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?
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…
- All the partner agencies are small 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.
- All the agencies focus on tech and start-ups so little will get lost in translation – geek is geek wherever you go.
- Between us we can provide PR support from Singapore to Sweden United Kingdom to the United States and stopping off in Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, The Netherlands and Poland 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!
#Is it wrong? Sam Howard shares her frelance ethical ponderings:
1. Just in case he’s the only person you’re going to get to talk to all day, is it wrong to launch in with your most perplexing business issues, work fears, and brilliant new ideas while your 11 year munches on his morning porridge and does up his shoe laces?
2. To wear leg warmers and fingerless gloves indoors?
3. To pretend the web camera on your Skype call isn’t working when in truth it’s cos you look like shit and The Bloody Dog is jumping around in the background, trying to bury his Kong toy in the sofa?
4. To have full blown conversations with the rabbit, cat and dog in an effort to recreate those water cooler moments?
5. To have the fan heater and the central heating on at the same time?
6. To stuff dog treats in your brand new £40 sheepskin slippers, that were a Christmas present from your lovely mum, in an effort to keep The Bloody Dog amused for ten minutes, so you can reach your copy-writing deadline?
7. To eat your soup straight out of the pan and then give the carton and the pan to The Bloody Dog to keep him quiet for another five minutes?
8. To hang up on a conference call because you’ve just spotted The Bloody Dog has got the rabbit’s head in his mouth?
9. To top up your afternoon coffee with a large dose of Tia Maria? And then put its purchase against your tax expenses as ‘office beverages’?
10. To open the door to your child as he comes home from school, starving hungry, freezing cold and soaked through, with the greeting:
“Can you PLEASE take The Bloody Dog out! I have had him all day and he’s driving me frickin crazy. GO! NOW! GO!”
So what’s it like being a PR freelancer? Six months into freelancing Sam Howard on what a calm day looks like (the frenetic days you don’t want to dwell on):
| So you guys with proper jobs have
an expense account, gym membership,
private healthcare oh and a salary…
but I have a dog, and his name is Moby.
7.15am: Alarm goes off, this is really annoying as now I’m my own boss I’m sure I shouldn’t have to get up while it’s virtually dark, it says so in the small print somewhere.
8.00am: Lasso the new pup and accompany my son to the bus stop, and then walk our new lab/mastiff puppy, a much longed for addition to the family. He is 18 weeks old and my reward for going solo, my bonus if you like.
10:00am: Team commute to office.
10:01am: Team settles in for the day: I fire up my shiny new laptop, (last one died without warning, great week that was) cat settles on desk, giant rabbit flops by french window, new pup flakes out on sofa. Drink coffee, review mails. The days of 200-plus mails every morning are thankfully no more.There’s a mail from a head hunter, ‘do I want to go permanent in a super high-profile new role?’ No thank you. Another mail from a journo friend, ‘would I like to do some PR consultancy for a small tech company he’s just met?’ Yes please. Check out Facebook, Twitter and my LinkedIn groups.
11:00am: Start with some essential admin, this takes easily an hour a day. Enter my receipts and raise a modest invoice. This still makes me ridiculously proud, as if I baked it myself or something.
11.30am: Okay, so now the day is free for actual work. What luxury! When I was agency side, in the end, I was lucky if I could find 20 minutes to sit still and ‘do’ anything at all. I enjoy being able to focus, turns out I am a starter finisher, who knew? This morning I write some client content. I like writing good job too there is alot of it when you go freelance. Then spend some time preparing a workshop I’m giving at the Taylor Bennett Foundation, tomorrow. After all if your time is your own, it’s quite nice to give some of it away I think.
1.30pm: Boy do I miss Pret, Itsu, Eat, Tossed. Stand by the fridge and finish last night’s leftovers, then take the pup out, he chases leaves, I laugh.
2.10pm: Spend afternoon reaching out to contacts in search of internship opportunities for my USC Annenberg post grad students. I love working with my Californian crew, hopefully I’m teaching them the gentle art of self deprecation while they’re teaching me to be nice – won’t kill me will it?
5.20pm: Welcome my son home. I had to return to full time work when he was only tiny, now he is 11 and this is the first time that I can open the door to him pretty much every day. The novelty has yet to wear off. Manage to fix my printer after a week of glaring at it, feel really rather smug.
6.30pm: Shut down office but brain is still ticking, it’s hard to switch off just like that, so take pup for a quick stroll, he rolls on the grass and i have to drag him on his back for 50 yards.
7.00pm: Hit the kitchen and prepare something gorgeous. Tonight we’re having smoked haddock on puy lentils with hollandaise and an apple crumble. Not bad for a school night.
This article first appeared in PRMoment http://www.prmoment.com/.