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April 2, 2013Freelance freedom — is it a myth?

When I tell people what I do, they’re often envious. Not because they think that being a copywriter is great, or because they’re impressed by the brands I’ve worked for or anything (not that I can always tell them), but because I tell them that I’m a freelancer.

“That’s great,” they say. “You don’t have a boss!”

Well, they’re right. But they’re also wrong.

As a freelancer, I don’t have a boss. I have a hundred.

I am currently front page on google.co.uk for the following terms: copywriter, freelance copywriter, digital copywriter, copywriter london, copywriting rates, and copywriting book.

As you can imagine, this generates an enormous amount of enquiries. I’m not a copywriter any more. I’m a receptionist.

Whenever anyone fills out my contact form, I send them a customised response with a few questions — such as when they want me to start, how soon they want the work done by, and an approximate idea of their budget (to put the tyre-kickers off).

At the end of a long day, I fired off this brief to my daily enquiries. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I got a curt response at 1am from one enquiry, telling me he’d ‘expect’ me to be in his office by 2pm the next day. I replied, explaining that due to the volume of enquiries I received, I had two week lead times on all new work and was, regrettably, unable to come in at such short notice.

My response was met with a torrent of abuse at 8 in the morning about ‘my own self importance’. Yup. How dare I already have plans to work on a Thursday afternoon?

Freelancer? No, I own you, and I haven’t even paid you yet…

It never ceases to amaze me how many people who hire freelancers imagine we’re like the day labourers of the early 20th century, waiting by the dockside each morning for someone to pick us up in the back of a van and take us off for a day’s cash in hand work.

We have to plan, often months in advance.

You have to manage clients, you have to manage your workload, you have to ensure a steady stream of work coming in, you have to project manage current and future work… so not only do you have a hundred bosses, you have to be your own boss, too. And when there’s no-one to delegate responsibility to, that gets pretty tricky.

That means no, we’re not ready to start work the next day.

“Oh, but at least you don’t have to work a nine to five,” friends say.

They’re right. It’s often been said that most people work a nine to five, while the army work a five to nine.

But at least a soldier gets to stand at ease. Freelancers never do — you never know when you’re going to have to work, when you’re going to have to put in the extra hours, when a vital email will come in, when a client will twist your arm into doing a rush job.

When you’re part of a team, you have other people on board to share the work with. When you’re on your own… you’re on your own.

What do you do when you’re fully booked but a longstanding client needs a day’s work in a hurry? You don’t want to lose the client, so you do the extra work.

You don’t own your own diary any more. You cancel drinks, dinner with friends… because you’ve got a hundred bosses, and they all want it now.

No rest breaks – no rest for the wicked

Moreover, it’s hard — if not impossible — for a freelance copywriter to switch off at the end of the day.

Even if they work from 8am to 8pm, most copywriters put their coats on at the end of the day and don’t think about their work until the next morning. As a freelancer, you can’t do that. You’re constantly wondering when you’ll have time to fit work in, what you should say, what you should write.

The freelance clock never stops ticking. They say men think about sex on average every seven seconds. Well, I think I think about work the way most men think about sex. And I wish I didn’t.

The freelance market is changing.

As the freelance market becomes more saturated, I’ve also had to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in self-promotion to get myself into this coveted position of part-time writer and receptionist-in-chief.

I said on twitter the other day I reckon I spend at least 50% of my time on self-promotion, whether that’s writing my ebook, writing blog articles here or elsewhere, or simply chatting to folks on twitter.

It’s hard work, and you have to constantly stay ahead of the game. Every time you improve your SEO, so do your competitors. Every time you shout louder, they shout louder. Recently, I’ve found myself having to do more shouting than writing.

Budgets have become smaller, meaning you have to take on more work and — more importantly — more clients — leading to even more unbillable hours on admin, contact time, and chasing invoices, as well as more scheduling clashes as you try to keep everyone happy.

You’re competing against services like People Per Hour, where someone will happily knock out text for a 10 page website for £250. Suddenly, your client expects you to do the same, yet give them a fully custom, bespoke service — the type they’d never get on People Per Hour — for little to no more money. Because after all, they think the words are the only billable part of the job.

“At least you don’t have to commute!” your friend says.

No, but you do have to travel. Most of my clients want to meet in person. Usually, they want to meet before agreeing to work with me. As a rule of thumb, getting across London takes at least an hour each way from my house to most meetings. With a meeting of just over an hour, plus making sure you’re on time, plus getting back to “writing mode” at your desk, each meeting sets me back very nearly four hours – half a day, and often at inopportune times. Are you really going to get an hour’s “work” done 9-10, then go out for four hours? No. By 10, you’d just be warming up.

If I meet two prospective clients a week, that’s one whole day gone – on the basis that I only “win” one of those clients, I’d need the winning client to have at least a £750 budget to keep the lights on at the Allday Creative offices for a week. Yet people get offended when I won’t meet them until they’ve given me an indication of their budget.

Time was clients used to have a £2-4k budget.
Now they’ve got a £200-400 budget.
That’s not a viable business model for a bespoke, face-to-face service.

You can’t make a suit that’s tailored to your every contour for a couple of hundred quid, and you can’t write copy that says everything you want it to say for that price either.

Yet people still demand that kind of service — and the initial consultation — despite having no ability to pay for that kind of service. Often, the client’s budget is lower than the cost of the meeting.

You’d be amazed at how much time I’ve spent commuting over the last year. The difference between me and an office worker, I tell my friends, is that you’re going to a job where you’re guaranteed to get paid from it. And you can read a book or listen to music on your way in to work. I have to spend my time preparing a pitch. I’m working, even when I’m on my way to work.

If this post seems like a gripe about freelancing, it’s because it is.

