Jonathan Wilcock – freelance copywriting survival tips

40 freelance copywriting survival tips

Freelance copywriting has its ups and downs.

I freelanced in the late ’80s, through the mid ’90s into the mid noughties and once more I find myself in the familiar, yet choppy seas of the freelance creative world.

If you add it all up, I’ve spent a good 14 years without a boss, routine or guaranteed salary. Along the way I’ve picked up a few tips that can mean the difference between plenty and starvation / sanity and insanity.

40 freelance copywriting survival tips

1) There will be troughs as well as peaks. Keep some savings back for rainy days.

2) When self-doubt comes knocking, remind yourself that you’re at least good enough to have got this far.

3) Explore ways to collaborate with other creatives. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

4) Go outside now and again – Vitamin D / human contact / exercise…

5) The grass only appears to be greener. Employees get made redundant, business owners fold their companies – there is no solution that’s any better than freelancing per se.

6) Extend a helping hand wherever it’s needed.

7) Allow yourself a holiday.

8) Put as much love into the small jobs as the big ones.

9) Work hard, but don’t give yourself a heart attack.

10) If there’s no paid work to do, there are three basic options – knock on doors, put energy into an extra-curricular creative project or take the day off. They’re all equally beneficial.

11) When things get tough with a client, pick up the phone.

12) It’s a numbers game. If you want 5 new clients, start with 500 prospects.

13) Be patient. It will happen.

14) When the job’s finished, they won’t remember whether or not you hit the deadline or if you were cheaper or more expensive than anyone else. They will, however, remember the quality of what you did and what it was like to work with you.

15) If you’re working on-site, there are three things that will get you off to a bad start: turning up late, constantly checking your emails and not offering to make a cup of tea.

16) If you hate working for a client, stop it.

17) If you love working for a client, let them know somehow.

18) Get a simple system going to keep track of jobs, billing and everyday tasks.

19) Back up your hard drive. Seriously. Do it.

20) Know your value. If, for whatever reason you reduce your rate, don’t go so low that you end up resenting doing the work.

21) Put money aside for the taxman. The only other options are stress, pain and possible bankruptcy.

22) Ask for testimonials. You can tell me all day how good you are, but it’s better coming from someone else.

23) A day off social media is not business suicide – honest.

24) Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

25) If you are running over on time or budget, flag it immediately.

26) When the spec of the brief begins to creep, explain politely why you will have to charge more.

27) If you give a huge discount for the first job, don’t expect the client to be happy paying more later.

28) Your portfolio is precious. Ask for file copies, keep back ups, don’t throw away great ideas that never ran.

29) Whether virtual or physical, keep good company – learn from the best and ignore the naysayers.

30) Your website and social channels are the windows on your professional life. Keep them clean.

31) If you need a favour, ask. The worst that can happen is they say “no”.

32) There is no such thing as a lost opportunity. Keep the door ajar, leave a good impression and keep in touch.

33) When you meet potential clients, show the best version of you, but don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

34) As a freelancer, you are unimportant to your clients; until they really need you. Don’t take it personally.

35) If you want to be treated with respect, be respectful.

36) Sometimes it may feel like a calling, but freelance copywriting is a job. Do it well and don’t get all up yourself when a client doesn’t like your work.

37) Don’t do work that goes against your core values, but don’t let your family starve because of a rigid set of principles.

38) Admit to and apologise for your mistakes.

39) Make sure you get a purchase order or email clearly stating that you have the go ahead to start work.

40) Somebody at some point will probably tempt you back into the fulltime pool. Think carefully before you put your swimming costume on.

So, what life saving tip would you add to this list?

Related freelance copywriting posts:

The agony of a freelance copywriter
What I learnt in 2017
8765 days (excluding weekends) in advertising and design

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.
You can drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk

Update.
I can’t believe I didn’t add this to the list. Ignoring it a few years ago basically ended my freelance career and forced me back into the normal world.

41) Don’t rely on one client for your bread, butter AND jam. As alluring as that juicy retainer is, if they went bust could you still cover your bills?

