Category Archives: Small Business and Freelance

Riding the diversity tsunami – why a diverse workforce make business sense.

It’s always nice to feel you’re on the side of the angels.

It felt pretty good to hear that we were at the beginnings of a “diversity tsunami” at yesterday’s launch of the CIPR‘s report into diversity in the PR industry. If this piece on the public’s response to the UK advertising landscape is to be believed it may even be true – after all, something’s got to change:

almost two-thirds of people in the UK feel the ad industry does not represent them, and almost two-fifths say advertising characters and messages fail to reflect British society as a whole…. one in six say they are prepared to avoid buying products from companies that fail to take diversity seriously.

It seems, that the public are ahead of the PR and marketing industries on this one.

The CIPR report is sobering reading, highlighting a slow rate of progress in closing the gender pay-gap, welcoming employees with disabilities and – my personal bugbear – focussing so much on the “young and dynamic” that it forgets the insight that experienced (and dynamic) older professionals offer.

Looking for a magic bullet

Many of the speakers yesterday repeated the mantra that “there is no magic bullet” for resolving the unconscious biases which dog recruitment – not just in PR but pretty much everywhere. But there were some great case studies showing how diversity helps business.  I liked the story of the owner of a small PR agency who grew her business by recruiting an ethnically diverse team – confessing with admirable honesty that it was mainly because of the financial support Creative Access offered her to do so. She soon found that her small business was out-competing larger agencies, winning international contracts because they had staff members who could – literally – speak their clients’ language.

My example – told here before – of the agency which couldn’t find a way to talk to an audience of over-50s fits that narrative exactly.  Putting it bluntly, if you don’t understand the UK’s ageing population and you don’t know how to talk to older people, you can’t sell them stuff (and like it or not, we’re the bit of the population that’s still got a disposable income…) Having a workforce that looks like the people it’s trying to communicate with – in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the representation of people with disabilities – isn’t just a nice thing to do, it makes sound commercial sense.

When the audience takes the lead

There was agreement yesterday that the greatest chance for achieving change will come from pressure on companies from their supply chains; which is why that one in six who might change their purchasing behaviour if companies don’t take diversity seriously are so important.

Only two flies in the ointment of the Marketing Week report.  The first is this:

a third of marketers polled in separate research by Marketing Week … believe that a lack of multiculturalism in advertising has no impact on what people buy

As an industry we need to catch up with our customers.

The second is the welcome it gives to the John Lewis ad as an example of older people in advertising.  Readers will know how I feel about this Christmas campaign.  I much prefer the Aldi’s spoof where, instead of a set of binoculars, the man on the moon receives a companion, delivered by balloon to brighten his Christmas.  (The gender politics of describing her as a “special buy” might be slightly problematic, I suppose, but I choose to believe that she willingly strapped herself to the chair – and I wish them both a happy Christmas)


To MOOC or not to MOOC? What are the training options for the self-employed?

online learning

One of the things that’s hard about being self-employed is staying up to date. Doing the CPD to make sure you’re still relevant in a changing market can be prohibitively expensive when you don’t have an employer to pick up the tab.

I’m a member of a professional association – the CIPR – which offers CPD as part of membership. I’ve done a lot of their free training – sat in front of the webinars, read the pdfs.  They’re pretty good, as far as they go – which tends to be just up to the point where they’ve thoroughly covered the basics and someone with significant practical experience of a subject wants to leap off into new thinking.

The advanced stuff is there – for a price.  The CIPR offers members a discount on their training packages.  If you’re freelancing, paying what seems to be the standard members’ charge of £420 inc VAT for a workshop (not to mention the loss of fee-income for a day) can feel daunting.

Beyond the confines of your own membership association, costs get very steep very quickly.  Want to improve your facilitation skills to boost your management credentials?  A quick google search reveals a two-day training course which costs £880 + VAT. Interested in opening new doors by getting a Masters?  I found one that I’d love to do: £5,225 per year for two years. (In case you were wondering, there are no student loans for post-graduate degrees for students over 30. Oh, and your training is not necessarily tax-deductible).

I don’t doubt that the training on offer in all of those courses is terrific or that it would be a great investment in my career.  I don’t think trainers should give the self-employed training for free out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s just very difficult to find those kinds of sums up-front, out of a freelancer’s income, especially when ROI is hard to quantify and the quality of what you’re buying can’t be assessed until you’re in the room and it’s too late to back out. I would guess that everyone reading this has at one time or another sat through poorly designed, badly delivered training which felt irrelevant to their working life. That’s annoying if it’s taken time out of the day job. It’s heart-breaking if it also cost you, personally, a sizeable chunk of next month’s mortgage. Often it feels like too big a risk to take.

The cheapskate approach to training?

High quality new ideas – preferably free – is what I crave.  So I’m giving thanks to the creators of PR Stack, a crowd-sourced directory of PR tools which looks fantastically useful.  Massive open online courses – MOOCs to their friends – also seem like a possible, cost-effective alternative to the expensive training course.  I’ve just started one being offered by FutureLearn.  I’m doing it as much because I’m curious to see how the experience measures up as in the hope of learning something new.  I’ll post again when the course is over. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from fellow freelancers who’ve cracked the training conundrum: how do you do it?

Could your job be done by a robot?

march of the makers

March of the Makers

If I ever put it together, the unexpurgated version of my CV  would include 28 jobs, shared between permanent employers and freelance clients. It would cover sectors from government to relationship therapy, television to accountancy. So I felt smugly ahead of the curve when I read about the futurologist advising schools that they need to prepare pupils for a world in which they may be working until they’re 100 and will need skills to build a portfolio career.

