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By The Drum | Administrator

June 2, 2005 | 8 min read

There are some people who will just never be able to acclimatise to that daily traffic jam on the way into the office. Or get used to concentrating on a project while surrounded by colleagues all noisily intent on their own work.

Fear not, however, because these days working in full-time employment is not the only way to go. In a world where few companies can guarantee job security, and the loss of a single piece of business can result in instant redundancies, many people working in the media and marketing industries have opted to go freelance.

It is a decision that brings its own range of challenges, advantages and drawbacks, but an increasing number of professionals are finding it rewarding.

Working freelance is not straightforward, however. Those working on a freelance basis are essentially operating their own company, something that requires a certain level of dedication.

Copywriter Alan Black, who operates his own copy agency, Blackad, said: “There’s a lot of people who lose their jobs or relocate and they decide to go freelance for a while. Some of them succeed, but because it’s not their first choice they find it very difficult and a lot of them end up going back to full-time employment. You really need to want to do it.”

Nor is working alone suited to everybody. Edinburgh-based freelance proof-reader, Debbie Dougray recommends that anyone considering a freelance career should be sure they can work in isolation. She commented: “I think the first thing would be to make sure that they actually could work from home by themselves. I’ve spoken to a lot of people that didn’t like it. They tried it for a year and then went back to full-time employment. They needed the human contact you get when working in an office.

“The second thing would be to do your homework and see if there’s a demand for what you can do. You’ve got to get as much set up beforehand as possible; like what you’re going to charge, who you’re going to approach as clients.”

Black agrees that it is important to do some research before taking the freelance step. He said: “I would say if they are very keen to go freelance you can avoid the few downsides by doing some planning and research and drumming up some business before you begin. You have to start with at least a couple of clients. You need to be able to pay the mortgage.

“The other thing you should do is save up a few quid first, to see you through the first couple of months. You should also be very focused on the kind of business that you want.”

Having decided to take the plunge and pursue a freelance career, it is important to remember that you will essentially be running a business. Gordon Cherrington, Scotland agent for Xchangeteam, a recruitment agency dealing exclusively with freelancers, explained: “Some people find that there can be a lack of motivation, working on your own. Some people think that they’ll just roll out of bed at 10.30 and take it easy; but you’ve got to keep it front of mind that this is your career and treat every day like a normal working day.

“If someone was going to go freelance the first thing I’d recommend is to get an accountant. If you’re going to make a career out of it you’ve got to form your own company, in which case you’ll definitely need an accountant. It’s a great thing to see the cheques coming in, but you’ve got to make sure that there’s enough put away to cover the quieter periods. First get an accountant and secondly get your portfolio together.”

A portfolio is a crucial part of going freelance. Without the backing of a larger company, a proven track record in your particular field is the key to selling your services. Freelance journalist Mark Alexander stated: “It’s definitely important to have an established portfolio. The first thing people ask you for are past examples of your work. I think it’s important not just to have paper examples but also electronic copies, so when you’re speaking to someone you can send them straight away and they can see what you’ve done.”

It is not enough to have a portfolio put together, of course. With a growing number of freelancers in the marketplace, and agencies increasingly on the lookout for freelance talent to work on specific projects, it is important to keep up a profile with those commissioning freelance work, whether it is creative directors, marketing directors or editors.

“We tried our best to keep in touch with creative directors as often as possible without seeming like we were bothering them,” said Guy Vickerstaff, now art director at Family. Prior to joining the agency with, copywriter, Phil Evans in April, the two had spent a period of time freelancing for several ad agencies in Scotland and England. “We sent out pickled turnips once and a monster Havana cigar another time; just in the hope that when they needed someone in, they’d remember us. Which they did.”

Once established many professionals find the freelance lifestyle suits them. The most commonly cited advantage is that working freelance provides a wider variety of work than working full-time at a company.

“The main advantage to being freelance is flexibility: the freedom to choose where, when and how they want to work,” remarked Cherrington. “A lot of people go freelance to re-address the life/work balance. Freelance is now recognised as a profession in its own right. It gives you the variety aspect, working on a range of different clients.”

Alexander said: “There’s a lot of variety in what you do. You get to work across a range of different clients and industries on the PR side, and on the journalism side it gives you the freedom to delve into anything you’re interested in. There’s a lot of freedom.”

Freedom is also a recurring theme. Freelancers are, at least when working from home, able to determine their own working hours – often a strong lure.

“My decision to go freelance was influenced by many things,” said freelance copywriter Liz Holt. “I wanted to leave agency politics behind and focus purely on the copy and the client. And I wanted the freedom to structure my own time, so that I could write more fiction and spend more time with my daughter. I guess these constitute the main advantages, too.”

There is also a downside to freelancing, of course. Increased variety in your work and the freedom to decide your own hours is counterbalanced by the loss of a regular steady paycheque.

Vickerstaff said: “The simple reason we decided to stop being freelance was security, really. It’s just a lot easier to change your mortgage or change your credit card in a full-time job than it is when you’re freelance. Going freelance can be a lot of fun, but it’s just a bit uncertain, unless you’ve got a regular client.”

“Getting payments in can be a challenge,” commented Alexander. “I’m sure if you speak to any freelancer, they’ll say that the main issue is getting people to pay up so you’ve got money coming in for the next month.

“One of the great challenges is also to be able to switch off. At weekends or evenings there’s a temptation to always be thinking about ideas or going upstairs to do a little more work. In some ways that’s good, but you’ve got to be able to take a break.”

“The downside is that there’s very little demarcation between home-life and work,” agreed Black. “There can also be the odd occasion of having to repeatedly chase payment. I think a lot of freelancers would also agree that it can be difficult to get copies of your work once the project is finished.”

Clearly some people will always operate better in a set work environment, surrounded by colleagues. However, people who are tempted by the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects, dictating how and when they work, may be drawn to investigate the freelance option. Who knows, you may even be able to avoid that morning traffic jam.


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