Top freelancing tips in a crowded digital market

(Continued from Part 1:)


Don’t be naïve about market prices, so do your homework and understand average rates for your experience and areas of expertise. Design Week runs an annual freelance survey every September so that’s a good starting point. Many recruitment consultants also run their own annual surveys so it’s worth having a chat with a recruiter you know. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends either; chances are you have several freelance peers so ask them what they’re being paid, and by whom.

Next with rates, freelancers should try to understand how agencies run their business. For the agency, it’s all about running profitable jobs. Agencies are continuing to get squeezed on price by their clients. Yet they still need to achieve their profit margins, so this will impact on freelance rates. The trick for freelancers is not to be too greedy. The industry abounds with tales of freelancers who won’t get out of bed if they don’t get their top rate. When push comes to shove, surely it’s better to work at a slightly lower rate than not at all?

That said; you should be wary of regularly discounting as a freelancer. Not only does it commoditise your services and marginalise your added value, it will make it very difficult for you to raise your rates when the market does pick up. Instead, consider offering a free extra day in exchange for your top rate. Agencies often do the same thing with their clients, so consider doing the same with yours.


Your ideas are normally owned by your client, contractually at least, so while you should over-deliver in terms of quality, be careful about over-delivering in terms of quantity! Because the agency owns all the ideas created while on their payroll, with your ideas you won’t be able to reuse any routes they don’t select.


Freelancers work in lots of different agencies, and the agency world is very small indeed, so being careful and considered about what you say, and where, is critical. As a freelancer your reputation is everything, so you need to be discreet.

That means watching what you say on social networking websites. Consider the implications of updating your Facebook status to “I’m bored” during the day while working at a client’s office. What if that client, a prospective client, or a key referrer, saw this?

Here’s another cautionary tale. A freelancer worked on a pitch for two competing agencies and, without considering who owned the intellectual property, reused some of the ideas he thought had been rejected by the first agency, with the second. Imagine the brand owner’s confusion when both agencies presented almost identical routes! It didn’t take long for two and two to be put together. Needless to say, neither agency will hire that freelancer again.


For the digital or design freelance, there are three common ways to get new business: by nurturing your own network of contacts, through recruitment consultants and by approaching agencies direct. Whichever you choose to focus on, you need to make sure that you set aside time every week, probably about half a working day, to find ways to keep yourself top of their list. People are so wrapped up in their own day-to-day lives that they are unlikely to remember you’re out there unless you keep reminding them. Here’s how:

Through your network

This is all about raising your profile among people that know you so that they refer business to you. Ask everyone you know if there’s any freelance work going at their agency and ask them to put in a good word for you. And do it regularly.

Social networking sites like LinkedIn, what we see as the business person’s Facebook, can be a great vehicle for this. But it’s only as good as the size of your network, so make sure that you link up with as many people you know from past and present. And don’t forget that whenever you meet new people you should add them to your network. Just to prove it does work, over 65 per cent of On Pointe Marketing’s business in its first 18 months of trading was via LinkedIn!

The web abounds with great articles on how to make the most of LinkedIn – so check them out. For newcomers to the network, FreelanceUK has a solid starting point.

By making recruiters really work for you

Most people’s natural instinct is to deal with as many recruitment consultants as possible. We recommend that you rein this in. Many agencies send the same brief to multiple recruiters and if you’re also on multiple books you risk being put forward for one job by several recruiters. The result? It causes confusion as to who is representing you, annoying the creative agency, plus it doesn’t reflect well on your own management skills. And if you do deal with many recruiters, take control of the situation – don’t ever let them send out your CV or portfolio without your permission.

We suggest you stick with one, or no more than two recruiters with whom you feel you can establish a long-term relationship. They’re there to help, so do ask them what you can do to become one of their top freelancers. Then do it. Be clear on the sort of agencies you’d like to work with and the work you’d like to do. Also contact them regularly to keep them up to speed on what you’ve been doing and find out if any new briefs have come in. Ask for advice on your CV/portfolio and pay rates. And ensure you ask for feedback on why, say, you weren’t selected for a particular contract. And so on. With most recruiters, show your enthusiasm and determination and they will reciprocate. Sit back and wait for something to happen after speaking to a recruiter once on the phone and you’ll probably be disappointed.

Going direct

Consider contacting agencies direct. However, if you do go down this route the reality is that almost all of the time you won’t get a response from the agency, unless they have a particularly relevant brief for you at the precise moment you get in touch. This is why recruiters are still important!

If going direct to agency still appeals, do your homework by carefully selecting the agencies you’d like to work with that match your skills and expertise. Then address your CV and Portfolio to the right person rather than an anonymous “to whom it may concern”. Include a cover note that succinctly explains your expertise and areas of added value. Then follow it up, using the person’s name you applied to. Try to secure a meeting so they can put a face and more of personality to your portfolio. And then keep in touch every couple of months to let them know what you’ve been up to. Like recruitment consultants, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you sit back and wait for work to flood in without regularly following up.


As a freelancer you forego professional skills development and training provided by agencies to permanent staff, but your clients will expect you to perform at the same, or a higher level as their full-time employees.

To keep yourself up-to-speed on the latest developments in your current or new areas of expertise, consider investing in training courses. This is especially true for digital designers, where the speed of change is rising exponentially.

Then invest time in reading widely to keep up with trends and developments. Not only will this grow your knowledge, but it will also allow you to keep yourself ‘top of mind’ with clients and prospects by regularly sending them short synopses of major trends, or even giving them your take on what’s in the pipeline.

Like an investment, life as a freelancer can have huge rewards. Yet your ultimate success will depend on the proactive effort you put in to growing your business reputation for delivering consistently brilliant work.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series by Rachel Fairley, managing director of brand and marketing agency Fairley & Associates, Karina Beasley, managing director of specialist design recruiter Gabriele Skelton, and Stef Brown, founder of marketing and communications consultancy On Pointe Marketing.


16th February 2011

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