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November 15, 2008 / davebirss

How to be a good freelancer

After my post about how agencies should treat freelancers, it’s only fair that I talk about how freelancers should deal with agencies. Having sat on both sides of the fence (ouch) I know what’s impressed me about freelancers I’ve hired and I’ve used that experience to make sure I’m a contractor people enjoy working with.

See what you think of these:

Tout your arse around
I don’t bother with headhunters. From experience, they’ll promise you the earth when you’re with them, get excited about your work and then nothing happens. Instead, I recommend that you make contact with the agencies yourself and take your portfolio around. People don’t just hire you for your work. They hire you because you seem like a nice person to work with. You can only prove that by making direct contact.

Don’t be a tosser
I’ve made the mistake of hiring very talented people in the past who have turned out to be egotistical arseholes that upset my staff. Your freelance career won’t be a long one if you only ever get hired once by every agency in town.

Are you actually a freelancer?
A lot of people who go around agencies aren’t actually freelancers – they’re people who’ve just got fired or made redundant. When you get them in to see their work, they act like it’s a job interview. I ask them if they’re interested in full time work and if they say yes, I don’t hire them. I need a someone who is actually a freelancer. They’ll not be phased by a new environment, they’ll understand a brief quickly and produce the work inside the deadline with minimal management. If you’re actually looking for a full-time job, don’t go the freelance route.

Don’t have a ‘freelance attitude’
When I hired freelancers, I hated the way some of them would leave at 6pm on the dot, leaving the full-time employees to stay late and pick up the pieces. It probably bugged me more because I’d never do that myself. Freelancers are getting paid more than the employees around them so it pisses the full-timers off if they’re working longer hours for less rewards.

Get your shovel out
Freelancers rarely get the best briefs. Most of the time they’re shovelling the less-rewarding crud that the full-timers don’t want to do. If you want to fill up your trophy cabinet, don’t freelance.

Act the way you would if you worked there
Care about doing the very best work in the same way as you would if you were working at the agency full-time. Believe me, it shows.

A booking’s only a booking if you’re booked
If an agency says they want to pencil you in, let them. But don’t let it stop you looking for other work that’s a definite booking. Don’t tell them that you need a firm booking because in my experience some agencies will then say it’s a firm booking and call to cancel it last thing on a Friday afternoon. If they’re ignorant enough to expect you to pencil them in, it’s their fault if you can’t make it.

Have your own set-up
It’s good to have everything you need to do the job wherever you are. Preferably have a laptop with all the applications you need so that you don’t have to wait for their IT guru to set up a machine for you. If you can do the work better out of the office, tell them that. I’ve always found that offices are the worst possible place to write long copy – so I would always try to work at home, on the train or in a pub. Preferably a pub.

Keep the cash flowing
This is the hard part for a freelancer. Most of us aren’t very good with money and invoicing and chasing up payments and stuff. As I’ve previously mentioned, most agencies treat freelancers in the same way as they’d treat a big external supplier – they’ll hold off on payments as long as they possibly can. Clearly this is wrong (and I don’t understand how some of these finance guys can sleep at night) but you should be prepared to deal with it.

Here are a few tips:

  • Ask if they use purchase orders. If they do, request one before you start the job – and keep badgering them until you get one. And find out if there’s any other procedure you need to go through – being set up on a system, providing tax details, giving bank account numbers, etc. It’s so much better to get this sorted out up front than only finding out when you haven’t been paid on time.
  • Get into the habit of invoicing on the day you finish the job. If they need timesheets and stuff like that to accompany it, do them immediately. I know it’s hard – I hate it too!
  • Give them an incentive to pay early. One of the things I’ve done in the past is reduce my day rate if they pay early. It usually works.
  • Chase them. Find out the name of the right person in the finance department and keep contacting them. But don’t be a dick about it – they’re only human and they’re usually following orders. Be nice and ask if there’s anything you can do to help the payment go through early.

If you’ve got any other tips, please add them to the comments area.


Leave a Comment
  1. James / Nov 15 2008 6:17 pm

    In regards to billing, I have an iPhone, so I use the calendar app and Nemus Sync to keep track of my time and work. It is so easy to bill that way, because I found that procrastination makes me forget what specifics I need to invoice for.

  2. Joe / Nov 16 2008 4:53 pm

    I guess I’m missing the point about not hiring a freelancer who prefers a fulltime position. Might not that person be motivated to work hard during the temporary gig with the hope of turning it into something more? Yes, this person may be disappointed when it ends shortly but that is all you promised. Postpartum depression is their problem.

  3. davebirss / Nov 16 2008 5:28 pm

    Hi James,

    Yup, I use iCal to do the same. When you’ve got more than one client it’s easy to lose track of who you’ve done work for on what day after a couple of weeks have gone by.

    And Joe,

    the full-timer thing comes from experience. A professional freelancer doesn’t get phased by working somewhere new and you can trust them to deliver the work on time. Someone who’s come from a full-time position, is looking for another full-time position and has a full-time mindset needs to be chased and managed and very often doesn’t meet deadlines in quite the same way. I know that it’s a sweeping generalisation. I know it’s not completely fair. I’m sure there are plenty stories that will disprove my point (my own, for example!). I just understand that a career freelancer is safer because they know that they’re running a business and are more likely to deliver because they want repeat business.

  4. chris / Nov 19 2008 9:18 pm


    I just stumbled onto your freelance advice, which I really thought was
    top notch. having been freelancing for a bit less than a year now
    especially your tips on invoicing came in really handy for me just
    now. (I have about five years experience, everything before this year was full-time.) I did however want to disagree on one point – that of “don’t hire
    them if they are also up for full-time.” I wrote this in an email
    because I felt it had become too long for the comment form.

