It’s eight years since Sam Howard set up the freelance collective that is The Comms Crowd. This year she learned the real value of belonging to a team, and it doesn’t have a price tag…
Running a firm, however funky, is always a blur of highs and lows, and this year was even blurrier.
Highs: new team babies, client weddings, discovering a brilliant junior (yes Marcel – who knew there was more than one of you!), finding a prime pitcher, winning another ‘tech for good’ client and so doing some good ourselves, getting to work with some of my favourite PR people now holed up in-house and chucking some great projects our way, and even the odd trip to Belgium.
Lows: personal life was rubbish! When fate dealt her hand this year I almost folded.
But when I had to take a step back from work, the team stepped up and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this.’ And they had.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that freelancing encourages propagation of the self-centred gene. After all, every day you wake up and in theory you don’t know where the next pound is coming from, and even when you do you don’t know when you are going to actually get it.
But somehow, even though we are freelance and virtual so don’t even hang out in the same office every day, we are a true team. And we are there for each other – not just to cover high days and the holidays but when the kitchen floods, or the car breaks down, or we have one child freaking out, or two children screaming, or three of them fighting, or when we get sick, or our parents get sick, or our dogs get sick -and all in all we are just too distracted to work.
2019 is already shaping up to be a brighter year in so many ways, not least with the addition of our latest recruit, Dill a Mastador pup, a girl this time.
I have always been so proud of the Comms Crowd and what we have achieved but this year I am also thankful.
Sam Howard writes:
Seven years ago when I gave up my ‘proper job’ running the PR division of a large London agency, the primary motivations were to get back to doing real PR, spend more time with my son and to finally, finally have a dog.
After serving a six month probation to prove I could hack freelance life, I ‘rescued’ Moby – a five month old Labrador cross (crossed with ‘something huge’ was all the charity could tell me). So that was it – no going back. Moby was my insurance policy to make sure I never took a proper job again!
In the early days it was fortuitous that my skills were not so much in demand, as Moby, it turned out, wasn’t sure he was best suited to being a PR hound. As vocations go I think his early preferences would have been to be the companion of a side-order chef, a WWE wrestler or a clown.
He was a turbo-charged Labrador. Owners of bull breeds would put their dogs on leads when they saw Moby tearing across the field in their direction. On an early foray, an experienced dog walker eyed him with reservation as he tussled a Rottweiler to the ground and chewed affectionately on its throat. “Hmm,” she said as we discussed potential heritage, “I’d say he’s part black lab part something awful.”
Whatever he was, he was not office material. He chewed my chair, my shoes and my arms when nothing else was available and only interrupted his endeavours to work out how to open the fridge door or to bay loudly like a Baskerville hound if he noticed I was on a conference call.
Eventually shamed into admitting we had the worst behaved dog in the park we registered for duplicate dog training classes in two boroughs as one class didn’t seem to be enough to quell his, er, enthusiasms. Thinking back I should have expensed this as ‘staff training’.
But in our own way life began to settle down into some sort of freelance fashion; mornings began with Moby pinning me down in my sheets and barking into my face. After breakfast, and Pilates in which he insisted in partaking, a very long walk and then lunch, Moby would finally concede to have a power nap while I got on with some work. On waking it was no rest for the busy with a full on training session, again with hindsight not sure who was training who given how many sausages we got through. Finally a few more hours of focused napping until Elliot came home and Moby could torment him for a few hours while I finished off. End of work was announced by my streaming The Archers as I pottered around the kitchen, and on hearing the theme tune Moby would be ecstatic and parade round the house for at least half an hour with a cushion in his mouth to celebrate the imminence of meal time.
By now Moby was enormous, he towered over proper Labradors, and with his domed head, golden eyes, heavy jowls, velvet ears, sleek coat and beautifully muscled physique, he was a real head turner, the office Romeo if you will. For he was, it turned out, a Labrador Mastiff cross. Here, in the UK that’s a happy accident but in the US it’s a deliberate combination and they are called Mastadors, a breed much prized for their impressive physical build and also their wonderful temperament.
