For some, a freelance career is something that happens by accident. This was exactly the case for Matt Cook, a freelance writer. A few jobs after university led to Matt being offered the chance to try out writing scripts and his career grew from there.
Please describe your journey out of university including the most exciting / rewarding projects you’ve worked on and some of the biggest brands you’ve worked with
I left Manchester University with a Psychology degree and pretty much no idea what I wanted to do or what I would be good at. I had a major creative slant (mainly musical) and drifted towards film because that’s what my wife (then girlfriend) was studying at the time. I wanted to get a generic office job to pay the bills but my father-in-law, who is a lifelong entrepreneur, convinced me to wait and try a few things out first.
I did sound on some short films, and was pretty bad at it, then fell into working as an assistant for a commercials director. My first jobs were for MEN and United Utilities, quite a big deal for me at 22. But I was really bad at that too. At some point someone said ‘We need some scripts for something, Matt, you want to have a go?’ I said I’d love to and suddenly I was a copywriter.
Except I wasn’t. I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t even know how much to charge. All I had was my gut instinct, blind enthusiasm and a nagging feeling of dread and panic. But freelancing embraced me, even if I didn’t embrace it, and before I knew it I was working for production companies and some small creative agencies writing all sorts and paying a mortgage. The brands were generally small; a lot of local clients, if they were brands at all, but my day rate was the same whatever so it worked out. I gradually grew my experience and my portfolio.
In 2008 I was invited for a few months freelancing for TBWA in Manchester, a global network with massive clients like Nissan, Manchester United, The Co-operative, ghd, Original Source, Imperial Leather, Carex, EA, Odeon and BP among others. I really felt like I had arrived and finally cracked self-employment. And then they offered me a full time job, which I took instantly. My desire to escape uncertainty won out.
I spent four years there, and learned a huge amount, including that there is no such thing as certainty. No one knows when the Sword of Damocles will come for them. But the main thing I learned was that self-employment really was where I belonged after all.
So I quit and took my newly enriched portfolio back on the road. Within a month I had a big animation job for Oxfam which was seen all over the world. Over the following years I did jobs for Levi’s (my favourite client, and still an on-going relationship), the NHS, the BBC, Bath University, Staffordshire University and a whole bunch of others, plus lots of work with agencies. It was all about conviction and confidence. I had neither at day one, but sticking with it allowed me to grow them exponentially. I now live a great lifestyle that allows me to be at home with my wife and little boy a lot.
How have you dealt with any adversity you’ve faced as a consequence of being a freelancer (if any)?
Roll with the punches and don’t get upset. And have a financial safety net of some kind, even if it’s just a small one. I’ve had some dry spells and some hairy cash flow moments, plus some client relationships that didn’t go so well, but when things are at their worst I just think ‘If other people can do this, so can I.’
I also think about people sitting at the same desk day in, day out, and suddenly my mojo kicks right back in and I can handle anything.
What are you aspirations for the future? Do you plan on continuing freelancing for the foreseeable future?
As long as nothing goes horribly wrong, I will never work full time again. It’s fundamentally better for my finances, frame of mind and work ethic. And it really isn’t for some people, but I’ve discovered that it is for me. Long term I want to write fiction alongside copy, and get paid at least a little bit for it. But that’s a way off yet. It’s all about the gradual growth for me, slowly improve my client base, slowly improve my craft, and enjoy each day as much as possible.
Why did you decide to go straight in to freelancing? What’s influenced your decision most?
As I said before, I didn’t decide, I was kind of cajoled / obligated. I couldn’t have been given a job doing what I was doing, I knew nothing. Plus if someone had decided to pay me I would have had a really paltry salary. If I had been offered a job, I probably would have snapped it up, and regretted it forever. I’m really glad I got the chance to try it both ways to know for sure, and having worked full time gives me credibility I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise, but that’s to an extent a role specific thing.
Freelancing early on gave me lots of flexibility and the chance to fail a lot and learn what I was good at. If I hadn’t had that trial and error time I wouldn’t have the control and freedom I do now.
The biggest most defining factor in this for me, and for everyone I know who works in a similar way, is knowing someone who is currently doing it, and doing it well. If you have a role model to act as an inspiration, and a point of reference for advice, you’re much more likely to succeed.
Did you always want to be a freelance writer whilst you were at University?
