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PR Interview with Sam Howard, founder of The Comms Crowd

What is the Comms Crowd and how does it work?

We are a collective of senior B2B freelancers working in collaboration to deliver comms and content to tech/fintech companies. We provide deep sector expertise across a range of disciplines including PR, AR, copy and digital content. Just like an integrated agency, we work together on a retainer or project. We share the same flat day rate so we can swap in and out on a project. For example, we could do a company’s messaging and produce a series of thought leadership pieces, and off of the back of that, we can put it into a design template and produce a video trailer. Following that, we work with our freelancer friends in the US and APAC to do the PR and AR outreach across the traditional and digital channels.

But, unlike an agency, we all work from home (we are not sub-contractors), there is no physical office, and we only come together (via the cloud) for the job at hand. Therefore, our overheads are minimal and our rates reflect that. The work is interesting and diverse right now – as well as working with our retained clients, we are doing a careers website for a major player in the risk management space,as well as working with an exciting start up about to launch its first game.

What is the benefit of being in the collective; can any freelancer join?

After sixteen years in a ’proper job‘, I turned freelance and realised that the role comes with quite a burden of responsibility. There’s this desire to please and pretend to be good at everything. And also, there is this expectation that you will be ‘on’ 365 days a year, when, to be honest, I wanted to be ‘off’ sometimes too and not just when a client is done, but for school holidays, or even just to give the dog a good run in the morning.

I found collaboration was a great way around that. Being part of a collective is like belonging to an agency. It's similar calibre work, but it’s cloud-based, so we all enjoy the flexibility that gives us to manage our lives. We get to play to our strengths and team-up with other members of The Crowd (we are all former integrated agency types, so collaboration is in the blood), and take our holidays guilt-free, as one of the team will cover us. Also, it’s a profit-share, so if you bring in the work, you get a share of the profits too. It’s not a network though, just a small group of like-minded types. At any given point there are five to ten of us actively engaged on Comms Crowd work.

How is the workload amongst freelancers spread out? Do you have collective responsibility for campaigns?

We try to share the work out as much as we can but, ultimately, we need to match the right people to the job who are best able to bring in the agreed deliverables. We take entire responsibility for delivering the campaign.

Why would a potential client be tempted to call in The Comms Crowd rather than a freelancer or agency?

There are a few scenarios where we’re a natural fit; the common thread is when you want that agency breadth and depth but you only have a freelance budget.

On the retainer side of things, we are able to deliver a fair amount of senior council for a modest budget. We often hear frustrated marketing directors bemoaning that despite spending what seemed a small fortune to them, they were still small fry on an agency’s rota with very little access to the senior support they met on the pitch.

On a project side, we may get called in when a marketing team needs ‘more than’ a copy writer or ‘more than’ a designer. A company may need to clarify what it is they want to say and how best to make it compelling, before they can start producing the web content for example, or the suite of solution brochures. Therefore, we get pulled in to establish the position, craft the messaging and help define the brand, and then we’ll produce the content off of the back of that.

We also still help out when you need a wide range of skills but with a deep understanding of the market. None of us are generalists; on average we each have around 20 years of working with tech and fintech companies, so we know our stuff.

Is it generally quite hard for freelancers to compete against larger agencies?

Yes. But, we shouldn’t be competing at all. If a company has the budget and the desire to work with a large agency then it probably should – there are enough of them to choose from. A freelancer is an entirely different proposition and neither should pretend to have the strengths of the other.

Even as a group, we don’t compete with the big agencies. We still work on budgets for which an agency would not deem worthy of pitching. And we obviously do not have the bandwidth to implement massive campaigns, nor the sophisticated tools and analytics to monitor them. It’s horses for courses, isn’t it?

It’s tempting as a freelancer to go after work that has an agency price tag, but you really have to be careful about how much time you invest in pitching. It is, after all, work for free. I really try to avoid the pitch scenario. A new job enquiry involves a conversation, a follow up email with an idea of what should be done, how it might work and what it ought to cost, and either we’ll start the next week or we won’t. It’s all very low ceremony these days.