    I like freelancing but that doesn’t mean I would run away if a
    full-time opportunity came up and I don’t think that makes me a worse
    freelancer at all. what I like about freelance is that it gives me the
    opportunity to work on a lot of different briefs and that I can get to
    experience different agencies from the inside. it helps to figure out
    who is good and who is nice in a market and it challenges set
    routines. every place does it a bit differently.

    I dislike about freelance that I rarely am kept around to actually
    produce the work. you get brought in, you come up with something cool
    and a week later you are gone because you are more expensive than the
    full-time staff. fast forward two months and you see your idea out in
    the wild and someone else has completely screwed it up or not pursued
    it the way you think it should have been. the rewarding thing about
    full-time is that you get to protect, nurture and expand your initial
    idea all the way through and that you get to build a relationship with
    the client that you can build on for future campaigns. that’s why if I
    liked a place and they asked me if I’d like to continue working for
    them, I’d seriously consider it.

    and okay, another advantage is you don’t have to chase a finance dep
    for four months. I just had that happen to me.

    as far as “freelancers are better with deadlines” is concerned – I’m sorry but that’s just wrong. it’s a question of individuals. some people do whatever it takes and others go home at stroke six. some people beat their brains into submission to make a deadline work and others call it a day to start over fresh the following day. finding the right kind of person is not a matter of freelancer but character and work ethic and if you do find someone who delivers what you are looking for, I’d strongly suggest holding on to them if at all possible. it’s not like they will magically change if you bring them in permanently.

  5. davebirss / Nov 19 2008 10:54 pm

    Thanks Chris,

    You make some very good points. I enjoyed freelancing for the same reasons. And, unfortunately, the curse of freelancing is that a lot of your good work gets buggered up by people who just don’t get it.

    You’re absolutely right about wanting to stay somewhere if you find a great place. Over the years I’ve agreed to stay awhile at a few agencies because they were doing great work – taking myself off the freelance circuit.

    But the big contentious issue is that I said I didn’t want to take on freelancers who told me that they were interested in full-time work. It was really meant as a comment about the creatives who pretend to be freelancers because they’ve just been kicked out of an agency. They do it for various reasons – financial desperation, getting themselves in front of creative directors, wanting to try out different agencies or trying to get in so that they can impress the agency so much they’ll be offered massive salaries to stay. From experience, most of the time these creatives just don’t cut it. They’re still in the full-time mindset, they take too long to settle in or they were kicked out of the previous agency for a very good reason. And when you have a bank of very good, proven, talented, trustworthy creatives to call on – I’m sure you can understand my reasons.

    When you’re growing your career, being full-time can very often help you move up the ladder faster than freelance. I wouldn’t suggest you turn down a full-time position if you think it’s a great opportunity.

    But the good news for everyone is that I’m no longer interviewing and hiring any more. So my extremist views won’t harm anyone’s potential earnings!

  6. chris / Nov 19 2008 11:29 pm

    I’m going to ignore your theory of the ‘full-time mindset’ vs. the ‘freelance mindset’ because in all honesty I don’t know anything about either one of those. perhaps other people think about it that way but my impression is that they’d be limiting themselves. I for one am an opportunist.

    I know how that sounds but allow me to explain: I seek opportunity. I have worked for agencies that I loved being at and ones I was miserable at. I have sworn to myself that the latter is never again going to happen to me again. I work hard and take pride in the people I have gone to the bat for have wanted to work with me again. when someone brings me on, they get the full monty, dayrate or annual salary. they get it not because they are nice guys but because I want to produce great work, because I want to make relevant work, because I want to make waves. I want to be proud of what I do, want to see all the hard labor come to fruition. if that didn’t matter to me I could as well work for an insurance company.

    I decided to freelance upon moving to the uk because I wanted to find the people who really “got it,” who were compatible with me and approached projects in a way that made sense to me. I think I understand your thoughts on the mindsets but I also think you’re doing people who approach advertising my way an injustice because if I did do a freelance project for someone and it did go smashingly well and they did ask me if I wanted to stick around and keep pursuing what had proven to be an exciting opportunity then why shouldn’t I take it? it would seem positively silly to throw away such a great chance.

    that is why when I meet creative directors I usually answer your question with blunt honesty. I am currently freelancing, I like it and should the right opportunity come around I’d be open to talking about more as well.

  7. davebirss / Nov 19 2008 11:43 pm

    You’ve convinced me. I’d hire you!

    (You’ve got some pretty awesome photography, by the way!)

  8. raj / Dec 20 2008 5:10 pm

    Re “don’t have a freelance attitude”. Are you forgetting that full-time employees already sometimes dislike contractors/ freelancers? They often have unfair perceptions. To be honest, I would have made far more in my life had I always been salaried than freelancing/ contracting. But that’s not how all employees perceive things.

    So if you stay late, you should only do so with your supervisor’s approval. I always ask first if I’m needed. Else I go. Now fortunately for me, I usually have been needed.

  9. harpreet bhatia / Apr 3 2010 6:19 am

    Hey those are nice tips. I’m an Indian. and client here are not that good. They hold up your payment, Until you are fully done. I hate when they do that. clients should know how to keep a freelancer happy and running. Most of the time they just keep on adding stuff to development. Hindering it from getting done on time. And then they say. “I cant pay you advance, because you are running late.”

    This is what happened to me 2 days back. can you suggest anything?

    • davebirss / Apr 12 2010 1:40 pm

      I don’t think badly-paying clients are just an Indian thing! It can be hard to do – but it’s probably best to stick to your guns and say that you won’t work without a certain amount upfront. And agree timings and expectations upfront too so that it’s harder for them to hold back payment for not meeting their expectations. It’s much easier to do that than have the endless arguments about money at the end.

      Good luck :-/

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