Feature: How freelancers stole a march

The freelance PR market is growing to such an extent that some are calling it 'the third sector', as Maja Pawinska Sims reports

There is a school of thought that says working for someone else is simply preparation for going it alone, and in the PR industry, the freelance market has been growing significantly over the past few years.

The CIPR estimates that since 2001, the number of freelance PROs has risen from around 2,000 (representing a market worth £120m a year in fee income) to about 3,300 today, worth around £200m a year.

What's more, there is evidence that clients are increasingly turning to freelancers not just for short-term work, but for long-term service provision. A new report by PR secondment specialist The Counsel House reveals client firms are looking beyond internal resources and external agencies (see 'facts' box). It describes freelancers as part of a 'third sector' - experienced individuals working on briefs traditionally handled either in-house or by an agency.

'Where clients have in the past sought expensive agency advice or the counsel of their in-house team, more are turning directly to a growing talent pool of independent, entrepreneurial, self-employed PR professionals,' says Counsel House director and report author Roger Swinbank. 'It is like a separate sector - offering sound, common sense advice at value-for-money prices.'  

Should agencies be worried about the growing ability of freelancers to compete for their business? Swinbank suggests they should keep an eye on the situation. 'Two major benefits of freelancers are that they offer clients experience and quality of work,' he says. 'This is being recognised by clients and they are willing to pay for it. Our survey shows that for the first time, the average daily rate for a freelancer has hit £400 per day.'

That figure will certainly look attractive to the majority of salaried comms staff. Swinbank adds: 'If you're not a shareholder in an agency or an in-house head of communications by the time you are 35, forging your own destiny is a great option.'

Long-term deal
Sony's European head of product and brand PR Maria Heavey champions the use of freelancers. 'I want to raise the bar internally in terms of people's perception of PR and what it can achieve beyond press relations, and I need senior PR support behind me that can hit the ground running,' she explains.

One of Heavey's regular freelancers is Emma Cantrill, who since going freelance in 1993 has also worked for John Lewis and Safeway, as well as agencies Bite Communications and Lexis PR. While initially hired by Sony for an eight-week stint in September 2004, Cantrill now has a long-term freelance contract with the electronics giant.

Her remit includes co-ordinating the central and pan-European PR strategy for its Home Entertainment, Digital Imaging and In-Car Entertainment divisions.

Although Cantrill says she manages the work of agencies, and is therefore not encroaching on their patch, other freelancers have more hands-on roles. Bristol-based freelancer Vanesther Rees services clients, including the Environment Agency and Camelot, from her garden office in Somerset as part of Paratus Communications - an agency that acts as a pool of independent comms consultants.

'Clients come to me by word-of-mouth,' she says. 'What they value most is the fact that I work very hard at becoming a member of their team, yet at the same time am able to bring objectivity to situations.'
As for competing with agencies, she adds: 'Clients can see freelancers as more flexible than agencies. And rates can be more attractive than paying for a permanent member of staff or an ongoing contract with an agency.'

Vanessa Wright, head of communications for whisky brand Chivas in the Pernod Ricard group, says freelancers carry out the type of work that is sometimes unsuitable for agencies or in-house teams. 'None of the jobs I have used freelancers for could have been done by a permanent person or an agency - for instance, sometimes I wanted someone who could get to the heart of an organisation quickly,' she explains. 'An agency can take a while to familiarise itself with a product or an organisation.'

Xchangeteam founder Emma Brierley has just written a book on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Talent on Tap, which tells client firms how to get the most out of using freelancers and interim consultants. 'When we started in 1999, freelance PR was new for a lot of companies, and tended to be used in an unstructured way,' Brierley says. 'Now it is far better accepted as part of the PR arsenal for in-house teams.'

She argues that smaller PR agencies particularly will feel the effect of competing with freelancers in pitches because smaller client firms are more likely to seek flexible solutions. 'Here freelancers could well replace agencies altogether,' she adds.

Business may be booming and there are plenty of examples of professionals in the sector notching up impressive account wins, but the clients, as ever, is king. And the story of the plucky sole trader succeeding against the big agencies does not always end happily.

Not plain sailing
One freelancer, who wished to remain anonymous, had plenty of pitch victories against small agencies under her belt before a body blow last month. She lost a UK-wide brief for a 'major company' that she had worked on two days a week for the past three years - and it was an agency that stepped in.

She believes she may have been a victim of her own success. 'I found myself repitching against top-50-ranked agencies, probably because I had improved awareness of the company too much,' she laments. 'The client said it was time to test whether it could make the next step, and that an established agency would more likely service this need.'

When this happens, the best advice is to take it on the chin and move on. After all, taking a firm to a higher level of exposure is unlikely to dent a freelancer's reputation. 'The firm is going to "test" the new agency for three months, and has told me that I should wait and see,' she concludes. 'But I won't be waiting for the call, I have new business to chase now.'

Freelance or full-time?
Some clients become so committed to their client that they decide to join full-time. Ann Campbell, who went freelance in 2002 after more than ten years at the BBC, joined the Dyslexia Institute last year on a short-term contract to handle the rebranding of the charity as Dyslexia Action.

As her contract drew to an end, she found she was so attached to her work that when CEO Shirley Cramer asked her to head the PR department, she leapt at the chance to rejoin the salaried ranks. 'It has been fantastic and I'll miss the freedom of independence, but I am willing to give it up to see the rebranding through - it's my baby, and I want to help the charity to make a difference,' says Campbell.
Cramer says: 'Ann is a real professional. She knows the boundaries between the roles of employee and consultant, and using her has been a great strategy for us.'

Freelance facts 
Two freelance agencies recently commissioned research into the nature of the freelance market in the UK: The Counsel House and Xchangeteam (in partnership with Leeds Business School).

The Counsel House study found:

* The average fee rate for a freelance PR consultant is around £400 per day
* Freelancers are optimistic about their business prospects for 2006; 74 per cent say 2006 will be the same or better than 2005 
* Freelances say they offer three main benefits over agencies and in-house teams: experience, cost-effectiveness and quality of work.
Xchangeteam found:
* Freelancing is a long-term career choice - 42 per cent intend to continue freelancing over the next five years. Only 15 per cent want to return to in-house employment 
* Sixty per cent of freelancers are at manager or director level 
* The largest group of freelancers is the 31 to 35-year-old age bracket

Why we do it...
Last year Emma Lewis was awarded the title 'PR freelancer of the year' by Xchangeteam. She went solo after spending ten years in not-for-profit organisations, and says her passion for her work shines through for all her public sector clients (including Lewisham Council) 'because I'm not having to manage or motivate anyone else - it's just me, making a difference.'

Agency veteran Michelle Redmond decided to go freelance after the birth of her first child two years ago and says 'the grass is 100 per cent greener on the other side compared with agency life. I feel that I offer a much more effective and results-driven service to my clients than they would have received from me under agency conditions'.

Michele Bayliss took a career decision to go freelance in 1992 after seven years at GCI London: 'PR fits beautifully into the freelance model and technology means I am flexible enough to work anywhere. Clients are waking up to the fact that they are buying a senior person with 20 years' experience, and they value my opinion because I have no vested interest and don't get involved in office politics.'

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