Brand tone of voice in action – kids on a train

Brand tone of voice in action on the South Western line

So there I was on the 7:48 to Brighton and the train was packed with school kids off their faces on Haribo and Facebook status updates.

I was tinkering with some copy and finding it particularly difficult to concentrate.

A gaggle of lads (I’m guessing 14-15 year olds) were sharing their thoughts about pictures of the fairer sex that they were drooling over on their smartphones.

Alexander Graham Bell must have been turning in his grave.

Lad 1: “She’s a ****ing right ******, I’d ****ing **** her **** off.”

Lad 2: “****ing yeah, ****ing ****!”

There was no let up, the expletives kept coming thick and fast, at a volume that made everyone in the carriage over the age of 25 feel increasingly uncomfortable about. Not that I did a quantitative survey, but I could feel the man next to me squirming in his seat and the ladies sitting diagonally opposite had that ‘ooh, well I never’ expression on their faces.

Of course, the kids were totally oblivious of the anti-social ripples of nastiness they were creating. They were holidaying in Banterland and had probably forgotten they were in a public space.

The tone of voice they were running with (somewhere between ‘moron’ and ‘mysoginistic scumbag’) was starting to jar pretty badly.

I couldn’t write a single word, so I closed my laptop and tried to mentally shut them out, but their torrent of filth just got louder and more unpleasant. Then the inevitable internal dialogue kicked-in, in earnest.

Me: “I wish they’d shut up.”
Conscience: “Well go and have a word then.”
Me: “Are you mad?”
Conscience: “Someone should say something.”
Me: “Exactly, someone. But not me.”
Conscience: “Why not you?”
Me: “There’s at least 6 or 7 of them.”
Conscience: “They’re only kids.”
Me: “Yeah but, I’ll get a load of abuse, then I’ll have to sit here for the rest of the journey looking like a right idiot.”
Conscience: “Are you scared?”
Me: “What if they stab me?”
Conscience: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Me: “These things happen.”
Conscience: “What a drama queen”.
Me: “Yeah, but…”
Conscience: “Wimp”.
Me: “Do you really want me to die?”
Conscience: “Chicken.”
Me: “Right then, here goes…”

Time to send in the sweaty-palmed cavalry

At this point I had no plan, but my inner guide wasn’t going to shut up, so I purposely got out of my seat (heart trying to thump its way out of my chest) and strutted straight over to the gang of zombie-apocalypse serial killers sprawled around a 4-seater table. I leant, both palms firmly planted on the tabletop, looming over them – and the following forthright waffle came out of my mouth:

“Gents; can you please sort the language out. I know it’s difficult and to be honest, I probably used to say the same kind of things when I was your age, but think, somebody sitting over there might be someone’s Mum and it really doesn’t sound nice. So if you could just…”

Before I dug myself any deeper, the ringleader of the vicious gang of axe-wielding maniacs looked up at me with all the colour draining from his face and said, “sorry”.

Then he said “sorry” three more times and muttered something about “not doing it again”. The machete-carrying psychopath had turned back into a 15-year old schoolboy and all was good with the world once more.

I was so impressed with his polite response that I wanted to ruffle his hair or treat him to a bag of sherbert pips. But common sense dragged me away from acting out some kind of weird missing scene from The Railway Children and took me back to my seat.

It was only a couple of weeks later I realised what a perfect demonstration of brand tone of voice in action this little episode had been.

Setting your tone of voice is basically about choosing the right words and delivering them in the right way for your audience.

Brand tone of voice 1: Foul-mouthed depraved pig-boy
Particularly effective when wishing to communicate a lower-than-average IQ, or for upsetting little old ladies.

Brand tone of voice 2: Firm, but polite have-a-go hero
Delivered with total conviction, this can disarm crack-crazed desperados, or in extreme cases, Sussex schoolboys.

Brand tone of voice 3: Sincere and humble underling
Perfect for diffusing unpleasant situations before they have a chance of escalating.

The moral of the story? Words are powerful things. If you want to get the right message across, make sure you get your brand tone of voice right before opening your mouth/sending an email/writing your website.

