Feature: Living the dream

More PR professionals than ever are taking the freelance route in search of an improved work/life balance. Alex Blythe speaks to some who have gone solo

Going freelance is a career option increasingly considered by both in-house and agency PR people. According to the CIPR, the number of freelancers has grown from approximately 2,000 in 2001 to more than 3,300 today.

Many cite improved work/life balance - in a poll of 100 freelancers by Prospect Resourcing in 2005, nearly half said they went freelance to better their home/work environment.

But going freelance is not for everyone, and although it is a serious career choice, taking the plunge is still a brave decision. So, what advice do those who have made the leap give to budding freelancers?

PRWeek asked six PR professionals about their experiences of freelancing. 

Bill Hunt, 33 (pictured) Freelance since 2001

Russell Square-based Bill Hunt now has time to learn Italian, is half-way through a personal mission to visit every country in eastern Europe, has recently taught himself website design and online marketing, and is indulging his passion for photography. If that was not enough, Hunt also finds time to write for English Heritage and run 7/7 Trauma, a free treatment service for victims of last year's London bombs.

‘The big difference between freelancing and working at agencies is that today I feel as though I have a life - before, I had work with a few hobbies tagged on.'

Hunt made the decision to go freelance five years ago. After six years working for agencies including Biss Lancaster, Hill & Knowlton and Village PR, the last straw for Hunt was an ­appraisal from his last boss. ‘I was told I was too enthusiastic with clients,' he ­recalls. ‘I decided there and then that it was time to go freelance and be over-enthusiastic with my own clients.'

Today, Hunt has an eclectic mix of clients, including a clinical psycho­logist, a psychotherapist and groups such as the Photo Imaging Council. ­Because he is a free agent, he has also been able to recruit clients that match his own interest in nutrition, including the Fresh Prepared Salads Producer Group and the Watercress Alliance.

Hunt says he also went freelance to spend less time managing people and more time doing PR. ‘I wanted the chance to shape my own career, rather than being moulded through staff appraisal systems into something a company wanted me to be.'

Most of his work comes from personal recommendation, friends and other freelancers, although Hunt has been given work by agencies, and has received several leads from his own, quirky ­website, billhunt.co.uk.

For Hunt, the fun and variety of freelancing was captured during a recent photoshoot in a North Yorkshire pub. He says: ‘I was supervising the photocall of the winner of FHM's High Street Honeys. While she was looking stunning, posing in a bikini by the bar, I was on my mobile talking to a Time magazine correspondent.

‘He was with the troops in Baghdad, trying to organise a live link for ITN's news team, which wanted an urgent interview. I could hear bombs and gunfire going off in the background, interspersed with a gruff Yorkshire voice saying "That's lovely darling, ooh yes, do that again…".'

Vanesther Rees, 31 Freelance since 2003

For Somerset-based Vanesther Rees, her garden office haven is just one ­benefit of freelancing, although the former Post Office internal comms ­executive admits it was not the lifestyle that first sprang to mind when she was planning her move.

‘It was 2003, and I'd been working for a Bristol-based regeneration charity, Community at Heart, for nearly three years,' she recalls. ‘I was looking for a new job, but it wasn't until I found there were no jobs that appealed to me that I considered this option. At the time, I was working with a lot of freelancers, so I talked to them. What really attracted me was the good work-life balance they seemed to have. Even though it was a big risk, I decided to go for it.'

Rees's first client was Community at Heart, but she now spends three days a week working from home for the Environment Agency. She divides the rest of her time between Bristol City Council, an organic herb farm and an ethical property development company.

While Rees says she does not miss management responsibilities, the downside is that she cannot delegate if she is unwell. And she misses the camaraderie of office life, the gossip over a coffee and the Christmas parties. But the benefits more than make up for this. She now structures work around her life, not the other way round.

‘Freelancing isn't for everyone,' says Rees. ‘You have to be self-disciplined and motivated, but if you can make it work I advise you to go for it. Rather than spend loads on advertising, as I did when I started out, you're better off ­going to local networking events, where you can make useful contacts and even some good friends.'

Samantha Pepper, 36 Freelance since 1999

Samantha Pepper had spent five years working for financial PR specialist Ludgate and was feeling pigeonholed. ‘They wouldn't consider me for a job that didn't involve financial ser­vices companies. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to try something different,' she recalls.

After a two-month sabbatical, she decided enough was enough and set up on her own doing PR for a film company. She has since worked on various campaigns and divides her time between Kelso Consulting, where she works two days a week, and contracts including Mary Berry Dressings & Sauces. The buzz is the unpredictability. ‘I never know what will happen next. I got the Mary Berry account from someone I met at a dinner party,' she says.

Pepper admits there have been times when work has dried up and she has considered looking for a permanent position.

She also finds it difficult to take holidays for the same reason. But whenever she questions her decision to go freelance, a project comes along.

She is adamant, however, that she will not go back to permanent employment: ‘Being freelance gives me the opportunity to try lots of things and spend time with my three-year-old son.'

