Seven years ago, former freelancer and content marketer Deanna Cioppa “definitely resisted” corporate work.
“I didn’t complete a Master’s in Journalism to hawk for a brand. I certainly didn’t take on that debt in order to spend my days shoehorning keywords into clickbait.”
But the landscape of commercial work, corporate gigs – whatever you want to call it – has changed beyond recognition in the past few years. In the creative industries, the demand for creative content is higher than ever. Long gone are the days when picking up a corporate client simply meant endless back-and-forth revisions of SEO-heavy copy.
On the contrary, for artists, photographers, writers, videographers and other creative freelancers, the kind of work corporate clients are looking to commission is constantly evolving, as businesses seek new and innovative ways to capture their audiences. Plus – and this is a big plus – they actually have a budget to commission highly-skilled freelancers for these projects.
“As a former freelancer myself, I think there used to be much more resistance than there is now,” Cioppa continues. “But I haven’t encountered a freelancer in the past few years who feels gross working on branded content, because it offers value in some way.”
That value means different things to different people. For some, the fact that corporate gigs usually mean more money is a no-brainer. It can also be a more time-efficient way of working. A three-month commercial project could pay well enough to allow you to take the other nine months of the year off to travel (or work nomadically).
According to a recent report from freelance union IPSE, there was a 35% increase of the “solo self-employed” in the UK between 2008-2018, with the number of freelancers working in the creative industries doubling in that decade.
More than one-fifth of people said the main reason they went freelance was to maintain or increase their income, and taking on commercial work is certainly a way to do this – even if it’s only to support other elements of your freelance business. For example, if taking on a regular corporate gig once a month to financially sustain your work means you can finally get around to launching that podcast, animating that short film or starting on a book proposal, why not look into it?
If you’re still not sold, don’t underestimate the creative potential within corporate work. Cioppa continues: “The economics are pretty great for freelancers because brands are [now] putting money into content projects beyond blog posts and social copy. Think magazines, both digital and print, feature-style videos, data visualisation. These big-ticket items can mean big commissions for freelancers.”
Negotiating a rate: Do your research and aim high
Knowing how much your time is worth can be a difficult thing to figure out, especially in your first few years of freelancing. It can be equally tricky to know how much to charge corporate clients, who will likely have larger budgets.
Freelance journalist and FJ&Co founder Anna Codrea-Rado did a little digging to figure out her corporate day rate. Using time-tracking software, she tracked the hours spent writing content marketing articles versus the time spent working on traditional journalism, and measured it up against the fee she received for both types of work. She found that her corporate work paid a whopping 10 times more than writing an article for a major international publication. But, as she writes in the piece, “I don’t do journalism for the money”.
Freelance writer and producer Becky Owen-Fisher agrees that commercial projects can be much more profitable than creative work. She gets her main income from her role as a producer for a theatre company based in Peterborough, but also keeps up a regular gig copywriting and proofreading on the side “to keep myself going”.
“It pays really well,” she says. “The per-hour rate is far better than anything I would get in the arts world, which is where the rest of my work sits. Usually the copywriting work is fairly straightforward, too, so it doesn’t take up a huge amount of my time.”
However, she finds her commercial tasks can feel less creative than her other freelance work. “[You have to] be prepared that they might come back and want to change everything,” she says. “You might have to fit into someone else’s style. You can’t be particular about your artistic flair on it, you just have to go, ‘I have to provide what they want, even if it doesn’t necessarily match my writing style or whatever.’”
Finding the work
So, taking on corporate work is a way to make your self-employed business more commercially viable. But how do you land those contracts? Maya Witters is a freelance copywriter, translator and editor based in London. I asked her how she finds commercial work. “I landed my first freelance corporate gig almost by accident. I was contacted by someone from a company who I’d actually done a job interview with a year earlier. They ended up not having the budget to create the position, and when they contacted me again six months later I’d already gone freelance.
“For me, the biggest benefit of taking on that project was knowing that I was going to get a large sum of money at the end of it. It was security for the time that the project was running. If you manage to find jobs like that, it does feel financially more rewarding.
“What often happens with my non-corporate clients is there’s quite a lot of work initially – say if they needed copy for a new website they’re launching. But after that initial phase, the workload dries up. It might be one or two blogs a month, but it won’t be as much. Those kinds of jobs feel great when you start but they don’t give you a lot of security in the long-run, because it’s really hard to predict how much work you’re going to get out of them on a monthly basis. So, in a way, I prefer big project work where I have an end-date and can predict what’s going to happen. Plus, if it’s a big company and the nature of the job is more complex, I’ll set my rate higher.”
But unless you already have a connection to a company, the process of finding the work can be time-consuming – and it’s time you won’t be getting paid for.
Jonathan Ward is a freelance horticultural photographer based in West Sussex. His success in landing corporate work came from a niche skill of his – being able to read botanical Latin. This makes him more attractive to clients in his field of work, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, as they know he can quickly and correctly identify the right flower to shoot. However, getting a new corporate client is a process that can take between 6-8 months, he tells me. “I think a lot of people give up too soon in that process of finding the client.”
Get a portfolio together
While industry connections help, there are certainly things you can do to up your chances of securing a commercial client. Cioppa, who heads up content marketing platform Contently’s The Freelancer, says: “First, put a portfolio together that represents both breadth and depth of subject matter expertise.” Both Contently and UnderPinned offer a free portfolio site which you can send to potential clients.
“Secondly, get to know a brand and know it well,” she continues. “Marketers are clamouring for new ideas and especially ideas that fit their messaging and value proposition. No pitch should leave your email without talking about how it ties in to the brand and its audience.”
Once you’ve landed the contract, Ward says you often receive better treatment from corporate clients. “They’re happy to accept terms that are more in line with what they give their staff. So, if you say my fee is for an 8-hour day, they’ll accept an 8-hour day, whereas a lot of people think I just want a price for the job, whether it takes 8 hours or 10 hours. They’ll often pay a higher rate on mileage, too, if you have to travel for work.
“Where I’ve found success is fixing your day rate for X number of months. What I say is, this is the price for the next three or six months. If you don’t say that, they’ll try and hold the price for the longest time possible. But essentially, corporate gigs can mean good, regular and high-paying work, which has got to be the holy grail for any freelancer,” he adds.
Witters agrees: “I don’t see why you wouldn’t do it. Eventually, it’s going to become more and more accepted and normal to have multiple jobs or multiple facets to the one job you have.”
And the work’s certainly there, as the need for highly-skilled freelancers will continue to grow as brands and businesses evolve.
Cioppa says: “Practically speaking, brands spend money on content because they expect a return on their investment. For freelancers, that can make all the difference between just having a side hustle – and building a freelance career.”