Read more on brand tone of voice in my recent guest posts on The Logo Creative Blog:
Let Me Write You A New Logo
The Designer’s Guide To Brand Tone Of Voice

And there’s more on brand positioning and tone of voice here.

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.
You can drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk

The Blog of Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Writer Ed Prichard Banner Image

Probing the creative mind #9 Ed Prichard

The ninth in a series of posts turning the thumbscrews on a bunch of unsuspecting creatives. Copywriters, Art Directors, Creative Directors, Graphic Designers, Photographers, Illustrators; they’re an odd, mysterious bunch – or are they? Introducing freelance writer, Ed Prichard.

Hi Ed, so let’s kick off with you telling us what it is you do.
It’s important to put a flag in the sand but it’s hard to do it in one word.

First and foremost, I see myself as a writer who writes lots of different things. I write for brands and comms professionally, so I bill myself as a copywriter, brand writer, strategic creative director and all-round problem solver. There’s a chameleon element to it, you need to morph and change to fit different situations. I also describe myself as T-shaped – I have broad experience and deep expertise – it’s something you develop as you grow and gain more experience.

What got you interested in a creative career?
Rolling in at 10am, not wearing a suit, long lunches, leaving early. The glamour, the awards, the adulation.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t work out if it was starve-in-a-garret-novelist or something commercial that would give me the wherewithal to be a writer in a garret without starving. I stumbled into advertising thanks to my dad – he sent me a newspaper article about the Watford copywriting course just before I finished my degree in English and History. (It went down badly with my history lecturer, who’d spent three years trying to convince me I was a Marxist. As the old Goddard gag goes ‘Je suis Marxiste, tendence Groucho’.)

I’d always been interested in ads and growing up in the 70s it was the beginning of a golden age of billboards and TV advertising that brightened up that dark brown decade. I still think about putting a tiger in my tank when I fill up at an Esso garage. I couldn’t believe that anyone actually got paid to do this stuff. I still can’t sometimes.

How did you land your first creative job?
I put together a portfolio at Watford, did D&AD workshops while I was there – an amazing and terrifying experience. Some weeks when it went well, you were on cloud nine. Other weeks, well… there was a lot of tears and beers. I can remember when it all clicked into place – like learning any skill, you study it, pull it apart and rebuild it in your own way. That gets you to the first stage of being a creative. The next stage is learning to trust your brain to do the heavy lifting. But the great thing is you’re always learning, there’s always something new to discover.

I teamed up with an art director from the D&AD workshops and we cold-called people in agencies all over town. Nothing changes, you had to grab people’s attention to get noticed as well as have a great portfolio (or at least one that showed potential). We used to drop off a big black box with a mannequin arm inside holding our CVs. On the lid it said ‘We’d give anything to work with you.’ Flattery and bribery are always good fall-backs – it seemed to work and opened some doors to meet people who really encouraged us and pushed us hard to do better work.

I met Dave Dye (until recently head of art at JWT) on a work placement that I blundered into before I went to Watford. He was driven and uncompromising (in a good way) but also encouraging and helpful. I remember cooking him a curry in exchange for scamping up some of my concepts. I think the quality of his scamps was far superior to my curry (sorry, Dave). His attitude, work ethic and approach was (and is) inspiring, he’s one of the best creative thinkers and craftsmen in the business. Also Axel Chaldecott from HHCL, who gave us a lot of time and helped us build a strong portfolio and up our confidence.

All the hard work and running around led to placements, one of which turned into a job and we were off.

What’s your go-to starting point to get the creative process moving?
It always starts with the brief, in whatever form it takes.

I’m happy with as much information as you can give me about the world the brief is in, audiences, challenges, background that gets you into that world quickly and effectively. It could be a verbal download or 100 page document. I prefer a short summary because I’m impatient and the nature of what we do requires a lot of fancy footwork, so it helps to be agile and adaptable.

I did some personality/cognitive thinking/skills tests about 15 years ago that highlighted what you’re good at. The results were then cross-referenced with the rest of the management team to help us work more effectively. The tests aren’t magic, but they confirm what you already know intuitively – I’m numerically dyslexic but super-quick at processing ideas and grasping concepts.

