On the up

Things are beginning to look rosy for freelances after a couple of rough years and could get better yet, discovers Emily Pacey, but it still pays to have the right skills and experience. Research by Suzanne Hinchliffe

After two years in the doldrums, freelance pay seems to be recovering, giving many freelance designers cause to celebrate. However, the market is fiercely competitive, especially for the less experienced.

According to figures from some of the UK’s biggest recruitment agencies specialising in design, freelances achieved an average 5.7 per cent pay rise last year. Encouraging stuff, considering that last year pay fell by 17 per cent.

Recruitment agencies broadly agree that the market is improving, with some particularly confident about the current state of play. ’We are talking about pre-recession levels for freelances now, with our candidates holding the cards and quite a few upping rates,’ says Gabriele Skelton associate director Peter Bobb.

’Unlike last year, this year the phone never stops ringing and we’re constantly running out of available creatives of the quality our clients demand.’

Bobb’s caveat regarding the importance of quality is echoed by other agencies, which report that a surge of candidates into the freelance marketplace is allowing employers to become more selective, ’with some clients even requiring a freelance to meet them before confirming the work’, says Mac People freelance senior consultant Suzannah White.

The busy market is brimming with senior creatives made redundant during the recession freelancing and enjoying it. This is contributing to a situation in which junior designers across the UK are benefiting least from the upturn.

’Freelances new to the market are up against a lot of highly experienced individuals,’ says Blue Tree Recruits director Claire Vidler. She advises juniors to throw all their efforts into producing ’exciting, relevant, innovative and creative pieces of work that will interest the client’, in an attempt to trump the established designers.
The highest freelance pay is currently being achieved by freelance creative directors in the branding and digital sectors, both of which received unanimous votes as last year’s strongest disciplines by the agencies surveyed.

Creative directors freelancing in London currently earn an average of £44 per hour, according to Design Week’s research. That’s £5 more per hour than they earned during the freelance boom of 2007, and £7 more than last year. Senior designers, design directors, senior artworkers, and project and studio managers are also in the happy position of having seen their day and hourly rates rise across the UK in the past year. However, while digital design is still hailed by recruitment agencies as the major growth area for freelances with expertise, rates now appear to be stabilising across the sector. Pay for most of the creative digital roles is still rising, with the average Web or Flash designer earning £29 per hour, up by £3 on last year. But pay fell last year for motion graphics designers, and technical and management roles. According to Bobb, ’good conceptual designers’ with user-interface experience hold the most currency at the moment. Being able to deploy HTML skills is also proving to be a boon for digital designers.

Some recruitment agencies maintain that today’s is a generalist’s market. ’Rather than focusing on specialists in niche disciplines, we are finding that client demand increasingly lies in media-neutral creatives who can work strategically with clients to deliver the most appropriate and effective campaign or brand experience,’ says Mac People’s Jim Hunter. But this is not a universal experience. Periscope Recruitment’s Kim Crawford reckons, ’Generalists will be finding it tough, as agencies currently need designers who can handle a given project quickly due to their expertise in that area. Packaging and digital skills are in particular demand.’

But the statistics reveal that specialists appear to be winning the battle of the freelances, with the third biggest reason a consultancy recruits a freelance quoted as ’to fill a specialist skills gap’.

Generalist junior designer and specialist creative directors alike will take encouragement from recruitment agencies’ predictions that the freelance market is going to get even better next year.

Agencies surveyed, which include Gabriele Skelton, Mac People and Xchange Team, Mustard, Purple and Periscope, are together forecasting that over the next 12 months, pay will swell by 8.3 per cent on top of last year’s 5.7 per cent increase.

Looking even further ahead, Mustard’s Ian Coulson pinpoints a reason to hold faith in the health of the long-term freelance market. ’Emerging markets like China, the Middle East and India will increasingly dominate, ensuring that the frantic freelance market is here to stay.

These countries look at Western culture and want to tap into that experience. London houses the people responsible for helping create those brands, and they will always be in demand,’ he says.

Negotiating the freelance market
_Don’t be greedy. It’s better to work for £230 a day than not at all
_Keep your CV and portfolio up to date
_Create a PDF slide show or Web link to your work
_State precisely what parts of the projects you
were responsible for
_List what sectors you have worked in and who for
_Polish your Mac skills
_Research the consultancy you are to work for
_Make sure you have at least an extra month’s
salary in the bank as a buffer
_Be flexible, non-hierarchical, quick and
adaptable
_Be organised, punctual, reliable and cheerful

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