Leaders

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Freelancing through a Pandemic - With Content Strategist Nick Carson

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Surely Nick Carson has seen quite a lot in his many years as a Content Strategist and Copywriter. But all of his freelance and creative experience couldn't possibly prepare him for what 2020 had in store – a global pandemic that put a halt to a number of big projects. Mass panic ensued.

And yet, Nick made it. You could credit his extensive network of contacts for that, or perhaps his vast experience – but there's more to a good freelancer than just his network, and Nick knows that very well. You wouldn't expect less than a driven entrepreneurial spirit, a good will to forge ahead and a powerful creative drive from someone who worked on the Virgin By Design book.

Today we are Getting to Know one of our Top 100 Industry Influencers of 2020, a talented creative professional with plenty of advice for all the other freelancers out there. And believe us; it is a story worth reading.

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How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?

I've been an independent content strategist and copywriter since 2018, collaborating with design and branding agencies. This includes everything from creative copywriting for brands, to strategic repositioning of agencies themselves.

Prior to that, I spent a decade in the design press, editing Computer Arts. There, I launched the Brand Impact Awards (for which I remain chair of judges) and UK Studio Rankings, a peer reputation survey of the country's best agencies. Through CA, I built a network of great contacts and a personal reputation within the design industry, which was crucial for taking the leap into freelance life and hitting the ground running.

Perhaps the biggest challenge at the start was persuading potential clients to see me as a collaborator on projects, rather than a journalist who covers them after they roll out. I set up a lot of meetings in the first year to explain my shift in focus over coffee (or beer). Fortunately, it paid off.

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How has COVID-19 affected you?

I was fortunate in that when COVID-19 hit, I had already spent two years building up a solid client base and reputation. 

That said, the pandemic hit the whole industry hard and at the start of lockdown I went from being very busy to worryingly quiet almost overnight, as several agency retainers were paused and a couple of big projects cancelled.

At the start of lockdown I went from being very busy to worryingly quiet almost overnight.

Work picked up considerably after a few weeks and things are now back at pre-pandemic levels. The biggest challenge was the few months when the nursery was shut, when my wife and I juggled full-time childcare with our respective workloads.

Before lockdown I was in London every week for client meetings – video calls make for a different dynamic, but everyone's in the same boat so it's workable.

My biggest shift came in this year's Brand Impact Awards judging: usually a long day of round-table debate between our judging panel, in 2020 it had to be done remotely. I was keen to retain the same lively discussion as it helps ensure the best work rises to the surface, so instead chaired a total of seven 3-hour video debates to decide the winners.

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What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful in this climate?

Don't try and replicate someone else's success. Define what makes you special, own it, and don't give up.

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

My mum is an artist, my dad a retired furniture designer. So I grew up surrounded by creative influences.

I've also always been passionate about the persuasive power of words. I studied English at the University of Birmingham and edited the student newspaper. From there, I started my career as a staff writer for a Channel 4 website dedicated to the creative industries. It featured everything from design to performance art to music, and it taught me a lot about the creative process.

A career that combines words and design is a real sweet spot, and as a freelancer I can shape the ideal combination for me. 

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What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

In my second year as a freelancer, I landed a project as author of Virgin By Design – a premium 'coffee table' book celebrating 50 years of the Virgin brand. With multiple senior stakeholders involved – including Virgin Group’s chief brand officer and global CEO, as well as Richard Branson himself – my brief was to capture Virgin’s brand values, while remaining engaging and entertaining for an external audience.

The process involved over 120 interviews with CEOs, CMOs and other influential individuals responsible for shaping the past, present and future of the brand – from the early days of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic, through to present-day innovations from the likes of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Voyages.

Drawing on hundreds of thousands of words of transcript, I crafted the many diverse stories into 10 distinct chapters. These explored areas such as Virgin’s ‘cheeky start-up’ mentality, the importance of taking risks and innovating, the ‘feel-good experiences’ and ‘magic moments’ at the heart of the brand, and how Virgin can stay relevant for the next 50 years.

It was a huge undertaking, but hugely enjoyable at the same time. It was also a definite milestone project for my freelance career so far, neatly bridging the gap between journalism, content strategy, copywriting and brand storytelling.

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What’s your secret to keep inspired and motivated?

Having come from managing a small team at CA, under the pressure of constant monthly deadlines, it's a very different challenge to keep myself inspired and motivated as a freelancer working from a home office. 

I work on a rich mix of projects, and the fact that every day is different helps keep me inspired and on my toes. I've always been quite self-motivated, which is hugely important for surviving as a freelancer – not just for getting projects done, but winning the work in the first place.

For me, the issue is more about achieving the right work/life balance. I try to keep to working hours, and carefully plan my days and weeks into blocks of time for different clients to make sure I have the capacity to give every project the attention it deserves.

I have a mischievous 2-year-old who was born in the year I went freelance: Mondays are Daddy days. It was wonderful to be able to shift to a four-day week and spend time with him without having to file a flexible working request, and it helps keep me focused on the other days.

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Nick collaborated with Superunion on the brand story for eco-friendly cleaning brand Delphis Eco.

How do you recharge away from the office?

My wife and I love to travel, especially stringing together a chain of quirky Airbnbs in a beautiful country and hiring a car to soak up the scenery in between them. If mountains, lakes and coastal views are involved, so much the better.

Since the pandemic hit, we've shifted to staycations with a couple of recent breaks in the Cotswolds and Devon. Any excuse to get out in the fresh air with the little one, particularly after the claustrophobia of lockdown. We must have covered every square inch of our local park a hundred times.

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What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

Like many sectors, design has a long way to go in terms of diversity. In the future I hope we'll see a more complex tapestry of influences, voices and lived experiences at every level. It'll enrich the industry, and improve the work too. 

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