Top freelancers and agency heads offer advice to rapidly changing workforce

Written by Ben Phillips, Editor of PR News at Telum Media

Many in the industry will argue that the shift from a full-time workforce to one with a higher proportion of freelancers was well on its way to being established before the outbreak of COVID-19. But there is no doubt the events of the past six months have accelerated the number of freelancers in the market. The LinkedIn profiles swished with the green “open to work” border seem to multiply every day.

Online talent hub Commtract has recorded a 50 per cent increase in freelancers joining the platform since the start of the pandemic. Commtract Executive Director Vanessa Liell said COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we work.

“The marketing, communications and creative industries are rapidly shifting to a contract and project model. COVID-19 has accelerated a shift that was already happening as companies seek the best talent on-demand,” Vanessa said.

With so many practitioners starting out on their own in these challenging conditions, we spoke with two experienced freelancers about how they built their businesses from the ground up. We also caught up with CEO of Horizon Communication Group Justin Flaherty, and Founder and CEO of Sling & Stone Vuki Vujasinovic about the skills and qualities they are looking for in a freelancer.

The Freelancers 
Cathy Anderson worked in journalism for more than two decades including as a Journalist and Sub-Editor at Bauer Media and, most recently, as Digital Producer and Social Media Editor for mX in Melbourne. When mX folded in 2015, Cathy and her partner Andrea, who also worked at mX, launched Ginger Brown.

“At that time newspapers were shrinking, although not to the catastrophic extent that they are at the moment, so full-time jobs were fairly scarce. A woman at a careers fair encouraged us to start our own business, and we thought, why not give it a whirl? So, it was really more of a reactionary career move than a planned one, like many freelance businesses are,” Cathy said.

Ginger Brown offers freelance journalism, native content, subbing and layout work for publishing firms, plus digital and social media content for small to medium businesses.

Valerie MacIver was previously the Head of Press and National Publicity Manager at EMI Music Australia. She launched Valerie MacIver Public Relations (VMPR) in 2010.

“It was ten plus years ago and the passing of my Dad motivated me. I understand now that such a loss changes how you see the world. It made me realise it was time to put into action the things I wanted to do in the future. So, I returned to uni part-time to do my Masters in Communication, and set up my business at the same time,” Valerie said.

Valerie has been the Australian Publicist for Keith Urban since 2010 and has worked with artists including Missy Higgins, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Cold Chisel and Fleetwood Mac.

Valerie and Cathy shared the following tips and advice about how not only to survive as a freelancer but prosper.

Where do you enjoy most success in finding work?
Cathy: Our work comes through referral plus a mix of cold calls to editors and content managers through LinkedIn or after being inspired by a Telum newsletter – this is such a valuable resource for freelancers. We are now embarking on a trial to see if we can attract content clients through Google Ads and boosting our SEO credibility for organic search.

Valerie: Referrals and networking both work well for me when it comes to finding work. I’m always amazed about where work comes from, leads often come from a third person. The word of mouth from a referral is much more powerful than anything I can say about myself.

How did you initially work out how much to charge?
Cathy: This was one of the hardest things to do when we started freelancing, and it still is. Many freelancers suffer from so-called “imposter syndrome” where they don’t believe they have the skills and ability to pull off a successful project. Women freelancers are particularly susceptible to this. We worked backwards and decided what we wanted to earn as an annual salary and calculated an hourly rate. We have learned quickly to factor in all our costs and tax obligations etc. that start to eat into this rate. With larger projects we estimate how long we will think it will take us and charge a flat fee.

Valerie: Charging is always the hardest thing. You have to do your research and work out where you want to position yourself in the market. There is certainly trial and error. The good thing is that because I’m supporting myself, I never forget the errors and those mistakes only happen once. I’ve gotten better at working out what to charge.

How do you get around not having the top-brass software that most of the larger agencies have access to?
Cathy: I think you can waste a lot of energy worrying about whether you have all the right “tools” to be a freelancer. We base our whole business in Google Docs. We use Excel for client lists and social media calendars, and we adore Xero as a cost-effective and user-friendly option for bookkeeping and accounting. There are a huge number of online tools that can help make your freelance life easier, including Toggl to keep track of your hours, Rev.com for transcribing interviews and social media platforms such as Hootsuite.

Describe your ideal working relationship with a business
Valerie: I’m a person who likes systems and is routine driven. The irony of then working in an unpredictable environment isn’t lost on me. I try to be as planned and transparent as I can be, in the hope that my clients will do the same in return. But at the end of the day those things aren’t as important as sharing the same values as your client.

Cathy: An ideal working relationship with a business is respectful, communicative, and professional. Setting out a clear brief for each project and having everyone stick to that with minimal “scope creep” makes for a happy Ginger Brown team.

What is your advice to people who have recently moved into freelancing as a result of companies downsizing due to COVID-19? 
Valerie: Start working as soon as you can. Don’t have any clients yet? It doesn’t matter. Start working on your business: build examples of what you can do, set up systems and build your networks. Lean on experts in areas like IT, legal and finance, because you will need help to make everything happen.

Cathy: Don’t panic. Breathe and maybe take a mini break if you can to regroup. The freelance community can be very supportive and there are loads of Facebook groups and other arenas for you to connect with people just like yourself. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has a growing freelance section with regular webinars to chat with others, and regular EDMs from Telum and Rachel’s List are great resources. Work your networks for leads, scrub up your LinkedIn profile (if you don’t have one, build one – stat) and sort out an ABN, maybe a business name and a website (or a Facebook page at the start).

The Agency-Heads 
CEO of Horizon Communication Group Justin Flaherty offers advice for both freelancers and businesses hiring freelancers.

“Freelancers have always been an important addition to our team, particularly when we need specialist knowledge or to supplement the efforts of our team generally. When looking for the right freelancer, examples of recent, relevant work as well as references are essential. People who have an interest in our agency and our culture as well are the specific work we need carried out, will always stand out. We look for proactive, motivated individuals who prefer to work independently, and fast!

“When selecting a freelancer my advice is to build a comprehensive brief – what you need them to do and how long it will take. Then develop a selection criteria that will deliver the brief – specialist knowledge (e.g. healthcare), technical ability (e.g. annual report writing) and recruit against it. Seeing examples of past work and a brief interview will make it clear who is the best person for the job. Finally, be brutal – if things are not working our the way you want, talk to the freelancer to identify the issues and, as necessary, make the call early if you don’t think things will work out,” Justin said.

Founder and CEO at Sling & Stone Vuki Vujasinovic commented, “We’re actually growing our permanent staff at the moment, and it’s always been my preference for Slingers to join the team in a full-time capacity. We’ve also had a bunch of times when a freelancer or contractor joins the team for a temporary period, then becomes a permanent long-term teammate, which we love as well.

“Of course, regardless of the type of employment, we’re looking for a combination of skills, experience, attitude, and passion. It’s the last point I’ll focus on for a second. We work with a very specific type of client – disrupters and challengers shaping the future of how we live, work, and play. What we look for is people who care about helping those types of brands with their storytelling. That’s what helps freelancers, or any hires really, stand out for me. Whatever agency you’re joining, show that you care about the types of clients you’ll be supporting,” Vuki said.

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