Self-support

It may not seem like the best time to go freelance, as stories of consultancies cutting costs by making staff redundant circulate, but Mike Exon thinks otherwise

The freelance design scene is a fluctuating state at the moment, although those with their wits about them can certainly benefit from opportunities.

While redundancies across the industry have swollen the ranks of the freelance community, there has also been a gradual shift in attitude among some within the profession. Many, it seems, want more control of their working environments and a better quality of life.

For those who are going it alone there is much to cheer, for there is no doubt that freelance staff are becoming an increasingly vital component of any design team’s armoury right now, according to Jon Turner, incoming creative director at Boots the Chemists.

‘Freelances are becoming incredibly important. If you are a design consultancy and you suddenly win a whopper of a job, you will naturally turn to freelance designers to quickly assemble the team that you need [in order to get the job done],’ says Turner.

At Boots, he says, freelances are frequently brought in not just as an extra pair of hands on deck, but also as ‘an excellent catalyst’ for a project, particularly if they are from a specialist field.

‘It’s a sensible approach to staffing and one born of necessity. But consultancies are still cautious about the economic environment,’ adds Turner.

Last year was tough as self-employed workers responded to fewer ‘regular’ hours from their employers. For many it was time to look for the iron and brush up the new business skills, but that’s what being freelance is all about.

The numbers of freelance vacancies reported by recruitment agencies seemed to fall last year; Gabriele Skelton, for instance, reports freelance fees represented 30 per cent of its earnings, compared with 45 per cent the year before.

‘I think there is more of a positive feeling than last year, though consultancies are a bit more cautious about taking people on full-time,’ says Sarina Hussain, who heads up freelance recruitment for Major Players.

Hussain thinks some of the consultancies that were forced into making redundancies last year have now regained the confidence to start using freelances again as workloads are starting to pick up after Christmas. Now is a busy time for pitches, she points out.

Karina Beasley, director of Gabriele Skelton, is also quietly satisfied that things are ‘moving’, but adds they could be better. ‘I don’t think anyone can say what the year has got in store apart from the fact it will be another hard one, though hopefully not as bad as last year,’ she says.

‘People generally aren’t moving from permanent jobs at the moment,’ points out Periscope’s Fiona Watson. This has clearly had some repercussions on demand for short-term cover, the staple of freelance workers, who have always benefited from this sort of natural staff turnover.

CDT Design chairman and founding partner Mike Dempsey says that like many consultancies, he uses short-term freelance support to give an edge of flexibility to the group for big projects. ‘We have always intentionally stayed at a size that we feel happy at and so if work increases at a rate that makes things difficult for us, we normally recruit freelances, which we do on a regular basis,’ he says.

As far as the disciplines break down, freelance staff in the fmcg packaging and retail graphics world are still very much in demand because consumers are still spending. According to a consensus of the recruiters, demand for those freelances in corporate identity is still virtually at a standstill, and new media, it would seem, is still slow.

According to Hussain, print-based groups are beginning to see more work too, which is helping to employ more freelances. ‘Clients are still definitely cautious. Some call up and say, “Oh, we need freelance help”, but then when they look closely at the cost implications they may well decide they’ll do without it,’ she explains. Moreover, it seems consultancies are trying to drive a tough bargain and in some cases succeeding.

Stuart Newman at recruitment agency Network says consultancies have a stronger hand because the pool of freelance staff has inevitably grown. He also points out that there are now a lot of experienced senior creatives on the freelance scene. ‘Because they were not directly responsible for bringing fees in, they were some of the first full-time casualties of redundancy,’ he says.

All this has affected the cost of freelance senior creatives, says Major Players’ Hussain. ‘A lot of senior creatives who would generally charge £30 an hour are finding they have to drop their rates to £25 or £26 an hour,’ she says, ‘and if design consultancies are booking freelance people up for a block period they are negotiating a lot harder than they would have a couple of years ago.’

Beasley agrees, unhappily, that there are some consultancies out there now, who ‘take the mickey’ when negotiating with freelances ‘because they know they can’. She points to a growing number of consultancies that have offloaded extra work on to existing teams rather than paying for freelance help.

‘I’m very aware that there are a lot of consultancies that are stretching their teams to the hilt. There are some unhappy people out there because consultancies need an extra pair of hands, but will think twice about using freelances in order to save money.’

On the positive side, Beasley is ‘encouraged’ by the fact that there is a lot of networking going on as freelances vie for work with consultancies directly. But for most freelances the name of the game needs to have ‘flexibility’, both in terms of where you work and what rates you charge, or are willing to accept.

Says Hussain: ‘In the past, we would have freelances working for a consultancy continually for a year or more, but now that rarely happens. Consultancies have realised that for the same cost they could have taken two people on full time at that level, they are really thinking properly about how they use freelances.’

According to David Jebb of David Jebb & Associates, who has been analysing the quarterly performance of design businesses for many years, there are still some signs of consultancies paying their employees (permanent and freelance together) above their means, though things have got a little better, he says.

‘There are some signs that things are improving though. The larger consultancies have been taking a long hard look at costs and have rightly placed an emphasis on income earners. As a result, a lot of senior creative people, who have represented a large cost for their consultancy, have lost their jobs,’ he says, echoing Newman’s reasoning.

But, for those in the firing line, times have not been easy and more than a few disgruntled design consultancy staff have had their fill of ‘market activity’ and are saying enough is enough. Beasley reckons there are plenty of senior creatives heading out of the ‘big smoke’ for a more comfortable, less turbulent life elsewhere in the country. Even if this means they end up having to take a pay cut.

Typical freelance rates

The typical recruitment agency rates for freelance creatives have altered very little from last year

Junior: (tend to be employed directly)

Lower middleweight: £20-£22/hour

Upper middleweight: £22-£25/hour

Senior: £25-£30/hour

Taxation

If you earn a penny of freelance income you are legally bound to declare it to the taxman, regardless of whether you have a full-time job. Your first step should be to speak to an accountant for advice. You should then register with the Inland Revenue (see below) for your self-employed status. If you haven’t got round to registering then do it. It won’t be as bad as you think: you may be sent a late payment penalty, but if you can show your earnings were minimal this will be waived (a telephone call can be sufficient for this)

To register as self-employed: 0845 9154 515

For general tax advice: 0845 9000 444

Also visit: www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk

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