Working your way in the freelance economy

Have you ever considered working as a freelance comms consultant? What is the market like for freelancers and how many self employed people are there? Today I’m proud to present a guest post written by Joe O’Shea who looks at the world of freelancing and the benefits for those involved.

Joe is an employee engagement and communications consultant for Bernard Hodes Group. A former newspaper journalist, editor and agency content specialist, he is part of the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) London region committee and you can follow him on Twitter @joeosheauk. Over to you Joe…

Working your way in the freelance economy
I recently had the pleasure of judging the content and journalism category in Xchangeteam’s freelancer of the year awards. While judging and joining 50-odd comms freelancers for the ceremony, I was full of admiration and a wee bit envious… it was thought provoking.

Across six categories – digital; content; creative; client services; PR; and marketing – the room was packed with off-the-shelf talent to fill any gap. And with the diverse range of skills came a range of lifestyles. Among the interesting freelancers I met were an investment banker who writes for fun and an actor who offers nerve-free pitching skills between his many travels.

In control
No doubt some are freelancing out of necessity but most I spoke with choose to work flexibly to suit their lifestyle. Either way, they’re in control. They decide what work to pursue and how to develop as professionals. While the big challenge must be securing enough work, the reward is the chance to take on a variety of briefs that is rarely available in one in-house or agency role.

As a result, freelancers seem to be diversifying and developing a broader range of specialist skills to fill gaps that sit outside business-as-usual comms competencies. The content and editorial category showed how our skills as communicators are evolving.

Evolving skills
Alongside great copywriting and editing, freelancers are helping clients with training, tone of voice, content strategy, search engine optimisation (SEO), content management for internal and external channels, and community management. As a judge, I looked for someone who showcased the full spectrum of content skills.

It was a tough call but Jo Murphy ticked every box with her range of writing briefing and her work in overhauling the British Standards Institute’s training website.

If one thing made her entry standout, it was the sustainability of her work. As well as rewriting 150 pages, Jo created a framework of tools and delivered training so that BSI could sustain the results.

And that, for me, is the key benefit of the freelance economy. Anyone hiring specialist skills and expertise into their organisation – via a freelancer or an agency – should ask and expect them to enable people internally and leave a positive legacy. Although that might appear to go against freelance/agency interests, it has the opposite effect by positioning you as a trusted partner and expert coach. Jo is now working with BSI as creative lead on a brand project.

Business sense
When the recession struck in 2008, I was faced with the awful task of reducing an agency content team by half – as a matter of survival. The difficult decisions helped the agency stabilise and operate on a more commercial footing. That wouldn’t have been possible without the commitment of the team and our ability to source great freelance talent – including former colleagues – to deliver great work as and when required. With their help, we were able to retain and grow *almost* all our major accounts.

For me, the key to building and sustaining a freelance talent pool is being fair (everyone paid the same rate), transparent (about our expectations and honest in feedback) and offering regular work with visible income.

In an era where any organisation can easily tap into freelance support, agency expertise is increasingly about being able to access the best people in the market for any particular project and bringing those skills together as part of a seamless service that makes client’s lives easier.

Growing demand
A quick glance at the comms vacancies (as you do!) shows a growing trend towards interim and contract roles. In-house and agency clients are looking for additional capacity at the busiest times of year, filling short-term gaps or bringing in specialist skills that can’t be found or justified in a full-time role. And the freelance market or ‘gig economy’ is buoyant.

Recent CIPD research (Work Audit: The rise in self-employment January 2012) showed that since 2008 more than 300,000 people in the UK have declared as self-employed – off-setting 40 per cent of total UK job losses.

Self-employed people now make up 14.2 per cent of the UK workforce, offering business flexible skills on demand and workers the ability to choose how, when and with whom they work. This flexibility and mobility of talent benefits everyone concerned.

Fulfilling careers
For all employers, recognising that freelancing is an attractive and increasingly viable option should be something of a wakeup call. Competition to secure the best talent – on permanent and temporary contracts – is intensifying, not least because social media is making talent and opportunities more visible.

Among the many ways organisations can attract and engage talent is to consider how their employment deal compares with the freelance alternative. Talented people want to be stimulated by fresh challenges and exposed to a variety of learning experiences, so how can you recreate those conditions within your organisation? And if job-security is the main benefit of your employment deal, what kind of talent will you attract?

Career mobility is important for talent to thrive, and it can be achieved within the organisation by offering creative career development pathways including internal mobility, secondments, rotations or mentorships. Even if those opportunities are practical, a culture of mobility can be supported by knowledge sharing and social learning.

Shifts in the labour market suggest we are moving towards a future where everyone – even full-time employees – will operate as freelancers, going wherever the challenge is to develop their skills and add value. I certainly hope so.

What do you think? Are we moving to an age where we are all effectively freelancers?

Post author: Joe O’Shea

Thank you for such a thought-provoking article Joe. What do you think of what he’s written, do you agree? If you’re a freelance comms consultant and would like to write your perspective, I’d be interested in publishing it, do please get in touch.

Posted on 20 April 2012.


  1. Deenita Pattni says:

    Loved the blog Joe. Every year, the Freelancer of the Year Awards attracts more and more talent and what is interesting is that the PR & Comms category has the most entries with Editorial/Content as the 2nd most. I think these are 2 sectors where freelance will contribute to its on-going growth and success.
    From a recruiter’s viewpoint, since the recession in 2008, freelance demand has actually dropped but the interim/contract demand has increased – mainly due to wanting to save costs! However the value freelancers provide is still very high! And you’re right, the comms or content professional has to fit into serveral boxes – from being able to provide content and SEO skills through to social media and PR. There has to got to be a commercial benefit to the client at the end of the Freelancer’s assignment for them to justify why freelance talent is a must. If clients could hire a team of freelancer’s – they would because they’d get the latest skills they need. Sadly, the conpany’s purse strings don’t always support that

  2. Thank you for your comment Deenita and for offering a view from a recruiter’s perspective.

  3. […] Working your way in the freelance economy […]

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