Asah Adolphe joined us for the month of July 2020 as an intern, and many of the team were involved in giving her some experience of different aspects of our work. Sandra Vogel, head of tech content and working journalist, volunteered to guide Asah through conducting and writing up an interview. This involves several different skills, including researching your subject, working out interview questions that will get you the results you think you need, and crafting an article out of what you learn. Below you can read the result – Asah’s interview with our founder Sam Howard.
It has been eight years since Sam Howard started The Comms Crowd, and it has never been more of a success than it is today. She discloses all in this interview from her favourite procrastination habits to her greatest career achievements and even admits how it was never her initial career plan to work in PR.
Earlier on in Sam’s professional journey she did not consider that PR would be her future career path and even resented the suggestion when her boss recommended it to her. Nevertheless, we can now understand that the software CEO had the right idea as his encouragement led her into the right direction, as she is now the head of a thriving comms agency.
As the creator of a ‘new breed of communications agency’, Sam’s main responsibilities are to ensure that the company is healthy, financially balanced and that that their clients are happy as she emphasises, ‘good enough is never ever good enough.’ Her determined mindset filtrated through every response she made to the questions I asked and accentuated why not only the company but her professional career has been such a triumph.
When asked about the key to developing an efficient team she explained that it is vital that each member is articulate, maintains a technical understanding and exhibits an interest in their role as this all contributes to the smooth sailing of the business. After all, an enthusiastic team builds the foundation for a successful, prosperous organisation.
In any professional field every individual is guaranteed to face hurdles and experience failure, Sam even acknowledged that to fail ‘is how you learn to become better at what you do’ and I could not agree more. When I queried the award-winning writer on the topic of failure, she confessed that she had failed on numerous occasions, which is understandable when you have twenty plus years’ experience in B2B tech PR. She recalled one ‘unpleasant’ experience which happened to be when she was relatively new to the industry and was approached with a new role in the city that she was not prepared for at that point in her career. She expressed it was an honour to be chosen for the job, so she completely ignored the skill level it actually required and ended up ‘leaping in’ and being devastatingly inadequate. Although, she added that headhunting is common in the industry, so it is all too tempting to take a role that you are not yet qualified to do.
It is fair to say that failure can open the door to many successes, Sam’s professional experiences reinforce this as she has accomplished a lot within her time in the industry. However, her greatest achievement she claimed was her having the incentive to start the Comms Crowd. In 2012 traditional work environments made it mandatory for employees to work in offices for long hours, and even getting a 4-day week or working one day a week from home was still frowned upon. Sam decided to go against this model entirely and set up a fully virtual agency with no office at all (and none of the overheads so no extortionate agency rates). Now in the midst of a pandemic, the model is finally recognised as the way to go, but Sam has been making it a success as she has ‘pulled-off’ managing a dynamic, efficient, and professional team that operates from various locations across the country.
The determination and passion that built this tech comms agency stemmed from Sam’s desire to collaborate and work with people she respected. She recognised from early on that it was unfair of the PR industry to have impractical expectations of its mainly female work force, therefore her aim was to embrace these expectations and create a flexible supportive environment, as she stresses that ‘your personal life and your children and your family and your dogs are as important as work and anyone who acts as if they’re not is kidding themselves.’ Clearly, staying true to these values is what stimulates and inspires her drive.
Sam was certainly not reluctant in shedding some light on the challenges she has come across in her career. She revealed, that when working in PR ‘it is vital to learn how to adapt as every client is unique and getting it spot-on with a client can always be tricky’. However, this does not seem to deter Sam and her team from reaching their goal and ultimately impressing their clients. In her view the most rewarding element in her role is witnessing her team blossom and seeing how her team manages to have such a positive impact on their clients.
The Chief Storytelling Officer went on to describe her typical day, and I have to admit it is very productive considering she works from home but it happens to be a routine that she has evolved over the eight years of running The Crowd. Intriguingly she gets to pick her own working hours which begins at 1pm in the afternoon until 7:30pm in the evening and she clarified that between those hours ‘she is in deep concentration.’ However, she promptly starts her day at 8:30am when most people are commuting to work so she can get an early start on her domestic tasks, then she goes outdoors to take her dogs for a walk and after that she would normally get in some exercise, such as Pilates swimming or cycling; as a result of COVID-19 her exercise routine has undergone some changes, unfortunately as we have all experienced this pandemic has affected our lives in many ways. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Sam as her routine remains proactive.
Maintaining a productive and successful work-life along with a satisfying balanced personal life can be stressful, especially when being the executive of a company, but Sam has the perfect yet quirky coping mechanism that helps her which she shares as ‘very calming.’ *Drum roll* it is…creating spreadsheets! Yes! colourful, bright, multicoloured spreadsheets is what relaxes her from a demanding day at work. After all, everyone needs a stress reliever.
I realised prior to conducting this interview that Sam is very ardent and committed in encouraging the next generation of talent. I asked her for any advice she could offer any young person considering a career in the field of PR or the media industry in general. She responded that individuals that wished to undertake a career path into Media and PR must have a ‘strong work ethic’ along with determination and an understanding that the industry is fast paced, she also stated that the person must take into consideration their skills and mindset; as the industry ‘ is competitive and changes like the landscape’. This interview with Sam Howard has been enlightening and informative with a hue of humour. Sam has shared inner and concise mental abilities it takes to be successful in the Media and PR world. She has shown us what it takes to be a part of the industry and the positive yet resilient, tenacious attitude one must have to succeed.
Sam Howard looks back on the ninth year of The Crowd
So when I first drafted this blog it was along the lines: last 12 months have seen our clients weathering a second year of political faffing, and we saw a fair amount of short-termism and turmoil. But on the upside it did give us the opportunity to assess our strengths and tap into them while developing new services designed to deliver hard returns to the client’s bottom line in such uncertain times. And round about December I was thinking, everything is looking calmer now, we’re in great shape and all set for a steady 2020!
Er yeah about that…
For sure, our remote business model means we are no strangers to the joys of self-isolation and virtual collaboration is not a novely for us but a way of life. But for the industry as a whole, with global travel cancelled and social distancing restrictions wreaking havoc with every family, every community, and every business, let alone the marketing plan… I’m already looking back on those halcyon Brexit days with nothing but a warm nostalgia.
Here’s our year in numbers as more words fail me.
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!