I didn’t even want to be a writer at University. I wanted to be a musician, really. But life drew me in a different direction and showed me how to match my skills with my needs, which was to earn money during the day with specific challenges set by other people.
I tend not to be a self-motivated creative. I’m at my best when someone calls me up and says ‘Matt, we have this problem, can you help?’
Is writing in line with what you studied at University?
I studied Psychology, but never really wanted to be a ‘Psychologist’. It just interested me. Now I draw on the skills and learning from that course every day, but from a subconscious part of my brain, not a front of mind or scientific part.
Most freelance writers I know didn’t study for it. They just found they were good enough to do it at a particular level. The average brief I tackle a lot of people could have a crack at on a good day, they just couldn’t do it 8+ hours a day 5 days a week, with a cold, and four other briefs in the back of their mind, without crashing and burning. Which is essentially the big gamble: can I do this all the time reliably, even under the worst conditions. You never know 100%, but I think you quickly realise what kind of an animal you are, what kind of muscles you have and how to use them. I’m a low risk business person. I have no overheads, and no debt. I just promise to be very useful in a particular way at a moment’s notice, and the more I do the better I get at it and the more people want to work with me.
Did your University discuss freelancing as a viable option post-graduation? Did they support your transition to freelancing?
No. They talked a bit about careers in general, but it was all a bit ‘pie in the sky’ at 21. I certainly didn’t want to do any more studying at that point, which most of the things they gave talks on would have required. It wasn’t that kind of degree. I left and realised I was on my own. I had rent to pay. Time to find the skills to pay the bills, as they say. I had a limitless supply of enthusiasm and a readiness to learn, no assumptions and lived in a city ready to reward those things. I was grateful of every opportunity, no matter how small, and I’ve kept that approach with me. If you behave like someone people want to work with, they’re more likely to keep picking up the phone.
Would you encourage others to start freelancing? If so, why?
Yes, because it’s awesome! But I would say some industries and roles are more suited to it than others. What I do is perfect for freelancing, and lots of other people do it in this part of the country, so there’s a good culture ready to give new people a chance. But not everyone’s brain is cut out for it. Being able to balance the stress, creativity and - for want of a better phrase - ‘customer service’ of it all is a unique challenge, and I just happen to be pretty good at it. Some people won’t be, it’s both attitudinal and genetic I think. But I would encourage anyone thinking about doing it to find someone already doing it that they like and admire, and see if they can picture themselves growing into that mould over time. Or just do your own thing; you can make a shape for yourself in the world any which way you want to, if you refuse to give in to doubt.
Is there anything you would change about your journey/career so far?
Of course! I would have worried less about money and more about relationships from the outset. I would have spotted people taking advantage of me sooner. I would have got A LOT more done before I had a baby. And I would have set up as a limited company a lot sooner. Plus a load of other things I can’t think of right now because I have a lot of work on and a baby.
What are your opinions on graduate schemes, if any?
I have no real opinions as I’ve never experienced them, either as a graduate or as a professional. I know a few people who did them and they seem to help, but they can only really give you a step up the first rung of the ladder as far as I can tell. You need to be on step 25 before you feel like you’re getting anywhere, and step 100 before you feel safe and confident and like you know what you’re doing.
My role has allowed me to meet a lot of other self-employed people – from other scruffy creatives right up to serious entrepreneurial type people, who own several businesses, plus multiple cars and houses and maybe a yacht or two. So you see that determination manifest in different forms, the glint in the eye that has to be there every morning when you get up and head off out into the world ready to make it happen with nothing but your wits. It’s always the same glint, just with a different intensity. Some people acquire it over time, without really meaning to, like me. Others are born with it, like Richard Branson. If you don’t think you have it or could acquire it, freelancing probably isn’t for you. If you do, or you think you could get it, then saddle up. The road to adventure awaits.
I used pretty much the same analogy when encouraging a graphic designer friend of mine to go freelance earlier this year. He was an anxious guy, and wasn’t sure if it was for him, because of the prospect of stress. Now he’s working for himself he’s a whole new person, relaxed and full of confidence. A lot of the anxiety he felt came from feeling a boss breathing down his neck, telling him things he didn’t agree with. It could have gone the other way I’m sure, but it didn’t. He’s now on our team, the ‘swear we’ll never go back’ team. The renegades.
See Matt's portfolio and find out more about his work on his website, hellomattcook.com.