Q&A: The life of a Freelance PR

Freelancing, they say, is how we’ll all work in the future, and there are already around five million self-employed workers in the UK alone doing everything from driving cabs to public relations. With the chancellor’s recent budget throwing the spotlight on the “gig economy”, Hartigan asked one of its longest-serving freelancers, Rob Jessel, for his perspective on freelancing, so you can decide if you want to join the swelling ranks of the self-employed.

So when did you decide to go freelance, and why?

It was spring 2013: I’d just moved agencies, but the new job wasn’t right for me; I found myself unemployed and urgently started looking for some freelance work to tide me over. But I loved the lifestyle so much that I haven’t looked back – I’ve been freelance ever since.

What do you like so much about the lifestyle?

The main thing I enjoy is the social side. As a freelancer you work with a much larger pool of people, with many more opportunities to make friends and cultivate professional contacts. It’s also a fun challenge to come into a team, show your worth, and quickly become a valuable asset to your new colleagues.

You also get to work with a much wider client roster, which is great for developing industry knowledge. As a freelancer I’ve worked with many of the biggest brands and most exciting startups in my sector (technology), which has been a fantastic education.

And, make no bones about it, the money is certainly better than permanent employment!

Freelancers do earn a higher day rate, but you also lose many of the benefits of full-time work…

It’s true, we don’t get sick or holiday pay. The lack of a safety net can be a bit daunting, but you simply have to budget for it – make sure you build up some savings to fall back on. The reputation of freelancing is that it’s either feast or famine, so it can be tempting to take every job going. It’s really important to take those holidays, though: if you chase contract after contract you will simply burn out.

The life of a Freelance PR

What about the negatives?

The lifestyle can be a bit dislocating. Jobs can range from a few weeks to several months, so there’s lots of chopping and changing. It’s always a shame to leave a team where you’ve done good work and had a laugh, but there’s always a good chance they will have you back!

Career progression can be another another negative, because obviously there’s no training or personal development on offer for temporary employees. It’s up to freelancers to take charge of their own learning and development, and one of the best ways you can do that is to put your hand up and volunteer for high-level tasks. If you’re hired as an AM, think like an AD and seek ways to work on more advanced projects. It’s experience you can then reference in your next job interview for a higher position.

How do you go about finding jobs?

Well, it helps to have a good recruiter, one that takes the time to understand its candidates, doesn’t put them forward for unsuitable roles, and keeps pushing until they find you a job. You quickly find out which are the bad recruiters – they’ll get in touch when they’ve got a job; but if it’s not the right role or you don’t get it, then you won’t hear anything from them for months. Perhaps the best way to get employment is to do such a good job the first time round that the client asks you back. It’s always pleasing to renew friendships at a former agency.

Some people might worry about the technicalities of invoicing, tax and so forth?

There are lots of options for this, such as setting up your own company, hiring an accountant, or getting to grips with payroll software. I use an umbrella company for all my invoicing and tax, which is perfectly affordable. But I had to experiment with a few umbrella firms, because frankly some of them are a bit rubbish. [Note from Editor: We’ll be running a blog on the technicalities of freelancing soon – keep an eye out for it!]

What makes a good freelancer?

You’ve got to be able to hit the ground running and start delivering value from the first hour of your first day. Employers don’t want to hire a freelancer only to see them spending valuable time getting to grips with their new clients. The best freelancers are flexible, fast learners; they have a great work ethic and a positive, problem-solving attitude. It’s a great job for gregarious people who like making new friends. But it also requires the ability to make a completely new start and hit the ground running several times a year. It certainly keeps you on your toes!

Finally, do you have any final advice for a first-time freelancer?

Words that shouldn’t be in your vocabulary: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” As a freelancer, you’re hired to solve problems, so make sure you’re ready for anything, and exceed employers’ expectations every day.