When I read a brief, my mind starts whirring and ideas bubble up quickly. I’ve learned to follow the natural process of how the brain is creative – fill it with information and write down whatever comes out. Then leave it alone, let your subconscious do the hard work for a bit. Then, after a break (which could be 10 minutes or 10 days – unlikely in these times of ever-quicker deadlines – go at it again. The ideas should flow, bringing deeper, more relevant and creative solutions.

Who have you worked with along the way who has influenced you?
I’ve been lucky to work with lots of other talented art directors, creative directors, writers, account people, planners and clients. Everyone you meet has the potential to influence you, you just need to keep your eyes and ears open, listen and learn.

That said, there is one person I owe a lot to. I worked with an art director called Steve Eperjesi for the first seven years of my career. We met on the D&AD workshops, spent far too much time in small dark rooms, late nights, weekends, early mornings. He was a very talented and determined person. it wasn’t always easy but we learnt our craft together, encouraged each other, rowed about nothing and everything, full stops and logo placement and drank too much beer together when things got too hard. I treasure the work we did together because it is the physical embodiment of the effort we put in and hopefully some reflection of our ability – those campaigns were our coming of age in the business. It was a pretty intense time, we were both ambitious and it all got too much – there was a bit of a perfect storm and our work/life relationship burned out. We went our separate ways after seven years at a point where we should have been flying. We lost touch and sadly he passed away last year but I have to thank him – a lot of my confidence and skills were honed with him. He was hugely important in my creative development.

The Blog of Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Writer Ed Prichard Portfolio Pics

What ingredients make up the ideal client?
Trust and integrity.

Everything works better when clients let you do what you do best. You can’t force it, you must create it but it’s gold when you have it. It means being patient, clear and helping them through what is a difficult process if it’s not your core skill – not in a patronising way, but helping them learn and grow with you. You learn from the process too, so it’s not a one-way street.

Integrity is key – do they believe in what they’re doing? Is what they do good/legal/kosher? Do they pay their bills on time? Are they fair and easy to work with? They should be allowed to challenge you too – and hard though it is to admit it, we’re not always right. I like to collaborate and the world is full of clients who are brilliant at these things and they’re a pleasure to work with.

I try to offer the same things in return – trust in them, that they know what they are doing, trust that they understand their product and market better than I do (to start with, at least). Also, being buttoned down, so as little as possible is left to chance – apart from coming up with an amazing idea or solution. Integrity ditto – be legal, decent and honest, don’t do anything that would upset your mum and follow through on your promises.

Tell me one thing you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to other creatives.
I’ll give you three for the price of one…

1. Don’t give up.

They say 99% of success is turning up. The important bit is to then engage with whatever problem you’re solving and don’t give up. Sometimes ideas flow easily, at other times you think you’ll never ever have another decent idea. Trust your brain, trust your ability and keep going. Just when you least expect it, something will happen.

2. Always have an opinion.

Dave Trott wrote an article in Creative Review about this in 1988 when I was a junior and it really stuck with me. Basically, it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, but have a point of view. Be prepared to share it, discuss, defend and modify it. What you think might seem obvious to you but others may have missed it completely. If we’re discussing a piece of work and you don’t have anything to say about it, it doesn’t help anyone.

Be honest but don’t be brutal – it isn’t a war, it’s ‘advertising’ in the broadest sense of the term. Be constructive, be creative, be positive. If you’re defending something to death, then it’s probably not quite as good as you think.

