Is ‘Freelancer’ a Dirty Word?
Owen Turner – United by Design
Today is National Freelancers’ Day – a celebration of the finest self-employed talents out there, whose contributions make up some 5 million of the UK’s workforce.
As a proud freelancer, I like to think I espouse good values. Professionalism, reliability, courtesy. Ask any other and you’ll doubtless hear the same.
But is this the general consensus of the wider population? Or indeed…
Is ‘freelancer’ a pejorative term?
The inspiration for this week’s blog comes from a dear professional friend of mine. We’ve worked together on a few projects – podcasts, webinars, blogs etc. One issue that we often discuss is the ‘F word’.
I quote: “I would class you as more than a freelancer. There’s an elevated professionalism about being different – you’re not just knocking out content in your back bedroom.”
My fault. I probably shouldn’t have joked that I sit around “in my pants” producing content.
Anyway, in another of our lively debates, we were joined by a creative with his own company. While discussing career progression, we touched on why I wasn’t expanding. I was advised to be “bigger than I am”, and that having an agency image would be more lucrative.
I had a little cry.
This is no disrespect to my fellow debaters – they were encouraging me to grow. But it’s lockdown and we’re ALL A LITTLE SENSITIVE AT THE MOMENT, OKAY? I felt as if I’d let my 26-year-old self down. The one who pushed herself to practise shorthand and train for marathons. Had my ambitious streak waned?
So I reached out to other freelancers.
I wanted to know if anybody else had heard these connotations, good or bad. The results were quite surprising.
“Weirdly, I had a ‘freelancer as a pejorative’ experience this week!” says Sally Fox, a copywriter from London. She’s not the only one with horror stories.
“When I’ve done day shifts in an office, I’ve been treated as ‘not one of the team’,” says Tim Bradley, an author and freelance writer. “I recall a time a company sent in some free goodies, but I wasn’t allowed any because I was ‘just a freelancer’.”
So what exactly does “just a freelancer” mean? “Unfortunately, I think some people still think it means ‘cheap’ or ‘general lackey’,” says Steve Morgan, freelance SEO consultant and author.
For others, the term conjures up images of risk-taking – and not necessarily for the business itself. Hayley Maguire, a freelance copywriter, says: “I don’t think it has negative professional connotations, but it is viewed by some as being a risky, and perhaps reckless, career move.”
Sally agrees. “While chatting with a prospective client, I noticed he signed off with ‘good luck with your freelancing’ – as if I was walking a tightrope over a tank filled with sharks.”
Perhaps it’s fear of the unknown, but there is clearly some prejudice surrounding the term. Steve says he prefers to use the phrase positively. “I use the label because ‘SEO Consultant’ suggests I’m at an agency, whereas ‘freelance’ indicates that it’s just me and my business.”
My thoughts exactly, Steve – I personally changed my LinkedIn bio to include freelance, so as to assure agencies they would be working with one person.
The public consensus
Beyond our emotional biases, there’s the wider public opinion (translation: Google search). Type in “should I hire a freelancer” and you’ll get a mixed bag:
- Position zero offers a balanced view, calling us an “attractive option” and a “risk” in the same breath
- Two explicitly reference why you shouldn’t hire a freelancer (or at least, not the wrong one)
- Four address the “pros and cons” (unpredictability of work quality…boo)
- Three extol the virtues of hiring us (yay!).
Agency or freelance?
And so we return to my little Zoom debate. Should businesses work with agencies or freelancers? Agencies can offer a wider range of skills, but a freelancer is likely to be more specialised.
Of course, you could just say you’re an agency and charge more, right?
To expand or not to expand?
To round off my research, I spoke to the real deal. Director of United by Design Owen Turner had two spells of freelancing before expanding into a full-service agency.
He says: “I took my first staff member on in year two to help with workloads. I’d always talked about setting up an agency, so it seemed like a natural progression.
“It’s a rollercoaster, but the ultimate motivation is working with an amazing team, doing great work for great people!”
The agency rollercoaster
Indeed, some of the stresses that Owen has faced are the very deterrents for others. Steve says: “I like the flexibility of being solo – no headaches, costs and office politics of hiring staff.” Sally adds that she’s not a fan of managing teams. In fact, it was the reason she got into freelancing.
For others, it’s about the art. Hayley adds: “I don’t want to spend all of my time managing others. I wanted to focus on being creative.” Tim, meanwhile, worries that the industry is oversaturated.
“There are a lot of content agencies right now. With something like this, I think a personal service is far more attractive.”
It’s a view I share, too. While I don’t have a bad word to say about agencies, I have no desire to jump into an already crowded pool. Plus, most of my clients are content marketing agencies – would that not make me their competitor?
Finding the balance
The over-arching view was that my interviewees cherished flexibility – but got worked up over income. This is no exception for agencies. Owen concedes that working with a team is multi-faceted: it affords him more opportunities, but also more obstacles.
“I think you need to have the right motivations to expand. Do you want a fully-fledged agency, or just a collective that can offer your clients more?
“Client decisions may be based purely on budget and time, while others look at experience. It’s about finding that sweet spot.”
Collaboration, not competition
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a freelancer (with no desires to expand – I’m a walking HR disaster), it’s that there’s a huge sense of community.
This extends to the agency world too. For example, organisations like York Creatives welcome freelancers and staff teams alike, collaborating on awe-inspiring, philanthropic projects.
There are also some heartening statistics out there for those freelancers who feel ‘alone’:
- The UK’s freelance workforce increased by 31 per cent in 2019
- Freelance Twitter groups unite the self-employed in their droves: @FreelanceHeroes has nearly 6,000 followers
- Freelancers contribute £139 billion to the UK GDP every year
- We’re acknowledged annually through events like the IPSE Awards (with a £5,000 cash prize!)
- There are more resources than ever – Sian Meades-Williams’ Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter has a 65 per cent open rate!
Do you want to be dirty?
Whatever your choice, whether you’re going it alone or kicking ass at an agency, it’s crucial to have a support network. Collaborate with others, join Twitter chats, go to networking, and see what’s out there.
We can’t convince everyone, but there’s some pretty solid evidence that freelancers are very highly valued indeed.
And if you’re just getting started, please feel free to pop me an email for any tips.
Happy National Freelancers’ Day, kids.
A huge thank you to all of this week’s contributors:
- Owen Turner, director of United by Design
- Tim Bradley, freelance writer and author of The Last Prize
- Hayley Maguire, freelance copywriter
- Sally Fox, freelance copywriter for sustainable businesses
- Steve Morgan, freelance SEO consultant and author of Anti-Sell
17th June 2020