approach to clients and becoming proactive as competition for work intensifies.

Whether attacking the jobs market with this Herculean vigour means trying something new - or going back to basics, will vary depending on the freelancer and the foibles of their sector.

However, freelancers specialising in journalism, photography, marketing, PR, communications, film, TV and animatronics, told FreelanceUK that taking action now is imperative.

Doubters risk a nasty surprise in the shape of their existing and new clients scaling back, shelving or scrapping their role, particularly if the revenue it generates is questionable.

Barbara Chandler, an internationally acclaimed photographer, and freelance journalist for the Evening Standard newspaper, Grand Designs, The Designer and IDFX magazines:

So long as the publications you write for stay in business, it’s a matter of changing what you write about, rather than not writing at all. My main source of income is through editorial on Homes & Property, the weekly supplement of the London Evening Standard, but I write about design and interiors. My subject is possibly more important now, as people follow the old adage of ‘don't move, improve’. For example, I have been commissioned to write about money-saving generally, and now I’m about to pen a piece on Christmas presents for under a tenner.

Read carefully some extra publications in your area of expertise, do your
homework on who's in charge - then you have something and someone up your sleeve if work falls off.

Control zealously the quality of your work: if someone on your editorial team does have to go, you don't want it to be you. So, deliver to the brief and on time and keep your wheel of contacts well-oiled. If you phone or e-mail a commissioning editor , ensure you submit a concrete proposal, but do not appear to ‘need’ the work.

Don’t gossip at press shows and other events about what you are doing - some people steal ideas, contacts and more. Don’t rely on e mails and start talking on the phone - or better still call by an office or two, or suggest a meet for a coffee. People get work: computers don't. And if you’re successful, don’t be sniffy about fees: maybe you have to work for a little less - but maybe you can do a little less work and recycle the research.

Rona Levin, an award-winning PR, marketing and communications specialist, whose CV includes work for The British Library and Sky News:

As times get tougher more freelancers will turn to job agencies to help find work. Once registered, be proactive to keep your profile raised such as by emailing or phoning your agent from time to time, as not all jobs are openly advertised. Also, ensure you sign up for agency newsletters, or check their websites regularly, as many organise networking events.

Other organisations run free or cheap networking events, such as The Business & IP Centre, at London’s British Library, aimed at inventors, budding entrepreneurs or people just wanting to start their own business. For other events to inspire your creativity, do an online search.

Conferences can be expensive but if it's a good way of mingling with the very people you want to meet, so it might be a good investment. And bear in mind that fees for attending professional conferences may be tax deductible.

It's hard to consider voluntary work when you're desperately looking for paid work. But people at all stages of their career help out at charities including very well-connected people, especially at celebrity-fronted charities. It may or may not lead to finding paid work but it will almost certainly help make useful contacts.

William Knight, a freelance journalist and commentator, whose clients include The Financial Times, The Guardian, Computing, BBC Focus and Designer magazine:

Ultimately, it comes down to doing as good a job as you can for your existing clients, especially in a recession. At least for my business, most of my work is repeat work. Less than 10% is for new clients, and I would expect that percentage to fall even lower in the coming year.

This means my most valuable asset is my existing client contact list. I intend to work that client contact list much harder than usual, and will try to ‘up sell’ my editorial services to customers that are already aware of my strengths.

As well as trying to sell more to those customers, I will also redouble my efforts to do a good job for them, painfully aware that there will be many more freelancers chasing those same clients.

Charlie Bluett, a freelance specialist in animatronics, special effects, sculpture and 3D model-making, whose clients include Atkins, Twentieth Century Fox, the BBC and Adidas:

There are some signs in both the TV and film industries of fewer productions, or pre-production being pushed back. In the visual-audio media industry, if the finance is not in place then the project can be delayed or completely cancelled.

With this in mind, I'm increasing the size of my skill-set and trying other industries I have not delved into. I have found my range of skills can be equally applied to other mediums like architectural model-making, shop displays and concept design. As a freelancer, it's easy to get stuck in a rut. My advice is to take a step out of your comfort zone and see what other areas of expertise you can extend your skills to.

There are many avenues to networking, whether it's on the job, on a night out or over the internet. I regularly use social networking sites and industry forums. I am open-minded with networking and am comfortable to meet new people from other countries with the idea that, if needed, I will travel to pursue new opportunities. One of my back up plans is to win personal contracts for individual art works and even try collaborations with other creatives in different fields.

In short, if you find doors of companies are closing to you, then open your own - as a freelancer we have far fewer restrictions than employees so it’s up to us to make use of this comparative freedom! You can do this immediately: carry out research online about your new idea. Remember, every UK creative is gawking at the same faltering economy – in other words, we are all in the same position, so why not work with someone who can help you carve out a niche in the market.

Be creative and original in your thoughts but more than this - don't ever stop networking, even when you think you are not ‘at work’ as such. If you do stop, you’ll never know when the person standing next to you on a train station platform is the spouse or best friend of creative professional you greatly admire. That person may be your introduction to an excellent and high-value network, which is just waiting – literally - for your unique attitude, skill and capability to come along and enrich it. For freelancers, it never hurts to try and network; and if you don’t - your rivals certainly will, and go on to reap the rewards left by your inaction.


Editor: Freelance Alliance offers members the chance to network with other members possessing skills that knit nicely with your own.  Members polled have told us that the alliance is 'among the best' and 'comes out on top by a long way' for providing quality work leads without the time-wasters. More than that though, members can each actively promote the 'bolt-on' different services of another member to increase what they offer clients and by referring business in several directions, this is another way of increasing your prospects with minimum outlay.


15th October 2008

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