You have worked in-house, agency side and as a freelancer! What are the biggest differences?

I would say that they are all really different and what suits one person really doesn’t suit another. I was in-house for six years, first working for a start up and then for a global corporate. For me, working for a small company can be great fun but I’m not sure you get to learn best practice. Where as, in a large company, it can be so slow with more time spent trying to get everyone on board than in executing an initiative; it can be frustrating and exhausting – I just don’t have the patience for it at all.

I was much happier agency side, where I worked for ten years. I enjoyed the shared learning process, and I loved how frenetic it was, working on six accounts at once. I think being an account director or a group account director is such a great job – you have a team to nurture, clients who value your advice, and the thrill of the pitch. Once you get past that stage, it’s gratifying to break the odd glass ceiling, but the role itself can be quite different. You don’t get to work on the clients' accounts so much, as it gets very operational when you are managing a large team – lots of HR stuff and spreadsheets… 

So going freelance is a way to get back to the coal face of comms, and it’s infinitely rewarding, working directly with the client again, being the day-to-day point of contact, advising on the little things as well as the big. I still get a huge kick when we secure a choice piece of coverage for a client, or when a campaign results in business leads.

But with the 'freelance freedom' comes the 'freelance fear'. When the strategy, creation and implementation are directly down to you, if it doesn’t go well, there is really only one person to blame. I tell you, when you have a bad day as a freelancer, it really is bad. Still the ever-present fear keeps you on your toes.

Aside from your work, what support do you provide for the Taylor Bennett Foundation?

For the last three years, I’ve been retained by The Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California to lead its London internship programme for post grad PRs and journalists. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about the whole PR landscape, not just my bit. I’ve also experienced first-hand how incredibly difficult it is to secure internships in our sector. 

I signed up to help TBF in 2011, thinking that what I had learned from my work with the USC would be useful to share with home grown talent. TBF is a charity aimed at improving the diversity in PR and comms. I work with every intake of trainees running a workshop that helps explain life in all the different sectors, what the pros and cons are, etc. I try to give them a feel for where they might be happy, what suits their natural personalities and inclinations.

When I started with TBF, it was early in my freelance career and, to be honest, I wasn’t that busy. Three years on and I am pretty busy, but I love working with the TBF trainees, they are always so energised and switched on. It’s extremely rewarding and I stay in touch with many of them, it’s a huge buzz watching them develop and succeed in their careers.

In fact, our latest team member and our first ‘junior’ is actually TBF alumni and she is doing so well, it’s just a pleasure to work with her.

Why do you think the PR industry lacks ethnic diversity in its workforce?

I talked about this with one of the founding members of The Comms Crowd who is from Uganda, and we both thought the same – it’s nothing sinister. As a sector, I don’t think we ‘see’ colour or creed, I just don’t think there are enough applicants from the BME backgrounds to start with. You can’t hire people of any particular nationality or culture if they don’t apply in the first place.

I think maybe, culturally, parents of young people from BME backgrounds might be less aware of comms as a career option than say the more traditional choices of medicine, law, accountancy, etc., so maybe that is an influencing factor.

Hopefully the Taylor Bennett Foundation is helping to inspire a whole generation of young people to consider PR and comms as a valid career choice, who otherwise would have thought it ‘not for them’, if only because they didn’t see others from their background in those roles. TBF gives its trainees a great opportunity to explore what’s under the hood of the job and decide if it’s something they might enjoy. From what I see, I think they will.

What future plans do you have for the Comms Crowd?

As much as I love nudging The Comms Crowd along a bit, I’m not in the empire building business. The whole point of going freelance, for me, was to re-prioritise life, to turn work back into something meaningful, but not insatiable. We just want to work with good people, collaborating on interesting projects, sharing the responsibility and the rewards. As long as there’s enough work to go around, time to walk the dog, some leeway to switch off the laptop every so often and enjoy a proper family holiday, then my ‘ambitions’ are truly fulfilled.

Get in touch with the team @commscrowd.