Or rather, it’s a gripe about a certain type of freelancing — direct to client. As I’ve guest blogged elsewhere, I prefer working at agencies, a job where I can show up in the morning, write, and leave in the evening.

I’ve been moving in this direction for some time now. I’m now moving towards full-time agency work.

Partly because I enjoy working around other people, with a good art director, account manager, and creative director on my side — and especially because I love getting my teeth into the bigger, consumer-focused brands that agency work provides — but also because the bottom has completely fallen out of the freelance “direct-to-client” market. People expect much, much more now, for far, far less.

The wild west days are over – the agency is king

I’ve started to think that freelance freedom is a myth.

  • You have to work round the clock, often on evenings and weekends.
  • You have to act as receptionist, account manager, and bookkeeper as well as writer.
  • You have to do a lot of crazy commutes for meetings which often aren’t billable.
  • You often find yourself giving free business advice that isn’t billable either.
  • You’re a bespoke service that’s competing against much cheaper generics such as People Per Hour and Copify — currently doing for the copywriting world what templates did to the web design industry.
  • Even with the best time management, you will get shouted at by a client who wonders why you can’t do their work tomorrow, or why they aren’t your #1 priority.
  • Even when none of this happens, it’s very hard to “switch off” from all these concerns when not working. So you’re always working, even when you’re not.

I could work a full-time job at an agency from 8am to 8pm every day of the week and still be doing less work than a freelancer. And for more money, too.

But what about all that freedom?

Even after all of this, your friend still plays the trump card: “But when you’re a freelancer, you get to pick and choose your own hours, so you must have time for all those other pet projects… speaking of which, how’s that novel of yours coming along?”

Well, I’ll tell you exactly how it’s coming along. In five years of freelancing, I’ve written fewer than 20,000 words. I write up to 10,000 words for my clients every week.

A friend of mine, who’s an agency copywriter (frequently working 10-12 hour days), is much further ahead in his novel and he only started his last year. Why? Well, it’s partly because I feel guilty working on my own projects when, technically, I’m always on “the company’s” time.

When you have ‘all the time in the world’ you tend to value it less. “I can always work on that chapter of my book tomorrow,” I say. I’m exhausted, I worked all through the weekend, and would quite like to have a Monday in front of the telly. Except you get a call 6pm on Monday asking you to work the next day. The book gets put aside for another week.

Full-time work gives you more free time, not less.

Knowing exactly when you’ll have time off, and knowing it’s scarce, actually forces you to do more with your time, because it’s so much easier to draw a line under “work” time and “personal” time. If you’re self-employed and you’re a workaholic like me, it’s too easy to allow work to become your life. I’ve only been on one holiday in the last five years.

I said last year that if you’re not enjoying the freelance game any more, you should get out of it. I’m thinking about taking my own advice. Being abused by an enquiry (not even a client) because I wouldn’t accept his 1am demand to start work at 2pm the next day was the final straw.

As a freelancer, I’ve I run a tight ship. But I also run a high-quality, low-volume operation. The market for that kind of freelance outfit is dead — or if it’s not dead yet, it’s dying.

Agencies are becoming much more organised and on the ball about copywriting than they used to be, as are their account managers. It used to be that small agencies didn’t employ full-time copywriters. Now they do, because they know their clients demand it.

The top end of the market has gone. And I’d rather leave the bottom feeding to People Per Hour.

For these reasons, I think going agency only is probably the way I’m heading. As a “freelancer” I don’t feel free any more. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 at 11:00 am and is filed under Blog, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 comments

  1. Andrew Tobert says:

    I guess it’s all about what the alternative is. If you can get rewarding agency work, where your input is appreciated and you’re surrounded by inspiring, great people, I can absolutely see why that’s preferable to freelancing.

    But for most people (ie, me) I think that’s a rarity. I felt (when I had “a real job”) that I was surrounded by people who weren’t helping me improve my writing. And that I’d become a sales monkey – flogging stuff, rather than producing anything I could be proud of. Now (four months in), I have absolute freedom to do what I want. All your criticisms are valid, the lifestyle I now have is easily worth the hassle and risk.

  2. Hi Alastaire – very insightful post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    As someone who is just starting out on her freelance career, this has definitely given me some food for thought and addressed some of the concerns I’ve been having. Think it might be time to look into this whole agency thing…!

  3. Mary says:

    I’ve had my only significant commissions through word of mouth and agree that agency is the way to go. The challenge is researching and finding the right agency. Perhaps a future blog a out this, but don’t cut into that valuable rest-time. Have a holiday -— France is nice at this time of year. Best of luck.

  4. Filip Brucha says:

    Yep. For most people is usually hard to imagine that working as a freelance, i.e. without a boss, is actually more exacting, very time-consuming and so on…

  5. Freelance work is often described as a “feast or famine” profession. This can make it hard to anticipate weekly, monthly and especially yearly profits, and it can be hard to anticipate when the payments will actually come in. This can be nerve-wracking for many people, so it must be remembered that those who do not enjoy risks may not enjoy freelance work.

  6. James says:

    Man. Why does life suck so much? We live in one of the most developed and affluent societiesi n the world…

    You’d think we’d be happier than the guy in Vietnam making $100 a month, but from what I’ve seen, we aren’t. What gives?

  7. Just trawling and noticed this post. I have had an incredibly frustrating day re-designing and writing my site. Or trying to! technical issues frustrating me.

    Decided this morning I wasn’t going to do client work anymore, just concentrate on my own publishing projects and maybe a bit of work of existing clients ‘under the radar’.

    I think I would be happier writing less ‘salesy’ stuff.

    Anyway, just my tuppence worth. No-one’s likely to read this after so much time elapsed anyway!

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