FREELANCING FEATURE: You can do it your way

Control, flexibility, variety… Alex Black talks to six freelancers about the joys of striking out on their own.

Julio ROMO
Freelance since 2005

Julio Romo, who is currently on his second freelance stint with animal welfare campaign group The League Against Cruel Sports, says he had two reasons for going freelance: ‘Taking control of my career and broadening my experiences.’

With a voluntary sector fund-raising and PR background behind him, Romo spent some time making sure he was financially and professionally ready before quitting his four-year stint at Friends of the Elderly.

‘I felt I had to test myself in other sectors,’ he explains.

His first six-month freelance contract was with Scope, but his next project saw him joining the media team of the London Development Agency-sponsored strategic agency, Creative London. The brief was to promote the creative courses offered by the capital’s colleges and universities such as Camberwell College of Arts and St Martin’s College of Fashion.

‘Up to that point I had worked mostly in the charity sector, so this was a chance to do something different and show what I could do in another area,’ says Romo.

A short-term contract last year with MS&L to work on the agency’s Diamond Trading Company account, prior to the release of the Hollywood blockbuster Blood Diamond, came through a word-of-mouth recommendation, but other contracts have come about as a result of a decent reputation with agencies. But, like many freelancers, Romo admits it is often a struggle to remember to promote himself.

‘You focus on your clients, but you simply have to find that 25th hour in the day to make sure you have work lined up,’ he says.

Indeed, despite being a freelancer for over two years, Romo has only just set up his homepage to showcase his work and host his new blog.

However, he has been on the committee of the CIPR’s Greater London Group for four years and has found it extremely valuable for meeting people from different sectors.

‘It has been particularly useful since I went freelance because you get to meet a wide range of in-house PROs, freelancers, agency types and journalists,’ adds Romo.


Freelance since 2006

After a decade of senior comms jobs, Simon Morrison decided last year that he ‘fancied a change’.

Morrison (r), who has held head of comms roles at the City of Westminster Council (1996-1998), The National Trust (1998-2002), and the Royal College of Midwives (2002-2006), says ten years of senior management roles had started to limit his opportunities to be hands-on.

‘I wanted more variety and a better work-life balance, so I went freelance,’ he explains.

Morrison has certainly got the variety. He first took on a big project on government efficiency with the Treasury, followed by a Home Office contract to set up the comms function of the newly formed Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) – an organisation that comes into being next autumn and will protect children and vulnerable adults.

He has been working on the ISA project for five months and expects it to last at least another five. The planned change to his workload has gone less well, however.

‘I thought I’d be able to take more holidays, but I’ve probably had less, to be honest,’ he says. ‘I balance the long-term consultancy work with smaller stuff for personal contacts, so you end up taking on a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it.’

Thorough research before he took the plunge enabled a smooth transition from permanent work to freelancing.

‘Setting up a limited company is pretty easy, but you do have to remember to set time aside every week to do your paperwork,’ he cautions.

The Blackberry, wireless broadband access and super-fast laptops all make the freelancer’s life easier, but at the end of the day there are two things that really count, says Morrison – ‘a decent contacts book and a working phone’.

Freyja O’ DUFFY
Freelance since 2002

In the past five years that she has spent freelancing, pharma specialist Freyja O’Duffy (l) has seen an increasing number of PROs prepared to give up the security of permanent employment.

‘It was a bit of a gamble when I first went freelance, because it was so soon after 9/11 [the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US] and the market was in a dip,’ she explains. ‘But there is a lot of work out there now, and a shortage of staff means freelancers have a lot of power.’

Though a freelancer’s lot means being denied the training and career progression offered to permanent staff, O’Duffy is adamant the increased flexibility and variety of work on offer more than makes up for it.

There are gripes though. In the past, O’Duffy has crossed swords with agencies that try to pass her off to clients as a permanent employee.

‘It looked bad on me when I left the team after three months, even though that was simply the end of my contract,’ she explains.

