Freelancing: End of recession

PR freelances have never had it so good, finds Jo Bowman, and companies are feeling the benefits too.

Being your own boss is an idea that many people are drawn to at some point in their working lives. Work from home, choose which clients you take on, and have a day off when you feel like it.

While the pool of people competing for freelance or contract work within the PR industry is expanding, there's also a growing understanding of the benefits that using them can bring, and more senior figures are being appointed freelance work.

Communications placement firm Xchangeteam CEO Emma Brierley notes that demand for freelances is picking up this year, now that consultancies are generating new business and, having cut staff numbers a year or two ago, need people to handle the work. 'They're the first to go but then the first to come back,' she says.

PR recruitment business VMA Group head of freelance and interims Vicki Jay agrees demand for ad hoc or project work is increasingly coming from small firms, while placements for interim managers - highly experienced freelances who set up an in-house team or get a new, ongoing project started - are being made with the big corporates.

'These are FTSE 50 firms who don't have communications in a particular division. What they need is someone with maybe ten to 15 years' experience to come in, talk to the team, meet the CEO, understand the board's requirements, educate them as to what can be done in terms of PR, then set it up and get the ball rolling,' she says.

No interview, no job

And while clients are willing to pay for quality freelances, they are now very selective about who they want, and don't hire anyone without an interview. 'Gone are the days when you used to be able to place people that afternoon,' Jay adds.

While the daily rates of freelances - generally higher than the equivalent of a full-time salary for the same level of skill - can put potential employers off, the advantages of having outside help more than compensate for the cost.

As freelances are only as good as their last project, they have something to prove with every new client, because everybody's conscious they're paying them a daily rate. It can make for a healthier relationship because both sides are clear about what the person's expected to do and what it's going to cost. They are also not embroiled in office politics and bring a fresh pair of eyes to a project.

What does seem to be emerging is a trend towards hiring people full-time for a contract of several months, rather than using a freelance on an ad hoc basis. Xchangeteam's average contract period, for example, is now six months, compared to three or four earlier this year.

Great news for those freelances looking to get their teeth stuck into a single project and for the few months' job security that such an appointment brings.

Contractors are becoming so much more common that some employers end up with a constant stream of them - one, say, for an internal comms issue and the next for a product launch. While the bill is the same or more than for hiring one person on permanent staff, they get the expertise of specialist operators for each project, and the flexibility to turn off the tap if business changes.

These highly prized freelances can go from contract to contract, or take breaks of several months because they know there will be work when they want it. Others take a much lower profile - and pay packet - but are able to find enough work from smaller clients.

What's in a name?

While the more senior postings are often referred to as interim management placements rather than freelance hirings, Brierley says which term you use is simply a question of preference. PR consultancies tend to call them freelances however long they're around, and Plcs like 'interim managers'.

British Airports Authority head of group employee comms Sandra Loftus frequently hires interim managers for specific projects. Recently, she took a freelance consultant on for six months while several BAA divisions were put under the same banner, to focus on internal comms related to the change.

'I hire quite a few freelances to cover specific projects if I'm looking for certain skills,' she says. 'We hire others just to be there on the ground setting up communication structures and systems. Because we've got such a large team, it's not an either/or decision for us. It's to complement the people and skills we already have.'

Despite a noticeable end to the freelance recession, some recruitment agencies report a reluctance among PR firms to hire them because of concerns about confidentiality and the reaction they might get from clients. In-house, however, there is clearly a broader acceptance of contracting out work across sectors from IT to finance, so using PR freelances is a more natural extension.

A day in the life of a freelance can vary widely - some provide temporary cover when staffers go on leave, others have one or two big clients who give them regular work, or juggle a long list of clients who need them occasionally.

Paul Beadle has been a freelance PR consultant for eight years and picked up work mainly through contacts in the industry and personal recommendations.

'It's primarily short-term or part-time stints with PR agencies, so the work is quite general, working on proposals and pitches, writing releases, media relations and that kind of thing,' he says. He also had an interim comms position in government that he found through a recruitment agency.

He has noticed a recent trend of firms looking to hire a freelance PR to raise their profile, from businesses from a number of different sectors that have not tried PR before, an indication of a growing confidence and increased marketing budgets.

Of course, being self-employed isn't all smooth sailing. If you're sick and can't work, you don't make any money. You have to plan for your own pension, arrange national insurance and sort out your tax. There's no IT guy on hand to fix the printer, no office banter, and no safety net if the work stalls. But the attraction of freelancing is, for most people, the promise of flexible working hours and varied work. And with the end of the recession for freelances, the attractions are ever greater.

INTERIM PR MANAGER/CONSULTANT

Hilary Scarlett, interim PR manager/consultant since January 2003

After ten years in a consultancy, Hilary Scarlett had become a director/partner in the business, but missed being involved in the every day work.

Since going solo, her clients have included Virgin Atlantic, Deutsche Bank and the NSPCC. Her specialty is internal communications, and she usually works on an interim management basis.

While she loves the flexibility of being independent, she says it was a little nerve-wracking at first, hoping the phone would ring. 'You feel far more exposed because it's just you,' she says.

Clients are more cautious with their communications budgets, and with independent consultants they have a sense of where the money is going and more control over what it's going on.

'Also, I think clients want and look for an individual or small group of individuals who they know and trust. When you work with a consultancy the first person you meet might not be the person you end up working with.

The client doesn't necessarily have much control over who they get. I've had people say "I just want you", and because I'm on my own I've forged much closer relationships with my clients.'

Scarlett says she's made a point of joining a professional reading group and going on training courses to make sure her skills develop.

DAY-TO-DAY FREELANCE

Rosalind Dewar, freelance since March

Freelancing gives Rosalind Dewar the chance to spend more time with her husband and young daughter - and to base herself in Italy.

She has been freelancing for six months, after a ten-month career break, five years as a marketing manager, and ten years on the agency side.

'I take the brief and deliver the work - that's it; no office politics or internal wranglings to get involved with and no team to manage,' she says.

'And freelancing from Italy is no different from freelancing in the UK, other than having to travel a little further for client meetings.'

She comes back to the UK once a month to meet her main client, Wesleyan Assurance Society, in Birmingham, and attend press meetings in London the next day. She then works from Lucca, doing most of the work by email, the occasional phone call, and the internet for research.

'I don't make a great play of not being in the UK since it doesn't make any difference to the quality of work.

'If I'm travelling to regional offices I play the Italy thing down completely and only mention it if necessary,' she adds.

' On the other hand, one of my clients is wracking her brains to think of a good excuse for travelling to Lucca for the next meeting.'

WHAT DOES IT COST TO HIRE A FREELANCE?

A freelance rate can vary from £100 to £1,000 a day, depending who you hire, their level of expertise, the nature of the work, the duration or regularity of the work, and how many other freelances are out there looking for work at the same time.

The most experienced PRO working in a specialist field might normally charge £1,000 a day for consultancy, but when it's clear client budgets are tight and the general economic climate is bad, might drop it to £700 or £800, or give a discount for, say, a three-month contract.

Role Experience Daily fee band

Account executive or equivalent Up to 2 years £100-150

Senior account executive/account

manager or equivalent 2 - 5 years £120 -200

Account director/associate

director or equivalent 5 - 10 years £200 - 350

Director or specialist

senior consultant 10+ years £350+

Source: Xchangeteam Group

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