Freelancing in London
During my time in London (2004/05) I found an increasing number of Australian designers wanting to find out how to go about freelancing. There's a lot to consider and it's tricky looking for relevant information in one place.
Keep in mind that this is a working document, there are holes, incomplete bits and loads of literary errors but despite this you should be able to get something worthwhile out of all this.
In [draft 3.0] I've added information about your CV, and a whole new section about London's Recruitment Agencies.
I had no intention of moving to London. It's a dangerous city, too many people, you'd get mugged on the tube, hell you'd get mugged at every turn if you weren't careful, the food is terrible and everything is too expensive. London was what everyone did, so I did what everyone else did and moved to Edinburgh.
It's a cliche but Australian Designers end up in London at some stage. I'd been in the Scottish Capital 15 months when I knew I had to leave. I'd drunk my fair share of whisky, searched in vain for monsters and visited glorious landscapes, I wanted my career back.
Before you do anything buy a mobile phone and sim card. Your life will revolve around it from the very onset. You can pick up pre-paid sim cards for five pounds from shops almost everywhere, otherwise try down the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street. If you bring a phone over from Australia you'll have to get it unlocked, there are many, many places to do this and it is very legal.
It's best to line up temporary accommodation when you move to London, if you're fortunate enough to have family or friends try to stay with them until you find your own place. They'll understand that you have to do this, but don't over extend your welcome, or you'll never get invited back!
Use websites like Gumtree and Loot to find a place to live. Like anywhere the quality of the room you rent is dependant on how much you're willing to spend. For a reasonable sized room in the Northern suburb of Highgate, I paid £417.50 for a double room. After bills and council tax my monthly expense was around £550.00. Council tax is like the equivalent of paying rates but at the renters expense, mine was rather expensive at £50.00 per month. The rest of the bills was split into telephone, gas, electricity, sky and broadband.
You'll be revolted by some of the house that you inspect, go with your gut instinct when looking for a place, it'll make things easier on yourself. Trying to describe the best place to live in London is dependant on what sort of lifestyle you're after. If you can visit places that you think you may like to live, it'll help make up your mind.
My general rule of thumb (well it's my girlfriend's rule of thumb) is to look for a house that's less than 10mins walk from the tube.
If you have friends and relatives in London it makes things a heckofalot easier. If you don't, be prepared to experience loneliness and homesickness. You'll get introspective as you have nothing to focus on but yourself. It takes time to meet new people, even more time to find people to spend time with on a regular basis. It takes up to six months to get a decent network of friends, nine months to get in full swing and find your self being booked into all sorts of things on a regular basis.
Your CV is the single most important document in securing freelance work in London. This presents you, as a designer one of life's great challenges, designing a CV that:
- is easy to read
- has the relevant information
- is well designed
- in Word format
Don't baulk at the thought of having to design your CV in Word, it's industry standard in London.
I'll be the first to say that I had no idea how to design a CV for myself. You will find resources on the web but they tend to be business based. The creative industry has a different slant on the CV and that needs to be addressed. Keep in mind that your CV needs to be read in 30 seconds and it MUST have links to work. The Brits value education level, generally speaking you should be tertiary educated and you should include your final results. It took me 4 months to fine tune my CV, it's structured like this:
- Name & Contact Details
- Skill set
Have a look at the example I've supplied here to look at my example CV in much more detail. Name your CV properly! Use #FirstName#_#LastName# when naming the file. ie. "alister_coyne.doc". It means that your CV will be located easily compared to the dodo who has "my_cv.doc". It's also worthwhile to have your name in the Page Title of each HTML page of your website for bookmarking.
Now is the easy and hard bit, looking for work. It can't hurt to email your well designed and crafted CV to all the Recruitment Agencies, but you need to do research into what agencies suit you. I found that there's no point emailing a CV until you have landed in the country and are ready to work NOW. Positions come up and get filled so quickly that you really need to be there when they come up.
