In the not too distant past, it seemed only those PROs recently made redundant, or those possessing that rare communications Midas touch, handed out business cards inscribed 'freelance consultant'. But how times have changed - and continue to do so at a quickening pace, according to a new survey, reviewed exclusively by PR Week.
Believed to be the most expansive and comprehensive to date, 'Freelancing in The PR Industry' is the research paper commissioned by freelance placement agency PRXchange. It was carried out by a team at the Leeds Metropolitan University (LMU).
The findings echo and confirm trends identified in a smaller survey, the first of its kind, carried out by PRXchange a year ago (PR Week, 3 December 1999).
That survey quizzed 120 freelances, ranging from junior account directors through middle management to directorships.
It revealed that most were happy with their potentially risky decision to leave their permanent positions, and it showed few wanted to return to the fold; most said their quality of life had improved and work was in hearty supply.
Those findings and accompanying tales from those who had found pastures greener and sweeter in the freelancing field appear to have struck a chord.
For, as 2000 draws to a close, the latest in-depth study - which sampled a total of 353 freelances and clients - reveals more are unshackling the chain to the corporate desk and bidding goodbye to the security of regular pay-cheques, paid holidays, perks and promotion prospects.
The reason behind for this leap of faith from the corporate nest? The desire for freedom.
'We on the research team are all ex-practitioners and one of the things that surprised us was the happiness expressed by nearly all those freelances we interviewed,' says LMU principle lecturer Ralph Tench, who headed the research team.
'Few, if any, would consider going back into full-time employment unless it was to re-tool so as to come back out of the work place with better skills,' adds Tench, a former national newspaper journalist and PR consultant.
Sixty-six per cent of freelances questioned said they were happy and do not want to change their sole trading status. A few were even more adamant, stating 'nothing' would ever attract them back to permanent employment.
The LMU survey interestingly revealed an even distribution of experience, which suggested freelances move in and out of the practice.
But there were more freelances who had been practicing for a year or less than those who had been working independently for a decade or more, indicating that freelancing is either not a long-term option - or it is indeed a new phenomenon.
Tench is one of the many who believes the latter is correct. In the current economic climate, which sees the PR industry enjoying a period of steady growth, the survey showed freelances are finding plenty of work.
They pick and choose what work they want to do, and thanks to the latest technology, when and where they do it. Most prefer to work for in-house clients, and undertake media relations and copywriting briefs.
Large companies, too, appear to be embracing and enhancing the changes. CEOs are realising staff can no longer be guaranteed, nor want in many cases, a job for life, and are hiring at peak business times, which ultimately ensures shareholders are kept happy.
Of the clients interviewed, 69 per cent claimed they increased their use of freelances during the last year.
Many cited the need for greater 'flexibility', which reflects the on-going client trend to downsize and outsource for specialist peripheral management-level consultants.
Clients sought six important characteristics in freelances - a positive attitude, a willingness to work hard, flexibility, experience, integrity and confidence.
The survey also revealed freelances prefer working for in-house clients, with 53 per cent working over 35 hours a week.
Most leave a managerial position or directorships to go it alone, and 60 per cent are paid on a daily rate, with a monthly retainer the second popular payment method.
A problem faced by freelances, however, is the ability to move from one level to another.
'One of the key areas for the industry to address is how to facilitate the career paths of freelances who want to move up a rung on the ladder.
Some can feel stuck at a perceived level and they saw difficulties progressing up the management level,' says Tench. 'This is something that may have to be addressed by the industry,' he adds.
There are other difficulties for freelances to consider - such as lack of work security, and the difficulty of separating work from family life - but these did not outweigh the positive aspects of freelancing.
The research team expected to find that isolation was a major concern but found that freelances do not seem to have any difficulties in working alone. However, the research team suggested that employers could help with the problem of freelances constantly having to deal with new colleagues and equipment by creating background induction packs.
The traditional concern over late-paying clients is still the biggest frustration, but most freelances are resigned to the fact that late payment - sometimes by as much as 60 days - goes with the terrain.
'Late payments are not a major concern. Many accept large corporations have different accountancy systems for freelances,' said Tench. Few were troubled, or have been in trouble, over tax returns.
Freelances were generally confident about their skills, and therefore found they could anticipate a steady stream of work, the survey showed.
They are earning equitable salaries without the same level of 'organisational stress', and charge a broad range of fees ranging from a daily rate of pounds 150 to pounds 4,000 for a project-based brief.
Most are based in London and the south-east, and 68 per cent are females aged 31 to 35. Just over 30 per cent are male, most aged over 50 years.
Ninety-seven per cent of all the freelances have held previous permanent positions.
'There appears to be satisfaction on both sides. Freelances are satisfied because they are being rewarded creatively and financially, and employers are satisfied because they are hiring someone who is focused and has measured output,' says Tench.
Companies, of course, will always maintain a core number of permanent staff, says Tench, but freelances now represent a key element of the workforce in the PR industry.
But when all the statistics and percentages thrown up by the study are dusted down and scrutinised, one overriding theme is exposed.
'Most who become freelances do so because of the freedom, variety and the creativity,' said Emma Brierley, PRXchange co-founder.
Fifty-one per cent of freelances said they were more productive than when working in full-time employment, citing an absence of 'unnecessary meetings and interruptions'. And few said they missed 'the office politics'.
The majority of respondents - 70 per cent - also said they felt able to offer clients a more personalised service and retain greater control over their work schedule.
Standards are also improving, Brierley claims: 'You are only as good as your last project so reputation and results are everything.'
Freelances are part of a new generation of workers conceived by large agencies seeking more flexible human resources to deal with peaks in business and the ever-increasing need to maintain competitiveness.
But the ultimate decision to leave the security of the office to freelance lies with those PROs motivated by the freedom factor - and the superior quality of life it affords.
WORKING TOGETHER TO BOOST RESULTS
Many freelances occasionally band together to share work and contacts.
Karen Drury set up KD Communications in November 1999 and is based in London. Her clients include Hill and Knowlton, the Telegraph Group, Deutsche Bank, Bestfoods UK and the Conference Centre at Church House.
She often shares work with Eye Communications, run by former Ogilvy and Mather PRO Penny Stephens, and Sarah Broom, a former employee of Countrywide Porter Novelli who turned freelance two years ago.
The three know each other from their 'permanent employee' days and receive much of their freelance work from their former employers.
Uniting on certain projects offers the client a better service and security, and offers freelances piece of mind by knowing they will have cover should they go sick or take a holiday, says Drury.
'I think freelancing is very much horses for courses. When freelances band together, they can offer an outstanding range of services that you wouldn't expect from a typical one-man band.
'But I do not think they can offer, collectively or otherwise, the same service, say, on an national brief as the big players such as H&K and Burson-Marsteller,' she adds.
Drury agrees with many of the trends and issues highlighted by the Leeds Metropolitan University survey, and she claims freelances come into their own when they are offering services which are not unique to the bigger agencies.
'Work such as UK media coverage or standard consultancy are good examples of freelance work. These are areas where clients do not require massive implementation, but need a freelance with strategic view of the issue in hand.'
And a major attraction of freelances after their skills is the rate they charge, often a third or half of that charged by a big agency.