By Nicky Regazzoni, Co-Founder of The PR Network
When I set up as a freelancer in 2005 before starting The PR Network with my business partner George Blizzard, I was motivated by a desire to continue my PR career without compromising my home life. At this point, I didn’t even have any children - but I saw my colleagues who did. I saw them stressed, exhausted and saying they never did their best at work or at home. Rushing from nursery to work and back, then picking the laptop back up after bedtime - all the time with a palpable sense of panic that there was never enough time to get it all done.
I thought - that life isn’t for me. I started to build a good business as a freelancer, and during that time I met lots of talented people (men and women) who had also jumped off the hamster wheel to create a better work life. They didn’t want a permanent role, but they didn’t want to feel they’d sold their career down the river either. I sensed a huge amount of frustration from people wanting to put their experience to good use - without killing themselves with a 9-5 (and the rest) office job which simply doesn’t fit in with the constraints of family life and childcare.
I can’t count the times I’ve listened to people tell me their stories and say sadly, ‘it just doesn’t WORK’. At the same time, agencies were losing great people at a rate of knots. Talent retention was (is) as big an issue as finding fantastic people in the first place.
Back to 2005 - I was getting approached with a load of exciting PR projects which I couldn’t service alone. Over a glass or two one evening, George and I came up with the idea of a new breed of agile PR agency that would be based on the skills - and capacity - of a self-employed ‘workforce’, offered to clients as experienced PR professionals working in teams. We wouldn’t need to ask people to make sacrifices in order to service clients - they would work when they wanted, in the location they chose, as part of virtual teams steered by us at our London hub. We would plan resource properly so there would always be a senior person available to the client.
Of course, this concept wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a market for it. If clients were bothered about their teams being in the same city office for 8 hours a day, we’d have had a problem. Luckily, it turned out they weren’t. In May 2018 we commissioned The Pulse Business to run a sentiment poll for us to properly assess the appetite for virtual agencies. 45% of respondents (all senior PR and comms professionals) said that in the future, clients would consider virtual agencies a credible alternative to the traditional agency model. In 2017 PR Week wrote about the rise of virtual PR agencies, describing us as “the most established of the cohort”.
We are now running campaigns all over the world (38 countries in 2017), directed by our management team who are all partners in the business. There are almost 2000 consultants in our global network - men and women who want to work on brands such as Dropbox, Lexus, Toyota, Vodafone and Zipcar (all current PRN clients). Clients don’t care where their teams are, as long as the work is getting done to a high standard, and that there is a senior person available to them when they need them. All of which we can deliver with our model.
We are also excited to announce that this week we are launching a new PRCA working group co-chaired by me and George. The Virtual Agencies group will bring together agency heads to collectively drive the growth of the category. More on that soon.
We are very proud that our concept has gone some way to halt the ‘talent drain’ of fantastic PR practitioners who would otherwise leave our industry because the traditional world of work is not geared up for everyone. We have many PR Network associates that were pushed out of their permanent roles, sometimes quite aggressively, by making the conditions and hours impossible to manage with childcare logistics. That is not to say that employers do not try hard to make it work - I know many who do. However, it is still extremely rare to find an employer that affords its trusted staff complete freedom and flexibility regarding where, when and how they work.
Having worked as a freelancer and then been self-employed as a partner in my own company since 2005, I am proof that growth and results can be generated without any fixed ‘work abode’ or set hours contract, however much flexibility may be built into that. I’m also a great case study for a working mum of two, having only missed a handful of school events since 2006. We afford the same consideration to all our partners, male and female (we have 14 children in the team).
Of course, when you work for yourself you are in control of your own diary and you can make choices and decisions over how to prioritise work and family life. However, opening up the working ‘day’ to make it possible to use the time available to you to fit in your work and parental/other life responsibilities is enormously empowering.
I believe that removing the shackles of a standard employment contract and allowing people to work freely - whatever their motivation - creates a sense of mutual obligation and goodwill which reaps benefits for all involved. Extending that opportunity beyond parents to all committed staff members may also help solve the issue of retaining millennials, allowing them to explore their personal goals without leaving the business. That’s another blog post.
We are delighted to be invited to participate in the inaugural Comms Week London event, representing The PR Network and our agile global workforce, and Women in PR, which aims to improve work life for women in the UK PR industry. George will be speaking on the Future of Work panel on October 17th in London. Get your tickets here.