10 things you need to know before going freelance

Ditching the day job for the freewheeling life of a freelancer may seem like a no-brainer, but it's always smart to look before you leap, according to Campaign's industry insiders.

Agency-of-record relationships and the retainers that came with them have fallen out of favour with clients. In the new world of advertising, agencies must be lean and able to staff up when the big projects come in: this means freelancers. 

But just because the freelance market looks buoyant, that doesn’t mean it’s a free buffet where all you need is a plate to get your fill. If you’re thinking about ditching your shop for self-employment, there are a few things you should consider. Campaign asked some industry folk for their top tips.

1. Get a few years at an agency under your belt first

by Sigrid Egedal, freelance creative partner

You need to have a network of people that you like working with you before you go freelance so that you can speak to them about work. It’s important to be in a position in your career where you feel confident and are not too junior. In our creative partnership, we were about five or six years into our career before we decided to move into freelancing. Any time before that would have been too soon.

2. Your friends are not your friends

by Paul Burke, copywriter

You will be saddened and bewildered the first time a former colleague – maybe someone you regarded as a friend – doesn’t return your call or e-mail. When it happens for the 99th time, you will realise it’s nothing personal. They just don’t have any work for you at the moment and are too embarrassed to say so. Chin up – they will probably return your call about six months later as though you called them yesterday.

3. Take a break every now and then 

by Shib Mathew, chief executive, YunoJuno

If you’re an in-demand freelancer, being booked on a project immediately after (or even before) your current one finishes is definitely a good problem to have. But forcing yourself to take a break can be beneficial for the longevity of your freelancing career. Some of the best freelancers I have met have used the flexible schedule that freelancing affords to take time off to either recharge the batteries or broaden their knowledge – the latter being a key driver in maintaining an edge as a freelancer. 

4. Work every brief like it’s a pitch

by Nicky Bullard, executive creative director, Lida

Look at any freelancing gig as a "black book" opportunity. For executive creative directors, we will not only see how brilliant you are but we can also see if you’re a good fit. Work every brief like it’s a pitch, be on time, share proactive ideas (always welcome) and leave an impression with other teams.

5. Be unfaithful

by Paul Burke

Do not limit yourself to one creative partner. The industry has moved on. The freelancing world is one big swingers’ party, so chuck your keys in the bowl and be willing to work with a panoply of partners. You will make more friends, more contacts and, by collaborating with different people, discover different ways of solving problems and improve.

6. It pays to be flexible

by Emma Pueyo, freelance creative director

When you become a freelancer, you open the door to a new friend: uncertainty. Uncertainty is like a gremlin and planning is the water you should never pour on it. For a start, you just can’t plan much – you don’t know when a nice project will come up or when you will meet your next client. Don’t waste your energy doing projections and filling your head with "if this, then that". Accept that many things are out of your control. The Dude abides and so should you. Yoga can be useful. It helps you cope and increases your flexibility. Literally.

7. You should learn how you fit into the bigger picture

by Marcus Kirsch, freelance designer

Be smart. Build context around what you are doing. If you are a designer, know how you relate to developers. If you are a developer, know how designers deal with your piece of the puzzle and what their issues are. Understand why strategists say what they say and why creatives complain about account managers. It will make you tell a better story and help you become more aware of what you are doing. It will make you fit better in a team and be more employable. It will also make you come across as confident and workable. And it will make you appreciate what a good and a bad project is.

8. If you want to know the future of freelancing, look to the US 

by Sam Walker and Joe De Souza, freelance Executive creative directors

From our experience on both sides of the fence, we feel that the current model doesn’t necessarily bring out the best work. With neither side committing to each other in any meaningful way, the result is often "permalancers" with an average quality creative output; agencies don’t get what they need and freelancers don’t get to make their own work. The US is more advanced in terms of the freelancing market and that’s the way the industry as a whole seems to be going.

9. You should never say no to anything

by Phil Keevill, freelance art director

Keep as many revenue streams going as you can as there will be dry spells when the regular freelancing market dries up. So do some lecturing, become a photographer, write articles about whatever interests you, work direct for clients – just try to build up a varied portfolio of customers. Always say yes – you never know where the next opportunity might lead you. It is the thing I love about being freelancer.

10. Know how you’re getting paid

by Simon Robinson, freelance creative director

Make sure you know how quickly (or not) you are going to be paid. Ask if you can invoice weekly rather than monthly. Or ask if you can go on a short-term contract and be paid monthly like staff (you can claim back any tax overpayments at the end of the tax year). Also, many agencies are cutting the rates they are prepared to pay freelancers – on a "take it or leave it" basis. This can make it very hard for people to make a living. Freelancers’ salaries aren’t based on the idea that you work 365 days a year and multiply it by your day rate; they’re based on the idea that we might only be working 200 days a year or so and have to allow for the fallow periods.