We still had to wait a bit longer for the temperament…
But after a somewhat protracted adolescence, Moby was around two when the fog finally lifted, there he was, the most majestic, most level-headed, dignified dog, an absolute ambassador for the breed – he went from being the worst to the best behaved dog in the park.
And Moby excelled as an office hound, a perfect patient companion, and accordingly went on to receive employee of the month every month for the next five years. He was excellent on and off the lead, in cars, on trains and buses. And thanks to flexible working, he got to go to the seaside every month to dig in the dunes and paddle in the sea by day and lay by an open fire and dream of sheep while I worked in the evening. He regularly went to business meetings where the techie boys tried so hard to not lose their thread, and to uni lectures, where his Barrack Obama good looks and Bill Clinton charisma had the USC girls swooning in unison. He was even the inspiration for our brand identity – how many dogs can say that?
And in return Moby made sure that every working day was a pleasure: that Mondays were no biggie; that office politics were no more than an insistent stare if I had the temerity to sit down at the laptop before finding him a treat; and that in seven years, I never once knew the loneliness that others talk of when working from home.
So as my former agency colleagues continue to climb the corporate ladder and now have every right to look down on all they survey from truly impressive heights, I am jealous not at all – for they may have the power and the glory, but I had Moby, Moby the Mastador.
It’s seven years this month since Sam Howard walked away from the big West End PR agency to set up office in her dining room, buy a domain name, and a dog.
|You got you a seven-year itch goin’ on?|
In that time working life has evolved from lone PR, to freelance collaborator, to creating a collective and now to running our (cloud-based) PR agency that continues to grow at around 25% a year.
So what does the seventh year herald? Am I going to get itchy feet and chuck it all in to become a landscape gardener, a masseuse or apply for Bake-Off? Or should I consider taking a back seat and let the team take the strain?
I think not. After seven years of being my own boss I still love the buzz of running a business and the challenges our kind of work brings. Still love my team and nearly all of our clients, nearly all of the time. I get a huge thrill when a campaign goes well, and I feel the pain if ever it doesn’t. I am alive to it.
Although I get to take a fair few holidays, I never have the blues on my return, and Monday mornings are much of a muchness to me. Among all my friends I never have one moment of work envy, not even when they are essentially paid to get plastered at Ascot under some vague notion of corporate hospitality. They are welcome to it – it’s small recompense for those inhuman early morning commutes, petty office politics and stingy levels of annual leave.
As for taking a back seat now that we are way up and running… Our clients have bought into the whole team and while there is no ‘I’ in team there is a ‘me’. We’re not going to become one of those agencies where you only see the founder on pitch day. Instead we’ll keep our growth to manageable proportions so we can continue to be an all-in kind of crew, as therein is where the happiness lies.
Turns out for me a seven year anniversary is less about an itch more an affirmation of vows.
Sam Howard celebrates six years of not having a proper job.
The evolution continues: from lone freelancer, to collaborator, to creating the collective to now (albeit cloud-based) looking like a proper little PR agency with around eight retained clients and working with a regular crew of four senior and two junior PRs.
We all had a team meet a few weeks back and a common thread was the lack of stress around the job. (And yet when you go freelance it feels positively perilous, I still remember the early weeks lying in the dark staring at the ceiling mentally muttering g ‘oh god I think I’ve ruined my career’).
But what the crew were referring to is the complete lack of that type of stress that distracts you from getting the job done: someone checking on your timekeeping, the commute, the juggling of personal appointments, the annual leave quotas, the pre-occupation with promotions, job titles and perks, the jockeying for position, the vying for the boss’s favour – there is none of that.
The only stress is that of doing a good job for the client.
But here’s the thing – when you work for yourself the sense of ownership and personal responsibility is absolute, so every project, without exception, has to go well, in fact better than well, it has to be the very best you can get it.
So that client stress goes deep.
And even though we share everything, it’s still all too easy for perfect storms to occur… Like when in the space of one week we had not one but two of our beloved start-ups announcing funding, which in our world is a huge deal and requires an immense amount of logistics and planning, working with all the financial PR agencies, the fund providers and pitching to media in multiple sectors. And as luck would have it, in the same week it was end of module live assessment time for the class I teach at Uni… Nothing to be done but to disappear under the strain for six weeks and know you aren’t coming up for air until every stone is turned. And possibly I was a bit over emotional at the end of it.