3. There’s always another idea.

Leading on from number 1, there’s always another idea. I remember reviewing a creative team’s work on a big pitch at McCann’s – they’d been at it for days, paper all over the walls, on the floor, overflowing from the bins. There were a million ideas floating around in that room, some good, some bad, some just meh. While we were chatting, a screwed up sheet of A3 on the floor with a few words on it in green marker caught my attention. And as soon as I read it, I knew they’d cracked it. We cleared the room and put this scrap up on the wall and they set to. Two days later, we had a pitch-winning idea and campaign – all from a bit of paper that might have ended up in the recycling bin. Sometimes recognising a good idea is as hard as having one. But if one slips through the cracks, it doesn’t matter – there’s always another one waiting for you. You just have to go looking for them – as the writer Jack London said – “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

What three pieces of work do you wish were in your portfolio?
There’s so much fantastic work around – people are always moaning about the death of creativity but there’s always something to make you sit up and take notice. I’ve chosen a couple of old favourites and a more recent campaign.

The Partners’ Grand Tour campaign for The National Gallery – that took the gallery to the wider world. Artworks were hung in unexpected places around London, turning the city into one huge art gallery. It’s one of my favourite campaigns ever. Simple, direct, engaging and exciting. I took this picture on my crappy flip phone – it wasn’t posed, she was just passing by and I caught her in motion. I like the juxtaposition with the horse’s flowing lines and her billowing hair – she seems oblivious to the painting or me.

The Blog of Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Writer Ed Prichard The Grand Tour

Wieden + Kennedy Nike Run London – This was plastered all over London for months and it really stood out as a properly integrated campaign rather than the same ad in different formats. The naïve graphic style really stood out, as did the messaging. A few years later they did North v South, which talked up the rivalry from both sides of the river. I joined in (South London won by a whisker). I still wear the T-shirt when I’m out running, garish orange with ‘We South’ on the back – occasionally I meet someone coming the other way wearing theirs and there’s a moment of recognition.

The Blog of Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Writer Ed Prichard Run London

The campaign that’s really stuck with me recently is the Virtual Road Crash billboard by Agency Serviceplan France. This simple idea is aimed at getting people to pay attention when crossing the road (especially on a red man) while they’re concentrating on their phone. Screeching tyres and people nearly shitting themselves, their reaction caught on camera to create a really powerful message – don’t look death in the face. Simple and effective.

What one thing would make your job easier or better?
Brilliantly written briefs with insights that spark a million brilliant ideas, perfect clients who always say yes and a vintage Mercedes.

OK, that was three things.

If you weren’t a freelance writer what would you be?
Guitar god/rock star.

Given that’s never going to happen, it’s a good job I love what I do. The variety and creativity the job brings and requires is hugely rewarding. I’ve been down coalmines, worked with billionaires and homeless teenagers. I’ve uncovered the secrets of luxury car production and learnt pretty much everything you’d ever need to know about tractors. I understand what makes farmers and UHNWIs tick. And I’ve travelled all over the world but it’s also taken me to some amazing places into my head. There have been times I have hated/loathed/abhorred this business but I’ve stuck at it through thick and thin and found a balance that works for me.

Now let’s shake things up Ed, what question do you wish I’d asked?

‘What’s the most humiliating moment of your career?’
This is apropos the earlier answer about integrity and truth. The most humiliating moment also gave me one of the best lessons.

I lost it with a client who I’d worked with for five years during the presentation of a new campaign. Now, I don’t just mean a heated exchange of views. We’re talking stand up, table-banging, frothing at the mouth, personal insults and extreme swearing, flouncing and door slamming. I’d had it up to here with his mealy-mouthed excuses and attempts to kill good work through lack of balls.

It was, even if I say so myself, a bravura performance, a creative tantrum of the old school. My mum would have killed me.

All that hubris and fireworks was nicely cut off at the knees with the ultimate humiliation. I was called back into the meeting. He bought the ad as it stood, told me he understood how passionate I was and that he could be a bit of dick. He basically killed me with kindness – I felt like a little kid and he didn’t have to raise his voice or be nasty back. Bless him, he could probably have had me fired and/or beaten up in a Soho alley.

In mitigation, it was 1) the late 80s and 2) I was young and foolish. It made me change the way I approached my work and building relationships. But take my advice kids, don’t try this at home.

Thanks Ed, it’s always fun talking with fellow creatives. Here’s to many more years of hunting down the big idea with a club. Cheers.

Check out Ed’s website
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Read the last creative interview here:
Art Director: Bryce Groves