Pepper also emphasises other practical benefits of freelancing. ‘Freelancers won't be distracted by office politics or their careers; they'll just get on with the job. More companies are now viewing freelancers as an option, ' she says.

She would eventually like to work for a mental health charity, and dreams of taking six months off to live in France and write a book. ‘It probably won't happen,' she says. ‘I love PR too much. I'll still be doing it when I'm 70, sending press releases from my nursing home.'

Katy Parker, 34 Freelance since 2004

Katy Parker started in PR at the age of 22, and developed her career working with clients including Forever Friends, Bananas In Pyjamas, Kenco and telecoms giant Motorola. She went freelance nearly two years ago because she wanted to work with clients without getting involved in office politics or having to deal with
aggressive management styles.

She is now the sole press officer for Bury Council, but also manages a handful of other clients, ranging from Wedding Belles, a small family-run wedding-dress boutique, to Cultural Bodywork, a Hawaiian Kahuna massage therapist.

Of her new colleagues at Bury, Par­ker says: ‘They are willing to embrace me and my new ideas, which really helps my confidence and creativity.'

One of her most interesting days so far was a recent photoshoot she ­arranged for a news story about the ­installation of CCTV cameras in Bury. ‘We had the regional TV crews and ­local media there, along with the police, to do the story. As soon as the cameras had been installed, we couldn't believe our luck. A thief decided to steal right from under our noses - and it was all captured on the brand new equipment. The police caught and arrested him in full view, and he was charged the next day. You simply couldn't buy this sort of national and local coverage. It really was a fantastic story.'

Although strokes of luck like this do not come every day, Parker offers this simple advice to anyone who is considering going freelance: ‘Do it.'

She does urge caution though: ‘Make sure you have some good contacts ­before you take the leap, and actively cultivate these contacts once you're on your own.You should also expect to struggle in the first year, because that is when you will be establishing your reputation.'

When you start out, Parker says, times will be tough and the temptation will be to take on too much. However, she advises against this. ‘You really must not take on more work than you can reasonably manage, even though you might want to.

‘The pay-off will be worth it. Other than that, get a good ­accountant and away you go.'

Mary Whenman, 37 Freelance since 2004

Mary Whenman wor­ked in agencies for 16 years and was a board director at Hill & Knowlton before she went freelance nearly two years ago. But by then, the appeal of climbing the greasy pole was waning. ‘I was pregnant and working 14-hour days. I just didn't think it was a healthy thing to be doing,' she says.

Within six months of having her ­baby, Whenman's freelance career was born, and since January this year she has been working three days a week - something she believes is far more efficient than her old agency life.

‘By the time I became a board director, I was spending most of my time - prob­ably 50 per cent of it - preparing budgets, analysing time sheets and doing other management admin.'

Now, Whenman says, she can get back to what she loved doing most before she was in management - 100 per cent PR work. ‘It's amazing how much work I can get through without all those distractions. I can do a better job for my clients, and spend time with my baby.'

Whenman has relied heavily on her contacts from her time as a senior player in an agency, and got off to a flying start with Cadbury Schweppes, which became her first client. She has since done work for PetroCanada and is now working at Freud Communications, where she spends at least two days a week on a project basis.

She says she is successful because she does the kind of hands-on work that other former senior PROs might consider beneath them.

‘You must accept you have to roll up your sleeves once again, but I find that clients give you remarkable freedom, because they know you can hit the ground running.'

This can-do attitude has certainly worked: ‘When I went freelance, my aim was to earn as much money as I did when I was full-time,' she says. ‘I have already achieved this. It's also been ­refreshing to find out that I've still got the skills I had, say, five years ago.'

Emma Lewis, 33 Freelance since 2004

Named PR ‘Freelancer of the Year 2005' by recruitment company Xchangeteam, Emma Lewis went freelance after more than ten years working in-house for public sector and not-for-profit organisations. She says: ‘I wanted to take a bit of a risk. I'd done a few jobs, spending two or three years in each one, and wanted to try something a bit more ­adventurous. I also craved variety.'

Since then, she has built up an impressive list of clients, working for the Mayor of London's office and  the Elizabeth Finn Trust, and has helped to ­organise this year's Chinese New Year celebrations in London. She has just reached the end of a four-month contract for the Children's Commissioner and is currently promoting London Mela 2006 - a festival celebrating Asian creativity and culture - which takes place this week.

While some of her work has come through personal contacts, a lot of ­business has been pushed Lewis's way through recruitment consultancies VMA and Xchangeteam.

Lewis says she now has the variety she always sought, but has learned one important lesson: not to pack in too much work. She says: ‘It's really tempting to take on extra clients when you're already working on another almost full-time. You think that x hours a week isn't much, but you quickly learn that it really is.'

She adds: ‘Nowadays, I have to turn clients down. You instinctively don't want to, but you have to learn that sometimes it is in your best interest to do so.'

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