So yes, freelancing can be stressful, but the sense of ownership, and of personal pride in work well done without any of the friction that comes with a ‘proper’ job, continues to make the freelance life entirely net positive.
Sam Howard On how we are growing (albeit vicariously).
When you go freelance, you quickly realise the limitations of what you can competently do and therefore the nature of the projects you can take on. So then, if you’re smart, you collaborate playing to your strengths working with others similarly smart but with complementary skills. Here at the Comms Crowd we have been sublimely happy in that phase for the last few years – steadily adding interesting clients that appreciate the hands on approach and building up the merits of the crew in a wholly organic stylee, even getting nominated for an award along the way. But what does our next iteration look like?
When I founded Comms Crowd it was not to become the next Edelman or even to get into the PR Top 100. In my experience bigger does not correlate to better – not for the clients, where more can buy you less; not for the staff, unless your job satisfaction depends on the length of your job title; nor even the bottom line, impressive offices and charismatic receptionist do not come cheap.
For me, small is truly beautiful and that’s the way we are going to stay. But that said who can deny the global nature of comms and the tech start-ups we work with, have global appeal and we need to secure them global attention without busting the budget…
So we have joined as a founding partner, globla network, The First PR Alliance courtesy of Swyft Communications in the US – a great fit for us and our clients as all the agencies focus on tech and start-ups so little will get lost in translatio. All the partner agencies are boutique independents like ourselves so we know all the work will be done by senior, accountable and personable teams and the buck stops with the founder,
Between us we can provide PR support from Peru to Poland, Singapore to Sweden, United Kingdom to the United States and stopping off in Belgium, Columbia, France, Germany, Italy,The Netherlands, Morrocco, Portugal, Spain along the way.
In tech comms at least, you don’t need to be big to be clever… just clever.
Sam Howard reflects on five years of being freelance…
A lot can happen in five years. Five years ago my 11 year old little cutey baked cakes and gave freely of his cuddles and enthusiasm. Five years on and my ‘little’ cutey looks down on me in disdain while raiding the fridge and giving freely of his criticism. He loves me really – it’s just a phase right?
And so too has the freelance life grown up. On the client side we have really found our niche now – tech startups, the way we work combined with our business model make us a great fit for the nimble and ambitious startup. None of us have the appetite for long meetings or long emails – we all just want to get stuff done!
Most recently our client work was short-listed for an award, for a PR campaign we ran in the public sector. And I confess it feels good to be ranked up there alongside the more established agencies.
It’s gone from being just me to a tight little collective of PR Pros, our AR guy, a designer or two and a trio of copywriters, working together and playing to our strengths. And it’s grown bigger in all the right ways, while holding onto the core freelance premise, which is no premises at all!
Proud to say CommsCrowd HQ is still my former dining room and therefore we still have no need for a receptionist, an IT team, an office manager, an HR team or an accounts department. Just outlook, dropbox, google docs, and some wicked spreadsheets (a personal forte).
In addition to the bulking up of expertise, the other fantastic side of forming the freelance collective is that it offers the opportunity for each of us to develop outside of the world of comms. Whether it’s renovating a 300 year old cottage, bagging munros or learning to surf.
I’ve really got into the talent development element of PR and I’m now an associate lecturer for Westminster University and The London College of Communication. College days are the best days, I get an enormous amount of satisfaction nurturing the next generation of young ones and helping them prepare for the world of work.
And when you feel supported by a brilliant team; when you genuinely warm to your clients and get a kick out of every campaign that delivers; when your pockets are over flowing with psychic income and you’re still learning and still evolving – well then there’s no reason to stop. Here’s to the next five years!
Sam Howard is hitting her prime
Perhaps freelance years are like dog years, for I’m starting feel like I’m in my freelance prime! Four years in, and, as they say on those talent shows, ‘it feels like this is my time’! Oh why’s that then? Well I’ll tell ya.
Tech in general and fintech in partciular is finally hot!
