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.
Sam Howard set up our virtual PR agency six years ago, and the business model is now gaining in popularity, so the demand for freelance comms proffesionals is out there. But just because you can freelance doesn’t mean you should. Here are her top tips for determining if you would be happy as a freelance PR:
Reasons to go Freelance: 1, 2, 3…
Because you want to – not because you don’t want to do something else
1) You actully want to freelance – sounds obvious but don’t do it just as the lesser of two evils or because you can’t find a ‘proper’ job, or because you think you will make way more money than you do now.
In my view, going freelance so you can hope to work every hour of every day to make loads of money is a guaranteed formula to make yourself utterly miserable.
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 dispenses some sage advice to would-be freelancers. Or, how to pitch a pitcher…
The Comms Crowd has been growing recently our little team has just about hit double figures and what a fab little team we are. I knew from the get go when each person got in touch that they would be a great fit for us, our culture and our clients.
But over the years I have been contacted by quite a few individuals hoping to join the gang and not all of them made such a brilliant first impression.
Here’s my top five mistakes to avoid when pitching your freelance services:
1) Telling me (in some detail) how much you hate your 9 – 5. Firstly I don’t care, secondly we don’t do negativity in pitches EVER, thirdly it demonstrates no commitment to freelance.
2) Telling me how (in more detail) you can’t get any work and you’re dying of starvation. Firstly I still don’t care, secondly one can only assume you are crap at what you do.
3) Clearly not understanding what we do, who we are and who we work for. We are B2B tech ergo if you are not B2B tech it’s not a good fit, honestly. Sending me some vanilla pitch about my ‘organisation’ has me lost at organistation.
4) Not demonstrating you have the four core skills: client management, content production, media relations, social media management. The rest is neither here nor there. And by demonstrating I mean send me a link to something you’ve written, send me coverage, show me a channel that you run…
5) Taking too long to tell me anything at all – this is a pitch right?
Truly if you can’t pitch yourself, how in the hell you gonna pitch our clients? (Can I get an Amen?)
Meanwhile, succinct, compelling and personable pitches that demonstrate your commitment to the freelance faith, map well to the Comms Crowd and showcase your in demand skills will just have me dashing for that welcome mat.
I was recently interviewed for MK’s award winning PR blog. I taught Marcel at Westminster Uni where Ihe graduated with a distinction and he was also our junior for a year. In his #4PRQs series he asks a range of industry types the same four questions. The one I found most interesting was:
What is the biggest mistake of junior people you employ, and how can it be fixed?
And this is my expanded answer:The biggest mistake even the best junior makes, is trying to appear you are on it when you are not… saying you understand what you are doing when you don’t, not quite. I get the motivation – need to look like you are on it, don’t want to ask daft questions.
But we know coming into an agency life from an academic background is a huge shock: not least the speed in which things move:
- Agencies are always very fast, very busy and er slightly stressed and everyone apart from the new junior knows exactly what they are doing.
- The level of multi-tasking expected is unprecedented, it’s not unusual for a junior to sit across five or six accounts or even more.
- Being cc’d on every mail on every account sounds great right? you finally get to see what’s really going on. But believe me. it’s a high price to pay for wading through 200 mails a day, and where are you supposed to put them when you’ve read them? Are they all important??
So it’s no wonder juniors are over-whelmed from day one. But without complete understanding of what you are doing and why, even ‘simple’ tasks like updating media lists, or sourcing twitter feed content goes awry as the junior lacks the confidence to speak up and clarify any questions, resulting in frustration and lack of faith all around.Much better to fess up at the beginning and claim ignorance, especially in my sector where the subject matter is deep. I mean how is a junior supposed to be all over AI, blockchain, machine learning, crypto currencies – etc? We really don’t expect you to get it straight away anyway, so you just speak up and ask those ‘stupid questions’.
Sam Howard celebrates six years of not having a proper job, unless you count running your own little agency as 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 survives another year of crash-course interviews and passes on her observations for what makes a standout PR candidate.
In addition to tending the Comms Crowd, I have an enjoyable side hustle working as associate lecturer leading the Professional Employability module for Westminster Uni. Recently we conducted externally-invigilated panel interviews with every student for a hypothetical intern or junior role depending on their experience in PR, advertising, marketing events etc. There were two panels each panel interviewed 30 students in a day – intense. So you get a very succinct view of qualities that work in interview: Here were the ones that worked best for me:
IMMERSED – Those that could clearly demonstrate a calling for the industry, enjoyed discussing campaigns and liked watching how stories played out in the media. These candidates were able to demonstrate a very proactive choice of careers, almost a vocation and we loved talking to these guys, they were one of us already.
ENGAGED – Those that liked engaging with us were open and seemed to enjoy the process, This really stands you in good stead when so many candidates seem reluctant to even be in the room and the interviewer feels more like a dentist trying desperately to extract information, than a would be employer, .
TUNED IN – Finally those that demonstrated a (quiet) resolve, an innate understanding they had this one moment to convince us that they had the attitude, the attributes, the experience and skills to easily fit in a team and capably do a good job. Those that were successful substantiated passion with knowledge, balanced confidence with credibility, openness with professionalism and demonstrated a positive rationale.They did not get distracted by their nerves, let the occasion overwhelm them, nor lose their way in an effort to become our NBFs, but just resolved to take that opportunity to show us the best of themselves with every answer. In short they had FOCUS.
But if these are not key qualities for you the great comfort of course is most all PR firms don’t rely on interview alone and applicants are given the opportunity to match the talk with the walk, demonstrating their skills and abilities in a variety of tests from proof-reading, pitching, aptitude tests, copy writing etc – and then it of course becomes a very level playing field. Hurrah!
Sharing this recent article from PR Moment to which I also contributed, Ref Brexit, can’t speak for the rest of the industry but my crew of freelancers have never been busier. In an uncertain market, you need to make sure your PR budget is is invested in PR talent, not a nice reception area.
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.