Freelancing in a Recession

March 26th, 2009 | Posted in General

It seems like every time I open the newspaper, there is more bad news about the economy. Apparently we are in a recession… The beauty of it is that the “experts” figure it started about December of 2007. I’m still not entirely clear on how we can be in a recession and not realize it for an entire year, but that’s how these things work.

Whatever label you want to put on it, the economy is in rough shape. The real indicator, to me at least, of that is the unemployment rate. At over 8%, it’s pretty bad. Since our economy is essentially built on the buying and consumption of goods, less people with jobs means less people buying stuff meaning less stuff being made meaning less jobs for people who make the stuff. A vicious cycle.

So, what does that mean for freelancers? We can’t be fired, so we can’t lose our jobs, right? We can lose WORK, however, and with dwindling budgets many clients have cut back on buying illustration in order to save money. The publication business was in trouble long before our economy started to spiral, that’s a double whammy for those who depend on magazine or newspaper work for a lot of their jobs.

So what’s a freelancer to do? There are a few things that you can do to help bring in jobs during these tough times:

  1. Step up your Marketing It is a natural reaction to cut back on expenses like advertising to try and save money when things get tight, but that is the opposite of what you should be doing. One thing that is absolutely guaranteed to happen if you cut back on your marketing budget: you will get less work. There are two reasons to not just continue but to increase your marketing if you can: First, more marketing might or might not lead to more work, but less will DEFINITELY decrease your visibility to potential clients and will lead to less work at a time you can least afford to have that happen. Secondly, many of your competitors will foolishly choose to cut back on their marketing, leaving you with a wider window to get work they might have been called for had their work been marketed properly. Their mistake can be your gain.

  2. Smarter Marketing The previous point doesn’t mean you should start spending money on ineffective marketing. If you haven’t had past success with a given marketing effort like a source book ad or an online portfolio service, it is not likely that venue will suddenly prove effective now. Concentrate on direct, personal marketing with postcard or mini-poster mailings directed straight to the art buyers of your target clients. Time spent researching and preparing mailings and personal notes is only a waste if you are putting off actual jobs to do it… and if you are honestly too busy to do that research and effort then you don’t have a problem in the first place, do you? A few evenings spent compiling a list of current publication art directors, their addresses and hand addressing current work mailings can pay off big later. Trying other avenues is risky but might also pay off.

  3. Cultivate Past Relationships- You already have one excellent source of proven potential clients… your freelance records. Go back through your last few years of invoices put together mailings to those clients you’ve done work for in the past and reconnect with them. Show them what you are up to and remind them you’d love to work with them again if something comes along they think you are right for. You may find some art directors have moved on… often you can get their current contact info and reconnect with them at their new publication (if any). Out of sight is out of mind, and a reminder of your past work with a client will often lead to them remembering your work when something comes up that you might work well on. Past clients should be on a permanent mailing list anyway, but if you’ve been remiss on this then now’s the time to reconnect.

  4. Seek New Opportunities– Have you been relying on a few key clients or work from a certain section of the industry for most of your jobs? It’s easy to get comfortable with too many eggs in one basket. Now might be the time to explorer other places your work would be of value. Product packaging, website graphics, character design and/or branding, advertising… there are lots of venues out there needing good quality illustration work. Spend some time thinking about other possible avenues your work might apply to. Maybe some of your marketing budget can go to advertising your skills to an entire new potential client industry.

  5. Stay Positive– Things will turn around and get better. Good things happen to good people, even if it takes time. Treat your clients with professionalism, respect and appreciation, and they will reciprocate.


  1. Mike Giblin says:

    Some wise advice Tom. I’ve always struggled to balance the work/marketing line, but you’ve given me a real kick in the pants there to venture into some unexplored territory. Thanks for posting.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Some great advice, Tom!

  3. Monty says:

    Great advice, Tom. It’s easy to be positive when things are good, but it’s most important when they’re not. Lots of opportunity still out there.

  4. Great advice! Thanks Tom!

  5. Rick Hmilton says:

    Great post Tom. You answered a question i was going to ask without the need to ask it. I met you at con in North Carolina, and hope to catch you again in Pittsburgh this August. Your posts are educational and entertaining. I start each morning before drawing anyting by checking your daily posts.

  6. Eric M. says:

    Tom, thanks for these wonderful tips. Doing things like this for the little Guys (like me) really shows the kind giving heart you have 🙂

    Quick question if you don’t mind. You suggest to step up marketing. I’m very new to this. So how or where would you go about obtaining information to mail to? Like, where would I get info on which companies or magazines and their Art Directors to send post cards to?

    Again, thanks for being awesome and doing this.

  7. Jeff says:

    I was laid off from my newspaper job at the end of January. Fortunately I’ve been freelancing part-time and preparing for this sort of situation for a long time by building a database of publishers, upgrading my software and hardware, and learning a few new skills.

    Since I’ve been laid off and become a full time freelance by default, I’ve created a promotional postcard and sent out a couple of hundred of them, then passed out quite a number of them to businesses around town. I’ve also joined the local Chamber of Commerce. This last Tuesday I took a deep breath, went to my first meeting and networked my butt off. I surprised myself by having a blast, and on top of that, made 4 very promising contacts with people whose eyes lit up when they found out I was a cartoonist. One was quite disappointed he hadn’t heard of me earlier, as he could have used me on a video project earlier in the month.

    Keep up the great work. I enjoy your blog and admire your talent.


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