Meet the Folk: Marge Ainsley

In a new series, I'm interviewing members of the Freelance Folk community to find out more about their freelance lives. First up is Marge Ainsley, a communication and research specialist. 

What do you do?

I work mainly - but not exclusively - within the cultural sector across the UK. I typically work with museums, galleries, theatres and libraries to help them with marketing, audience development and evaluation work. But I've got some clients in other sectors too, including tourism, charity and housing. I also get involved with large capital projects, like the new visitor attraction being developed at Silverstone race circuit, and the new museum being built at Tottenham Hotspur FC's new stadium.

How did you get started as a freelancer?

I quickly got myself organised and I’ve never looked back: I’ve been freelance for 10 years.

I was looking for a move from my full-time job and - out of the blue - was offered a freelance contract by an ex-colleague. I wish I could say I had a business plan and clear vision - but I didn't! Luckily, I quickly got myself organised and I've never looked back: I've been freelance for 10 years.

How did you go about finding clients or customers?

I was in a senior management role in my full-time organisation, with good networks. So initially people approached me, which meant I could cut my teeth on a few independent projects and build up my freelance portfolio which was great. These days it's a mix; it's previous clients returning, or briefs I'm sent following a recommendation.

I sometimes apply for contracts that are out for wider tender. And I also join up with a small, but trusted team of other freelancers on larger projects which need more people and/or different skill-sets. I've recently expanded my international portfolio, so I've got clients in Geneva and China - both of those came in through recommendations.

What do you love about being freelance?

I love having that ‘portfolio’ of projects as it never gets dull.

So many things. The flexibility of when I work. The fact that I don't need to ask permission to go to the dentist in 'working hours'. Those kinds of logistical benefits may seem small but they make a big difference (especially when balancing work and home life). But overall it's the variety of projects I get to work on.

A recent five day working week included: researching a special collection that's rarely accessed by the public for an advocacy piece; copywriting interpretation for a new aquarium opening in Chongqing, standing on White Hart Lane conducting surveys with Spurs football fans; writing an audience development plan for a theatre in Cumbria; and running a marketing training workshop with artists. I love having that 'portfolio' of projects as it never gets dull.

What do you find challenging?

Balancing work and home-life. Given the amount of discussion by freelancers about self-care at the moment, I don't think I'm the only one! It's also challenging to build in, and commit to your own CPD - but that's really important to keep up-to-date with your industry.

Where do you like to work when you're not at Freelance Folk coworking sessions?

My general approach is to work ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ clients: I think it’s important to be part of a team.

I tend to work in my office at home. But my projects often mean I'm out and about on-site; so I don't typically tend to get cabin fever. My general approach is to work 'with' rather than 'for' clients: I think it's important to be part of a team. And sometimes that means hot-desking at the gallery, museum or theatre I'm working at. Even if it's just in their cafe. And of course, Freelance Folk on Fridays at Ziferblat is a highlight of my week!

How do you get into the flow of working?

BBC Radio 6 Music is on at all times. Unless I'm doing telephone interviews for research projects when I need peace and quiet.

How do you keep your work and personal life separate? Or do you not?

I think this is tricky in the arts and heritage sector, as the work often cuts across/is built into your personal life because most of us actually like visiting museums, galleries, libraries etc. There's often activity after hours or on weekends - whether it's an exhibition opening, twitter chat (#museumhour on Monday nights for example) or a Saturday family art club that needs evaluating. But on the whole I try not to work at weekends unless I really need to.

What skills would be on your alternative CV?

Level 3 British Sign Language communicator, break-dancer, roadie.

Who do you admire?

Caroline Newns (@carolinenewns), a change management consultant who encouraged me to make the leap to freelance. She's always got something incredibly useful and enlightening to say, and her international client portfolio is a big inspiration.

If you weren't doing your current freelance job, what would you be doing?

Hopefully a full-time job working in a gallery or museum.

What top three tips or recommendations would you give to other freelancers?

Be firm and realistic with the ‘can you just?’ requests, as they can easily add up.

1. Don't take your eye off the ball - you always need to be self-marketing. Whether that's a quick email to a previous client or attending a networking event to keep yourself visible - whatever your industry, you have to continue promoting yourself even when your workload is heavy.

2. Say yes to interesting sounding projects that might not 'fit' your usual portfolio - and worry if you can do it later. Often this brings in new and exciting work which stretches you - but also can open up future new business opportunities.

3. (Conversely) Learn how to say no! If you've got a full workload never over-commit as it can be stressful, and often means you don't deliver your best work for each and every client. Be firm and realistic with the 'can you just?' requests, as they can easily add up.

You can find Marge online at or on Twitter @margelicious.