To freelance or not to freelance? That's the question
bureaucracy-weary managers and laid-off account executives ponder.
Whether now is a good time to shuffle off the salaried coil depends on
who you ask.
The demand for freelancers has dipped since last year's recruiting
frenzy, observes Jeffrey Prince, director of Cantor Concern Staffing
Options Group in New York. 'The people with more experience will be in
better stead to compete,' Prince says, stressing that realistic pricing
is also a must in a tighter market. Dennis Spring, president of the
Spring Associates executive search firm, believes freelancers will earn
less this year and shouldn't count on filling the void left by agency
contractions. 'The notion that freelancers are abundant and are earning
enormous sums of money when economic times are bad and full-time people
are not working is a real fallacy,' Spring opines.
Hi-tech freelancers did report a slower first quarter, with clients
tightening budgets and taking longer to pay and make decisions. There
are indications, however, that some agencies are using freelancers in
lieu of full-timers, not uncommonly contracting the same people they lay
off. 'Gradually, the agency I had been working for found they needed my
services and skill base,' says Jack LeMenager, sole proprietor of
Strategic Business Communications in Winchester, MA. LeMenager now
counts his former employer among his best clients.
'Never burn your bridges with the agency you used to work for,' agrees
Lesley Hensell. BSMG offered Hensell contract work when she quit the
agency's Dallas office last year. Her relationship with agencies is
When a client can't afford the minimum retainer, an agency may refer it
to Hensell, who sends it back when venture capital comes in. 'They know
I'm not going to steal the client permanently,' she explains.
Bob Schiers, sole proprietor of RAS Associates in Hainesport, NJ, proves
tough times spawn independents. Schiers worked for 7-Eleven until the
company's ill-fated leveraged buyout in 1987. Many PR employees lost
jobs, but Schiers joined 7-Eleven's network of independent field
A few 7-Eleven executives eventually migrated to senior positions at
Blockbuster, which adopted a similar strategy and created a network of
regional PR consultants, including Schiers and a few of his 7-Eleven
Relationships formed with other consultants go beyond the clients they
share, Schiers says. When a recent illness took him out of circulation
for several days, fellow independents called to volunteer their
Are you freelance material?
LeMenager recommends self-assessment before hanging out a shingle. Nail
down sellable strengths and consider whether clients would find your
'If you are highly extroverted, working alone at home all day, even if
you are on the phone quite a bit, is not going to resonate with your
personality,' warns Stuart McFaul, principal of Spiralgroup Marketing +
PR in San Francisco.
People who need imposed structure should probably stick with salaries,
and things like child care and creative writing can easily overwhelm
paying freelance work. '(Freelancing) demands a tremendous amount of
self-management and self-discipline,' McFaul says.
Going it alone can be more difficult for those with exclusively
corporate backgrounds who didn't learn to pitch and bid for new business
in agency settings, warns Julie Walke, sole proprietor of Walke
Communications in La Jolla, CA. Walke, formerly a corporate PR exec,
says her first few years as a consultant were difficult.
Going solo is no vacation. 'Be prepared to work like you've never worked
before,' says Schiers. Independents must plan their schedules and
budgets carefully to take vacations and allow for sickness.
Taking the plunge
Linda Mastaglio built such a successful freelance business in Dallas
that she was able to move into the east Texas woods and continue serving
national clients. Developing a business plan was the key, she
Others advise applying your best PR skills to yourself. Define your
specialities, but be flexible and develop multiple income streams.
Setting rates may seem onerous for newbies, but veterans say it's fine
to ask friendly agencies and fellow freelancers what to expect.
'Appear bigger than you are,' says Judith Lederman, an independent in
the New York suburbs, who advises naming your business. Lederman calls
hers JSL Publicity & Marketing. Don't scrimp on business cards,
professional resources or equipment.
Several freelancers recommend mixing retainers with project work and
agency assignments with direct clients. 'You have to have retainers who
pay the bills and projects that fill in,' Walke says.
Networking with fellow PR people and with other professional service
providers and potential clients is vital, says Laura Link Maggio,
proprietor of Strategy-Link PR in Jacksonville, FL. 'Don't be on your
own,' she implores.
Banding together has become a well-honed survival skill for many. Some
work through formalized 'virtual' PR firms, while others develop casual
alliances to share job leads. Maggio's small group also shares expensive
resources like media directories.
Freelance alliances often hinge on close-knit relationships among small
groups of independents with varying specialties or in different regions.
They often team up for pitches and fill each other's talent gaps. For
example, Ted Agne often serves as project manager for five core members
of Communications Strategy Group in New England. McFaul's Spiralgroup is
a larger concern with three full-time employees and about 20
Groups like these select virtual partners judiciously. McFaul seeks
common values and entrepreneurial spirit, while others let new members
prove their worth behind the scenes on tasks that won't sink
Those who prefer strategy to tactics may find bigger profits by
managerially farming out tasks than by working peer-to-peer. Mastaglio
uses 13 subcontractors, and Maggio says she recently turned over
implementation of an award-winning project to a sub so she could seek
Tightening the belt
Long-time freelancers don't seem overly concerned about the current
'If you see tough times coming, you may have to adjust your lifestyle.
You may have to adjust your rates,' says Jon Kemp, a Dallas-based
freelance writer. 'If you've got good clients, hang onto them. In bad
times, hang on even tighter.' Kemp has benefited from the downturn by
picking up freelance work from troubled J.C. Penney, which recently sold
its direct marketing arm and lost key employees.
Schiers remembers the Gulf War period as his most harrowing and learned
then not to be shy about demanding payment or passing through
Some independents fall back on journalism when PR slows. Separating
'church and state' can be tricky, says Lederman, who has contributed to
The New York Times. Some newspapers won't knowingly work with
freelancers who also do public relations. Lederman recommends being up
front about PR work and never writing commissioned stories about your PR
Lederman has freelanced since 1989 and doesn't think the economy is
going south. 'I think this is a shift,' she says. The tech market may
deflate, but Lederman believes other segments will strengthen. Meantime,
freelancers can use their low overhead and cheaper rates to attract
The freelancing dream need not make cowards of self-motivated and
well-disciplined PR pros, Lederman says. 'Jump in and don't be afraid,
because you'll make more money doing this than working for a company,'
1. Do develop a business plan and define your strengths before jumping
into the freelance pool
2. Do make yourself known and visible to your clients' upper management
in case of PR staff changes
3. Do learn everything you can about bidding and pitching, especially if
you come from a corporate background where such skills weren't
1. Don't expect a lot of free time as a freelancer
2. Don't go it alone if you aren't highly self-motivated or if you can't
3. Don't forget to set aside a big chunk of your gross for taxes and
4. Don't take the word 'independent' too seriously. Network with other