The first thing I did before I even left for London I subscribed to mad.co.uk, which allowed me to create job searches which were sent to my inbox everyday. At a rough estimate, I'd say that 70% of Design and New Media positions are advertised on Mad. It's a very good indicator of the current job market, when you have 25+ jobs in your inbox everyday in your niche, the stress of looking for work is lessened. Most of the jobs via Mad are posted by Recruitment Agencies, love them or hate them, you'll have to work with them at some stage.
For the first six months I relied solely on Recruitment Agencies to find me work, after that I had established myself enough and could bring in work on my own. My love affair with recruitment agencies is not one of a necessary evil, you just need to be able to negotiate your way round jobs as they come up. If the art of negotiation has never been your fine point (like myself), freelancing is a fantastic way to develop this as a skill. For myself I was absolutely terrible at negotiation, I used to freak out about demanding too much money and working conditions. Use the time in London to work on this skill, design is business, understand that you have a valuable skill that is in demand. Like Loreal, you're worth it.
There are other websites you can search for work in London, I've listed them at the bottom of this article.
The other (and best option) is to contact Design / Advertising Agencies directly and send your CV to the Creative Director / Producer / HR / Head of Interactive. It's important to send your CV's to the right people and it involves a bit of detective work on your behalf. It doesn't hurt to send your CV to different people in the same company.
A head start would be to look at this listing of Top 100 New Media Companies in the UK. It's free to register and you will get a lot of up to date information about each company, their clients and the kind of work they do.
I used to be terrible at interviews, you want everything to go right, you don't want to fumble up and come across as a numpty1. So I started thinking of interviews as great ways to meet people (Hey I was alone in a city with no friends) and suddenly my perspective on the interview changed. I was able to converse instead of answering questions. My input became as valuable as theirs. I was able to judge for myself whether I was suitable for the job and turn down work if it wasn't appropriate. There's nothing wrong with saying no to work, it's better than talking yourself up then having to dig a very deep hole when it comes to the actual job at hand.
You can wear pretty much what you like for interviews, just keep it smart casual. If you're a creative, you're gunna wear a black polo anyway.
Negotiating salary goes hand in hand with freelancing, I found after a while that I could be as demanding as the Recruitment Agency and still get work, so don't be shy.
Do some research into how much you think you're worth at a daily rate, this is a fairly standard method of payment in London. For what it's worth, I'm a New Media designer with 6+ years experience, in my first job in London, I was earning £170 per day for a well known International Agency. Keep in mind Recruitment Agencies are marking you up and charging up to £300 per day! I had to start somewhere, it was my first job in the city and I really had no idea what I was worth. I decided that in the end I was worth £180 per day minimum, and turned down a number of jobs offering less. It paid off, literally.
Here's a timeline of my salary for a Freelance Designer in London:
- Job #1: £170 per day
- Job #2: £180 per day
- Job #3: £164 per day
- Job #4: £164 per day
- Job #5: £180 per day
- Job #6: £170 per day
- Job #7: £200 per day
- Job #8: £250 per day
You can see that in three jobs I went below my minimum set of £180 per day. This was a result of a Recruitment Agency being funny buggers. I refused to work with them after that (amongst other things that didn't work in my favour).
I'm foolishly assuming that you have opened a bank account in the UK before you undertake work. If you don't have an account, you won't get paid. Simple. There are many many resources into opening a bank account if you don't have one. Try TNT Magazine for some background information on this.
As a Freelancer you have mainly two options when contracting. One is forming your own company. I don't know much about this as I didn't go about it. However if you're the type of person who can go about the paperwork and stamina to set one up, then go for it. TNT Magazine have a little more about Forming a Company
The other option is to work through an umbrella company that specializes in Freelancers and Contractors. The upside of this is that umbrella companies can maximize the amount you get paid from month to month (In hindsight, you can most likely do the sam e if you form your own company). The downside is that you only get paid monthly, and when you first begin freelancing this can become an issue if you're running short of cash. I'll quickly list the pros and cons of working through an Umbrella Company:
- No hassle with setting up a company
- You can be effectively open an account in one day
- You can claim all your travel expenses to and from your job
- You can claim up to £25 per day on food without receipts
- By law you have to put in for a Holiday / Sick pay which can be withdrawn by request. (I wasn't made aware of this initially, so imagine my joy when I discovered I had an extra £1,000 in the bank for my trip!)