After some 20 years of apologizing for working in a sector of which nobody has ever heard; countless conversations explaining what I do to those whose eyes glaze over in the time it takes to say ‘enterprise-wide trading systems’ – all of a sudden our sector is hot!
Not only is our sector hot, my home town for some 30 years, London, is fit to burst with tech startups and I do love a startup – always have! Not for me the 200 page branding guideline bible, the 83 slide PowerPoint on our ‘core’ USPs. Where’s the opportunity to add value to that (other than rip it up)?
I love the pace, the energy, vibrancy that comes with young tech companies. They are brave, bold and, my lot at least, quite audaciously brilliant. But it’s always struck me, that at the point a young company needs the most care, nurturing and attention to its comms, is just when it can least afford it. Sometimes, that’s not a good fit for a standard agency, where there can be an expectation mismatch, (a big PR budget for a small company is still a small client for a big PR agency). But it’s a great fit for collaborations and small networks of specialist freelancers like The Comms Crowd. Freelancers by our very career choices have often rejected the status quo and defined ourselves as fellow disruptors.
Another great thing about working with young tech companies is the absolute lack of formality. This suits me down to the ground, I want to use my time helping that company do smart comms, not validating how smart I am. Decisions are quick, turnarounds fast, reporting is a spreadsheet in google docs and emails are brief, often littered with typos from both sides. Witness recent email exchange, informing client CEO that we had secured media interest from a noted publication.
ME – OMG We’ve got Forbes!
CEO – F*** yeah!
And of course when you work in a hot sector, in a hot city, with hot clients, you get to talk to media that you have never had the temerity to approach before, but that, it turns out, are really just like us, if you have a decent story to tell. And call me a easily impressed but for a long-toothed B2B fintech PR to be suddenly talking to the nationals, is just really rather cool!
So yeah, in this the fourth year, I find myself, in the right place, with the right business model at the right time – happy freelance birthday to me and the crew, being four rocks!
Sam Howard celebrates three years of being an independant PR person and sharrs the sometimes painfiul lessons learned.
The fabulous Victoria Wood once told this joke about how you lavish so much attention on your first child, that you go so far as to score the wall recording for all eternity your firstborn’s height with wonder and awe (since my 13 year old son is already clocking 6ft 3′ we are adding a soupçon of morbid fascination in to the mix now too). Anyhow she went on to remark that by the time you have your third child, you merely note their vertical progress by the rising tide mark of nose smearings on your coat sleeve…
And so it is for freelancing. First year I had a cocktail party and people came from miles around, Second year I at least opened a bottle of champagne and shared it with those that happened to be passing. Third year, Feb 10th completely passed me by. Writing this, with a vodka and tonic in hand is as much as I can muster to commemorate the occasion. Just like a third child – it’s not that I love the freelance life any less, far from it, but just that I’m really busy – new clients, new projects, new sectors, new territories and I got accredited. Even the dog behaves pretty good now.So as is now customary, sharing a few random lessons learned this year:
Motivational moment – spread the skills spread the love
As you get busier you may feel inclined to focus on just the high value projects or to really specialize. For example, in line with the industry’s increased appetite for credible content, I have seen a surge in demand for copywriting skills this year, but if I just did that all the time I’d burn out. Much better to have several diverse projects on the go, it keeps the mind agile. And even when you are busy, don’t’ forget to fill your boots with psychic income – my work with the Taylor Bennet Foundation continues to be the most fulfilling aspect of my freelance career.
Cautionary tale – mates rates have outstayed their welcome
So I’m still working at 2011 mates’ rates for my early retained clients and now I know them so well, asking for an increase on the day rate feels kind of #awkward. But the nicest client in the world is unlikely to suggest you take a pay rise. I’m just going to have to man up – distasteful as it is. Suggest to avoid getting into this situation in the first place any day rate deal you agree comes with the proviso ‘to be reviewed in six months’, ample time to prove your salt and get you on more equitable terms.
Motivational moment – When pickings get plentiful, share the spoils,
Share the stress, share the funds, share the love, keep delivering above and beyond. Officially forming the collective was the smartest thing I did this year.
Cautionary tale – Now it’s seven days a week 11-7, and that’s normal.
