How to get big companies to be your clients when you are a freelancer

Hi :slight_smile:

for some time now I keep wondering this: how do freelance graphic designers find work for big companies? Do these clients contact them?
Do they already work in those companies?
I tried asking this few fellow designers but I didn’t got an answer, so I thought I might get some advice here.
Thank you

I’m not sure there’s a “typical” scenario, but I’d bet big that most cases in which an individual freelancer gets work from a “big company,” there is a pre-existing connection.

It depends a lot upon how the company does things in the first place, but I’ve seen cases where said freelancer is:

  • a former employee
  • an employee departed from an agency the company used in the past
  • an associate/former workmate of someone in the company
  • discovered among, and “kept” from, a pool of freelance/contract prospects by a company that uses such individuals routinely as a flexible portion of workforce
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My situation might not be typical, but I’ll toss it out there as another example.

With my freelance work, most of my clients are larger, well-established organizations. Like HotButton alluded to, they’re all the result of previous connections of one sort or another.

Larger clients, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to better or higher-caliber work. A big company is unlikely to hire a freelancer for a major project — they will typically head to their in-house staff or contracted outside agency for that kind of thing. What one typically ends up getting — at least in my case — is spillover, oddball and special project work that doesn’t fit conveniently into their established processes.


Client #1 was my former employer and they were big. I was part time, and I developed a great rep while I was there, and they didn’t want to lose me when I told them I was going freelance.

Everything that happened after that has been cross pollination. I make people look good. When they leave to go to another job, they bring me along so I can continue to make them look good, and I get a foot in the door with a new client.

There’s a difference between Big Companies, and Big Money Clients.
Sort of.
I work in a weird space in this industry that’s sort of a cross between architectural interior design and theatre. No one really breaks into this arena without having first worked at an agency or studio. That is slowly changing as the agencies/studios are slowly fading away into pools of freelancers that know each other, which also makes it hard to break in. So basically it’s the same as others have mentioned. Previous work with previous clients branching out to other clients as referrals build.

The big companies I freelance for are clients I have done work for previously when I was working for a company. Also, when old clients move to new job, they sometimes contact me once they are established at their new job. Referrals are good too. My clients often refer new clients to me.

I remember a site once having articles about freelance designers and one of those articles was a whine-fest about how the person, as a freelancer, couldn’t compete with agencies for big money clients, mostly about how an agency can go in and spec a proposal without any cash up front (it was a site called No-Spec.)

The game is entirely different once you get beyond the mom-and-pop business card level. If you don’t have the business sense to have what amounts to a marketing budget, you aren’t going anywhere. There is a lot of speculation going on, even if you are just going to meetings with clients as part of your job bidding process. A bid is spec work. You don’t get paid to fill out the paperwork, you don’t get paid to fly across the country for a site walk-thru, you don’t get paid when someone else gets the work. You chalk it up to “marketing” and move on. Maybe you didn’t get that one big job, but you showed up and that may give you points for the next one, or maybe a smaller one more within your scope of experience. If you don’t have the chops, you don’t get to compete.


I’ve been working in agencies, in-house situations and freelancing for, um, since just before Lincoln was assassinated, so I have personal experience from multiple angles.

Start-ups, mom-and-pop operations, smaller non-profits and small businesses hire creative talent in an entirely different way from big companies. Bigger companies tend to have various kinds of in-house marketing people, and any freelance work hired out usually originates from them. Typically, like I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s usually spillover design work that they can’t do themselves for various reasons. Just as an aside, it’s a bit different for freelancing photographers and illustrators who are quite often hired per project specifically for their style, which is, unfortunately, not usually the case with designers.

When bigger companies do farm out larger projects, those projects are typically awarded through a competitive bidding process or given to a long-term contractor that likely was originally hired through one of those bidding processes. They’re also typically marketing projects in which design is just one component.

Given that these bidding competitions involve hundreds of thousands, or even, millions of potential dollars, agencies often spend thousands of dollars on what freelancers call spec work. It’s a sales pitch, and if the agency you’re competing against comes in with a great idea that they’ve worked up and thought through, but your agency shows up with nothing but a reputation, lots of talk and a portfolio of past work, guess which agency has the best chance of getting the $500,000 contract and being first in line for even more work that comes down the road in the future.

I’d not often recommend freelancers doing spec work for small businesses since, on average, it just doesn’t pay off for various reasons. When a million dollars hangs in the balance, though, a pricey sales pitch becomes a worthwhile business investment.


Sidenote: The best way to get that kind of work is through representation.
Problem: You don’t get a good rep until you’ve already got the stable of clients lol.

I’m not so sure about that. Representation is just money out of your pocket. Or, again you could charge it out to marketing I suppose. Not one of the Top End Freelancers I’ve worked with has “representation.”

Understood, but for someone like me, who hates dealing directly with trouble clients, representation works well. This way I can spend all my time on what I’m good at and only give up 10% profit. Instead of working 50% of the time on finding and promotion. So I come out ahead.

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