- Your Tax Return is easier to manage because you don't have to chase groups certificates (or the UK equivalent)
- Getting paid in the first 1-3 months can be painful if you're short of cash
- Getting paid has become another step in the process, so instead of being paid directly, your earnings are being paid into the Umbrella Company who then pay you at the end of each month.
- Invoices from Recruitment Agencies and Advertising/Agencies need to be paid in to the Umbrella Company at least two weeks prior to pay day.
- You have to post your receipts and timesheets each month to your Umbrella Company (well that's not that hard unless you're sometimes slack like me)
- You can often get very poor support if things are going wrong, I once had an Account Handler who would not return emails, phone calls, this that and the other due to sheer incompetence.
In general I was quite peeved about my Umbrella Company, it was a recommended company by the Recruitment Agency (I'm sure there are kickbacks for this) but you could shop around. Find out what each company can offer you and make your choice, preferably before you commit to work.
This is the low down on the Recruitment Agencies that I registered with. Please keep in mind that the information shouldn't be taken as a generalization, everybody's relationship with Agencies will be unique.
Workstations have a LOT of jobs advertised in www.mad.co.uk, Being my first interview in London I would say that I was considerably nervous but did manage to conduct myself well. The issue of not having a Limited Company was raised and as a result I would be paid on Workstations books if contracted.
Workstations placed in one job for the nine months I was in London. To be fair they seemed to always call when I was already working.
I never got to meet the guys at Ecom Recruitment. The day I emailed my CV they forwarded me onto a job. I got the job without an interview by Ecom Recruitment or Carat International. Wow. Was it supposed to be this easy?
In the time I was in London, Ecom Recruitment place me in three jobs, all for big name agencies. My experience with Ecom Recruitment was a great one. They placed good faith in my ability and I delivered. Win win.
Aquent were by far my worst experience freelancing in London. My time with them left me angry, bitter and disgusted. Still, you gotta have some bad apples.
Chances are if you would have come across the name Aquent at some stage of your design career. They're a big company and they have a LOT of work on their books.
Aquent is fast, frantic cowboy jackass recruiting at its worst.
I had two interviews with Aquent. In the second I completed an aptitude test on Flash. The test is designed to gauge my skill level in Flash and mainly ActionScript. The interview was fun, friendly and informal.
I was put forward for two jobs. Got interviewed for one and the following day I learned that I had got the job. I had a call from another Agency wanting me to work on a job for a very well known brand, I rejected this on the basis that I already had a job. Then the job mysteriously disappeared, and so did the other one. Where did they go?
In one day I had lost a definite job, and could have been a contender for two others:
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Website - This was the job I was offered then withdrawn.
Adidas Microsite - I was put up for this job and it mysteriously disappeared.
Nike Microsite - The job I rejected based on getting the first job. I was considerably pissed off that I didn't end up working on any of these projects. I was considerably pissed off that no reasonable explanation was given by Aquent. I was considerably pissed off that Aquent skirted around the issue hoping it would go away.
The following week Aquent placed me in a four jobs. My week went something a little like this:
Placed for a job in Covent Garden, turns out that I wasn't actually needed and their secretary forgot to Aquent and cancel my booking.
Aquent then placed me into a job that afternoon for 2.5 days. It was told that the location was 20mins train ride from Victoria Station, it was 40mins each way. It effectively took 2hrs to travel to work each way.
Worked at job far, far away. My thoughts were along the lines of "Nice place to visit on a day trip".
Aquent called while at job and asked if I wanted stay on at current job. I explained that travel time was a big issue so on that basis I won't be continuing my job here. I also found out the rate I was on, which was less than my lowest rate. I was getting considerably pissed off again.
Aquent placed me in a big name Agency much closer to home, they screwed me over with my rate, and paid me peanuts. In the meantime I was booked into the job that was cancelled on Monday morning for Friday.
