Becoming A Freelance Digital Marketer
If you are visiting my site, it’s likely that I recently sent you some kind of email or proposal telling you about my services and availability. On the other hand, you may be an old colleague who is partaking in some light LinkedIn stalking. There’s no shame in that, we all do it. I mean, I have LinkedIn premium now so I know if you’ve been there unless you cleverly copied my profile URL and jumped into incognito mode or you have that functionality turned off. In that case, I just know that “Someone from the advertising industry” viewed my profile which is not helpful at all.
Whatever your reasons for visiting, it’s likely that you know I recently took the decision to stop working full time and become an advertising vagabond, travelling from company to company, selling my wares to the highest bidder and updating everyone regularly about my availability. If this is news to you, in the words of Notorious B.I.G.
If you don’t know, now you know ninja*
*He didn’t say ninja, but you know…I am not at liberty to write or speak the actual lyrics.
Having made the decision to become a freelance digital marketer, I wanted to try and document the sheer terror, anxiety, trepidation and inevitable breakdowns that have and will occur as I scramble around Birmingham (and the rest of the West Midlands) holding out my wooden bowl begging
Please sir, may I have some more (digital marketing work)
Obviously, I jest, but documenting this is important to me for a couple of reasons.
- If I succeed, I want to be able to look back at the steps I took to create a successful freelance career
- If I fail, I want to understand what I could have done better when it comes to the next time I want to make a crazy decision
- In either case, maybe what I write will be of some value to somebody along the line who is tempted to pimp themselves out as a freelance something or other.
How I Started Freelancing!
Since 2009 I have been working in digital in one form or another, starting out as a systems tester before accidentally getting a job in marketing and quite liking it. I started with my first advertising agency after a mildly successful stab at running a web design company and it wasn’t until then, that I realised just how much I really loved the ad industry, and agencies in particular.
I was surrounded by creatives and intellectuals that genuinely seemed to enjoy what they did which was something I had only seen on rare occasions before. I got a nice laptop, a bottle of wine on my Birthday, a free ice cream in the summer. If at the time, I wasn’t faced with an impending divorce and crushing debts, it probably would have been the idyllic life.
From then on, I decided that advertising was the life for me and I moved successfully through a series of agencies getting promotions, pay rises and glittery new job titles all the while.
I went from a creative agency that was all about the tagline to an agency that lead with strategy, data and critical thinking. I loved both approaches and tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could inside and outside work.
In my final position before taking the leap, I was on the verge of looking for a whole new career path. I had spent a couple of years with massive highs and huge lows. I had watched someone who I admired systematically damage and destroy the moral of my colleagues and me to the point of depression and anxiety. It left me wondering if the advertising and marketing industry was really somewhere I wanted to spend my time.
Ultimately I decided that it was and the exit from my old company turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to me. Yes, it was scary and stressful, but it also created a levity they I hadn’t experienced for at least 6 months.
It was during this time that I realised how hypocritical I had been for a long time. I worked with so many talented people and I always told them
You should go freelance. You would clean up
I had more confidence in the skills of my colleagues than I did in my own hard-earned experience. I began to understand that I had spent the last 9 years or so gaining experience in almost every aspect of my industry; digital strategy and execution, development, design, project management, client services. I had been involved directly with each one of these at some point in my career and I often learned from people who had decades of experience. I decided that I couldn’t keep telling people they should freelance and not have the balls to actually give it a go myself.
So here I am today, after working 3 months client side and just securing a two-month commitment with an agency. It’s not a bad start at all and the debilitating fear has almost worn off.
How Did I Get My First Freelance Contract?
This was the most confusing part for me and the biggest question I had to people who I knew had freelanced successfully.
How on earth did you get your first contract?
To be honest, I never really got a consistent answer from anyone. Some people got their first contract through a recruitment agency, some people were looking for full-time work and took a freelance gig out of necessity and some people just didn’t tell me how they got started.
I obviously can’t speak as to how other people got started as freelancers, but I can tell you my methodology.
The very first thing I decided to do was to simply let people know I was a freelancer now. I updated my LinkedIn profile and I messaged all of my old colleagues and managers to tell them how cool my life was, let them know what I had on offer and bribed them with beer if they would keep their ear to the ground and recommend me for any opportunities they may have. Eventually, most people were gracious enough to get back to me and agree to keep an eye out.
After that, I had to think for a minute. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to just have friends and colleagues hunting for me and in any case, they are busy people and would probably quite quickly forget I needed their help, and quite rightly so.
So I decided I needed to extend outside of my own network and let the world know I was freelancing. At this point in time, when I say the world, I mean advertising agencies in Birmingham.
I started off by Googling ad agencies in Birmingham and then I realised, I could just access a directory of all agencies and jump on their website to email them or fill out a contact form. What came next was scary and intimidating, but I knew what had to be done. I created a spreadsheet.
I listed the names, website addresses and public contact details of every relevant agency in the list and sent each of them a personal email to tell them my availability and the services I could offer. I also assigned a status to each one and the date I last contacted them. Firstly, I don’t want to continuously bug people if they have already said no and secondly, I wanted to be able to keep track of who I had actually contacted. I basically created a mini, manual relationship management system that I could always refer back to.
It turns out there are a lot more agencies in and around Birmingham than I first anticipated. This process took me some time to complete.
All the while, a couple of emails were coming back in, the phone rang a few times with different enquiries (nothing solid) and I plodded along with my emails.
Once the emails were sent, I realised that my website didn’t really reflect the work I was pitching to people as a freelancer. I had originally built it as an online CV and evolved it into a personal brand website where I could write about advertising and current affairs with complete freedom. Now I needed to sell a set of services to people who expected the best possible results for what is ultimately a premium rate.
I split up my services into four categories and created all of the content adding the new sections and pages to my website so anyone visiting now could see exactly what I had on offer as soon as they visited.
The final thing I did before I ended up securing a contract, was get out and meet people. I didn’t meet people because they had contracts to give me there and then, I went out to meet people within my industry because they are interesting people to meet. I went to buy them a coffee and have a chat. I met with recruiters, business owners, managers, directors and friends. I met people I knew and people I had never met. I spoke to them about the work they were doing and how it was going, I spoke to them about their strategies and processes. They asked me questions about my career and what I do and I spoke to them about my personal developments and my view of the industry. We spoke and drank coffee with no expectation from either side.
One of those meetings ended with a contract. Another ended up with a lead for a contract and one ended up with someone telling me they would contact their whole network to let them know I was available.
These methods may not work for you. I am not trying to provide a foolproof freelance development plan. I’m just trying to share my experience.
What I did realise quite early on in the process is that I couldn’t just hit this from one angle then sit back and relax. I filled every minute in between contracts with one of the following:
- Sending emails to potential clients
- Talking to new recruiters
- Searching job boards for freelance positions
- Updating my website and social media profiles with content
- Writing blog posts and promoting them
- Travelling to meetings to discuss potential work
- When I was travelling I was listening to audiobooks on business and marketing
I tried to optimise my time as much as possible and tried to communicate with as many people as possible while continuously adding value. If I was going to fail at this in the first month, I was going to fail knowing I had tried every single thing I could.
What’s Next For A Freelancer?
I don’t know the answer to this yet. I have two months of confirmed work and some potential leads to fill the gap until then. In the meantime, I will keep communicating. I have planted a lot of seeds out there (you know what I mean…stop being dirty) and I am sure some of them will take root and begin to grow. I am positive that I can create a career as a freelance digital marketer and you can be sure that win or lose, you will know about it here.