The weekends have become the time to do the behind the scenes stuff, the banking, admin, marketing etc. So to make sure you don’t lose sight of why you turned freelance in the first place, in my case – to spend time with that gargantuan boy of mine – take enforced breaks, ( I’m averaging about eight weeks leave a year). Anywhere that is a Wi-Fi black spot will do nicely.
Motivational moment – I’m really proud of myself
Three years ago I turned my back on the security of an established and respected career, with the attitude of how hard can it be? That was the wrong question. I should have asked, ‘how intense can this be?’ Flipping intense actually. But it turns out, when you learn not to measure your worth by your job title, not to value security above freedom and control, you become infinitely richer, eventually!
This post is brief as it is in fact just a shameless plug to say, now it’s official, we exist!
In going live we now have a home for our recently formed small collective of senior comms freelancers, to demonstate their love of B2B technology and our honed range of skill sets, PR, AR, social, content and design.
It’s been nearly two and a half years now since I turned freelance so the collective feels like a natural evolution for me. It’s going to be great for our clients who might be looking for a more robust comms solution than a lone freelancer but who don’t have the appetite nor the budget for the full blown agency commitment, and great for us as we get to collaborate, support and inspire each other while delivering to our strengths. We’re going to be sharing the work the responsibility the money and the love!
It’s taken us forever to get the site together least that’s how it feels to a girl who goes long on ‘genius’ ideas and falls short on patience. But we are live now and despite the fact I’ve been immortalized in Ugg boots, I could not be more proud…
Major validations, minor tribulations and lessons learned – two years into Sam Howard’s career as an independent PR.
Smug moment: Ongoing clients have expanded their remits, project clients return for more projects, growth rates are healthy.
Dark muttering: So how come I haven’t won employee of the month? Been given a round of applause, a certificate, a mug or anything?
Note to self: Stop hankering for external validation. Ain’t ever gonna happen.
Smug moment: So stress levels are down, inner contentment levels are up my aura has never been so glowy – everyone says so.
Dark muttering: When you have a bad day they can be astoundingly bad, and the temptation to cry is immense – after all no one is watching. Usually it’s just a matter of keeping the faith,but it’s easier said than done.
Note to self: Just read the contract you stupid, stupid girl.
Smug moment: I’m getting to do more stuff with more people, getting back to a more integrated approach.
Dark muttering: Peer collaboration is all very well, but where’s a lovely, enthusiastic junior when you need one? Media monitoring – at my age.
Note to self: Get over yourself, it’s the same day rate.
Smug moment: Blog’s doing good.
Dark muttering: I’m a bit behind on sorting out my own brand. What brand you say? Quite. I abandon it as soon as client work comes in. Worse still, I keep changing my mind. I have so much more empathy now with past employers that could never ‘get their act together’, turns out neither can I.
Note to self: Use your project management skills, dummy.
Smug moment: I’ve enjoyed getting back to my roots, direction, content and outreach. I still get a huge high when I see client content getting picked up.
Dark muttering: Why did I think setting up on my own would get me away from the spreadsheets?
Note to self: There’s software out there to do this stuff, decide where your time is best spent, and spend it there.
Smug moment: So as a reward for going freelance, I got a rescue puppy. He’s a black lab, crossed with something, maybe a kangaroo. But our daily walks give me head space and I’ve dropped a dress size!
Dark muttering: I somewhat underestimated how wildly distracting would be the dogaroo’s ebullient puppy-hood and protracted adolescence – there were days… I’m telling ya…
Note to self: Don’t be tempted to spread yourself too thin. Even by a puppy.
Smug moment: I’ve rejected any pretense at standard working hours, standard dress, standard working practices – and it all works well for me.
Dark muttering: Ask any of my former bosses, I was always borderline employable. Are there rescue shelters for feral freelancers, offering warm and loving forever contracts, doing the filing in the basement for some kindly brand?
Note to self: Better stick with the programme kid and as Fat Boy Slim might say:
‘We’ve come a long, long way together
Through the hard times and the good
We have to celebrate you, baby
We have to praise you like we should.’
‘Cos no one else is gonna do it for you.