‘These days I make it clear that I am happy to be client-facing, but the client has to be told I am a freelancer. Most are happy, and anyway it shows that an agency is committed to the account if it is prepared to spend money on freelancers.’

O’Duffy has two tips for anyone thinking of going freelance. The first is keeping an up-to-date contacts book with which to impress potential employees. The second is to make sure you have got a three-month contract lined up by the end of September.

‘The market can go a bit quiet at the end of the year,’ she says. ‘Agencies are planning budgets for the new year, so they often don’t need as many people around. It can get a bit panicky if you are still looking for work in November.’


Freelance since 2004

Emma Cantrill (r) has a heavyweight consumer background, holding director positions with Jane Howard PR and then GCI when the latter took over Jane Howard.

After 15 years in agency PR, she hatched a plan to go freelance and find some ‘breathing space’ after the birth of her first child.

She left GCI in 2004 with no job to go to, but almost immediately was offered the head of consumer role at Lexis PR while the incumbent, Fiona Jolly, went on maternity leave. This was followed by two more maternity covers at Lexis, as well as projects at John Lewis and Safeway.

Then, at the beginning of 2005, a friend offered her ‘a couple of weeks’ with Sony. The contract quickly morphed into an inter­national project to set up the Japanese electronics outfit’s European comms function. The job lasted two years. ‘It was incredible. I remember going on a press trip to LA thinking “this has to have been the most plum job ever had by a freelancer”,’ says Cantrill.

Although still freelance, Cantrill is part of a small team of indepen­dent consultants in a partnership called Intelligent Profile.

Cantrill, who won PRWeek’s Freelancer of the Year award in 2005, is quick to point out that Intelligent Profile is not an agency, nor is it a virtual network.

‘It is more of a hybrid between an in-house team and a freelancer,’ she explains. ‘We’re working with Ocado [the grocery delivery service for Waitrose] and they didn’t want an agency,’ she explains. ‘We can give them four or five senior people to provide strategic support and muck in when needed.

‘We can pool resources, pick up a variety of work and still have low overheads. We all have freelance conflicts, but if some­one wins a long-term consul­tancy job we can adjust to cope.’


Freelance since 2006

Next month Debbie Lindau (l) will have been a freelancer for one year – and she says she is ‘loving it’.

The former Consolidated Communi­cations director has found herself and her skills in hot demand.

‘I was worried about finding the work, but there are loads of freelance opportunities,’ she says.
The roles she has had so far include her current director position at Golin Harris, a stint as head of media relations at entre­preneurs promoter Nesta and three months in Cohn & Wolfe’s business tech team.

‘Freelancing makes you realise how good you really are,’ she explains. ‘It’s like having the buzz of pitching all the time.’

Concerns she had prior to taking the plunge – losing the social element, being pushed into roles she did not want, increased admin – have not materialised.

Positions offered are not just jobs shunned by permanent staff either. ‘I thought I wouldn’t get much client-facing work, but that was wrong,’ she adds.

She has also escaped the ‘long hours culture’: ‘When you work long hours as a freelancer, the hard work gets recognised instead of being taken for granted.’


Freelance since 2006

‘You’ll have to excuse any background noise; it’s just my 16-month-old daughter,’ explains Helen Weedon (r), cheerily. Like many freelancers, the arrival of a child was the catalyst for her to realise her long-held plan of going freelance.

Prior to striking out on her own, she spent three years heading up the European PR team for Dolby Laboratories’ broadcast and cinema arm, and before that worked in Bristol at environment specialist IMS PR.

The experience has been positive so far, although Weedon admits the admin tasks around registering as self-employed and tax self-assessment were ‘a challenge’.

Six months into her freelance career, Weedon is starting to spend more time building her profile.

‘Networking, cold-calling and mining my contacts book have been vital, as has setting up my website,’ she says.

Weedon will not completely rule out a return to agency life, but much prefers being her own boss. ‘I’m being called in as the expert, which gives me a licence to be more creative,’ she says.

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