16 June 2006

There’s no such thing as a free lancer…

There is of course…I just thought it made a nice title. There’s certainly no such thing as a free freelancer, if the one I met this week is anything to go by.

This girl’s got more than a decade’s PR experience – mostly in consultancy – and she’s built up a nice network of contacts throughout the industry. That’s important, she says, because it allows her to go direct to clients and consultancies for work rather than through freelance placement agencies. This means that (a) she avoids the agency cut of her day rate and (b) she negotiates direct with the client/consultancy. She feels far better placed, she says, to put a value on her work than someone in a placement agency.

In fact, she was utterly scathing about the ability of freelance agencies to place senior PR consultants. The problem is, of course, that all they’re interested in is making the placement and getting their fee. They’re more interested in making a freelancer attractive to an agency to make the placement (by convincing the freelancer to accept a lower day rate, for instance) than they are in helping the freelancer maximise their income. After all, if the placement agency is taking a straight 10% of the day rate, getting the freelancer to accept £200 a day rather than £300 only costs the placement agency £10 a day…but the freelancer a whole lot more.

But this girl’s senior, and she goes direct…so she’s earning £500 a day.

You’ve probably just done what I did and multiplied £500 by 5 and then by 52…and come to an annual income of £130,000. Nice.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. She doesn’t get paid when she’s not working…so for every day’s holiday she takes she loses £500. Still, even if she takes 25 days off a year, she’s only losing £12,500 from her £130k. It’s still a pretty tidy income. There are quiet times, of course, and the work’s never guaranteed to keep coming in.

But don’t her clients do those sums as well, I asked, and balk at paying her a pro-rata salary of £100k+ a year?

Not often, she claims. You see, her clients have a specific need for her services and only need pay for exactly the time they need – maybe a day or two a week. They avoid the costs inherent in taking on a full-time member of staff and know that (when she’s working through a consultancy) she will be fully billed out to clients…which for someone of her level means in the region of £1,400 a day.

It’s even more straightforward when she works directly with a client; they’re getting someone for £500 a day that they’d pay £1,400 a day for through a consultancy. Clients therefore don’t see her as expensive resource…in fact they see her as being pretty cost-efficient.

So she doesn’t actually work full-time. It ebbs and flows, of course, but she reckons that on average she works three days a week (including holidays). So that’s still £78k every year. Not bad for a part-timer!

The downsides? Well, she never truly feels ‘part’ of the organisations she works for and doesn’t therefore enjoy as many of the social aspects of being a full-time, permanent employee of a company. But, she says, at her stage of life (married, young child, living out of town) that’s not a big concern.

Should we all go freelance then? No, of course not. To do what this girl’s done you need a (pretty rare) combination of experience and an extensive range of strong contacts if the work is going to keep rolling in. You also need to be happy selling your services and networking. Her advice: “learn, specialise, get to know people and don’t burn any bridges.”

It’s not bad to bear in mind as you’re moving up the ranks and thinking about a more flexible future working life, is it?

6 comments:

Stephen said...

Thanks for that. Definitely food for thought.

figgis said...

have you been reading freakonomics recently? this bit looks like a nice application (lift?!) of their theories on estate agents...

http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1194101&page=1

figgis said...

have you been reading freakonomics recently? this bit looks like a nice application (lift?!) of their theories on estate agents...

http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1194101&page=1

....the world's leading.... said...

You know Figgis, I have read Freakonomics and you're right, when I was having the chat with the freelancer it did strike me that the same principles apply to freelance agencies as estate agencies, as highlighted in the book.

I don't think it's really a life of their theory...in fact it's not really a theory is it? It's reality.

figgis said...

true true TWL, it is reality for any market set up like this.

about a mile off topic, but a lot of the other parts of that book are worth reading for PR people - especially the damning comments about experts, and the thoughts on how the media fixate on certain areas, and ignore greater dangers.

Anonymous said...

Agreed it's a great book with a lot of relevance for PR people. However, the freelancing phenomenon has arisen more out of necessity than design for many in the industry. As I and countless former colleagues in the IT PR sector have found, the reality is that combining a senior role in the industry with having children and living outside London is rarely possible. Unless of course your partner/mother/pet rabbit is prepared to become a live-in nanny. Or you can do as a former colleague did and employ two live in nannies...