Went back to Covent Garden to start the job I was initially called in to work on Monday morning. I spent two hours digesting what they were after, designed a graphical interface for them and determined that I was in fact the wrong person for the job. The job required me to do what I couldn't complete in my aptitude test. I shouldn't have been placed into the job in the first place.
Needless to say I never worked for Aquent again, but they still call me every now and then with work.
Aquent will get you more work than any other Recruitment Agency in London, but it seems like you have to play by their rules. Those rules just ain't cricket in my book.
Gabriele Skelton have a very good reputation in London. They're friendly people and they were for the most part responsible for the re-design of my CV.
When going to Gabriele Skelton is pays to have your CV printed out for reference. I had to enter my details straight into their system which took a good 45mins.
Gabriele Skelton could not place me for work, they kept putting me up for jobs that I wasn't a specialist in. Why? Because when I listed all my skills into their system it included skills such as HTML, CSS, After Effects and others that I proficient at, but not strong enough to work in those fields on their own. In effect I was being put up for Developer and Motion type jobs.
My tip is that if you want Gabriele Skelton to find work for you, list the skills that you an expert in. Don't include the rest.
Hudson York Farrell
Hudson York Farrell is a Recruitment Agency that mainly focus on Finance and Legal accounts. They offer excellent wages but the work appears to be mind numbingly corporate and boring.
I walked away from my interview with a pretty clear idea that I wasn't suitable for the job, so did the agent.
Annoyingly, I had to spend 45 min's filling out a form with all my details and information when I'll I really wanted to do is have a chat and see if the role was suitable. A bit of time wasted there.
Purple Consulting could not place me for any work, despite a promising start.
Zebra People couldn't place me for any work full stop. I don't think they 'got' me.
Thanks for all the great feedback, I'm glad this page has turned into a resource that we can all share.
i would like to thank you for your little guide about freelancing in London: it's quite useful!
I'm thinking about moving to London after I graduate (I'm italian) - and reading about your experience is quite encouraging.
thanks!" - Carlo [6 March 2008]
I work with Sammi at Sputnik and I'm about to head over to London to work and travel etc.
Thanks for writing such a great document really helpful" - Pete [15 December 2007]
"Hey man, great information. Thanks on behalf of me and I guess, others too. I actually work for Aquent here in Perth and I think they're great...of course I'm sure there's a bit of a size difference from Perth to London." - Cam (Aquent) [19 November 2007]
I have only just read your comments - they really made me laugh and I am glad you viewed us in such a nice way. We do work hard and I regret that we never got a chance to meet you!
Roy." (Ecomm Recruitment) [28 March 2007]
"Thanks dude, awesome info, just what i was looking for!" - Ashley [8 January 2007]
"Thanks for this guide! I've been in a job for five years (started while at uni) and I'm just going into freelance/contract work. This has given me a lot of ideas about where to start. So thanks!" - Sunil [4 October 2006]
I just wanted to thank you for the useful info you are offering on your website.
I am an young italian graphic and web designer and looking for freelance assignments is really hard when you first start, you provided me with some really interesting info and tips." - Giovanna [3 October 2006]
"Alister, you are my new hero. You were very helpful with your responses to my freelancing thread, thank you!!!" - Kate [27 July 2006]
"I just wanted to say thanks for the info about england! Im heading their in 5 days, and now Ive got a whole new list of things to do I didnt think of, because of what you wrote. Cheers!" - Erin [6 June 2006
"Great work on putting together a page up about design work in London. I am still trying to get my head around it all." Alistair [22 May 2006]
"Great write-up Alister. That's really helpful" - Simone [17 May 2006]
This article is written and intended to be a guide only. I expect readers to take responsibility into their own actions when looking for freelance work in London. If any information in this article is incorrect then please email me through the form and I will rectify accordingly. Any thoughts and comments about the article can also be made via the form.
1. Numpty | Colloqiual for idiot.
© Alister Coyne - 2006-14