But look at the kinds of careers he has in mind:

“You might be driving Uber part of the day, renting out your spare bedroom on Airbnb a little bit, renting out space in your closet as storage for Amazon, doing delivery for Amazon or housing the drone that does delivery for Amazon.

“There are all these sort of new sharing economy models coming through,” he said. “We need to start thinking about these things, we need to start thinking about the kinds of skills we’ll need to help people stay employable.

You’ll have noticed that none of these things are careers, in the old-fashioned sense:

  an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework

They’re just ways to pay for food – and he’s assuming that we will all have houses with rooms to let, cars to use for our part-time parcel delivery/cab driving and are willing to support Amazon as it takes over the world.

So, could your job be done by a robot?

Want a life that’s more than being a part-time warehouseman for Jeff Bezos? Might be worth thinking about the kinds of jobs that can’t be done by machines. Our futurologist is gloomy on this one:

between 30% and 80% of all the jobs that exist currently will disappear in the next 10 to 20 years, as businesses increasingly invest in automation… On the one hand, we’ll be living longer. On the other hand, we’re not sure how people are going to earn the money to buy the goods and services that will largely be produced by smart software and robots,”

If this is a guide there aren’t many jobs safe from the advance of automation. Follow the link and see what your future holds: I came back with a 17.5% chance of seeing my livelihood taken over by a machine – odds I think I can live with.  If you need more security than that, it may be time to re-train as a mental health social worker (0.3% chance), or scramble up the corporate ladder while it’s still there and become a Chief Executive (1.5% chance).  Who (or what) you will be Chief Executive of, though, is open to debate.

The joy of making yourself surplus to requirements

butterflies_1200pxWhat an unexpectedly brilliant start to the day.

A 10am meeting with Genny, the social entrepreneur I’ve been mentoring via UnLtd since earlier this year.  And it looks like being the last one we’ll need – although we’ll get together for a drink and a catch up around Christmas to make sure everything’s still on track.  She’s now got a business plan, a real idea of who her customers are, and an understanding of what they need from her.  She knows what she’s offering and she’s costed what it will take to deliver it.  And she’s got enough new customers to be contemplating possibly taking on staff in the near-ish future.

This is of course not all my doing – although she is gratifyingly eager to give me the credit.  She’s done all the hard work and all the difficult thinking .  What I did was provide an objective  point of view and space for her to talk about what she wants to do.    And it feels absolutely brilliant that she’s got so far that she really doesn’t need me any more.

What do you do when you’re stuck “off assignment”?

It's a tough market out there

It’s a tough market out there

Over the past couple of weeks a rather wonderful discussion thread has been unfurling at LinkedIn (an unexpected sentence I never thought I’d write).

The members of the Interim Managers Group  have been discussing what they do when they’re out of work – stuck “off assignment” .

This is heartening, not just because of the advice they’re sharing (of which more later), but  for the  simple fact that they are publicly acknowledging that even the most experienced interim has periods out of work when no matter how good you are, how expert, how well connected, you still can’t get hired for love nor money.

People rarely feel comfortable owning up to the fact that they’re not as successful/busy/in demand/well-remunerated as they’d like to be.  There’s lots of success shared over the networks of LinkedIn, but very few accounts of troughs to go with the peaks.  Having just finished a period “off assignment” myself, I was particularly cheered by this thread. People tend not to talk about this side of consultancy so it’s perfectly possible to believe that you are the only person who doesn’t move seamlessly from one well-paid assignment to the next. But hey, waddya know, everyone’s in the same boat.  Lots of people – experienced, well-qualified, massively employable people – sometime endure hair-raisingly long gaps between assignments.

Advice from the horse’s mouth

It’s the notion of a shared experience rather than any one piece of practical advice which will be the most help to me next time I’m caught in between jobs. But here’s a digest of practical suggestions for what to do if you’re temporarily without billable work, with thanks to the massed ranks of LinkedIn’s interim managers:

  • Maintain a structure to your day, your week, your month. Set some goals to achieve, work-related or not, and work towards them.
  • Keep your networking fresh, especially during the time you’re in an assignment otherwise your network may see you making contact only when you’re looking for work.
  • Create a business plan every year which will ensure the business is sustainable. Plan in time for personal development and marketing activity.
  • Go to as many industry events as you can to keep your network and industry knowledge up to date.
  • Work on your Linked In profile:
    1- Look at other profiles and see how yours can be improved
    2- Participate in discussions
    3 -Look at your home page every day – use CTRL-F to search for       relevant postings.
  • Email your ISP contacts every 6-8 weeks to remind them you are still looking.
  • Keep the faith – you will find work again.

And here are some tips from a different source on how to stay positive while you’re looking.

The benefits of thinking small

My eye was caught by the pull-quote on a piece in today’s Observer about why so many government IT projects end in digital disaster.

The key is to employ computing firms that think £100,000 is a lot of money and are used to delivering on time.

The writer pinpoints the problems that come when non-techy civil servants are responsible for the procurement of complex government IT projects.  Too often he argues, they opt for the safe choice and bring in the large, established firms who have managed – and failed to deliver – big projects in the past.

What you see is not necessarily what you’ll get

That’s not just a problem for IT contracts – nor is it only an issue in the civil service.  As the project lead on any complicated, big budget contract the safest thing to do, the way to protect yourself if things go wrong,  is hire a recognised name.  As the old saying goes – “no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM“.  But in my experience not only can big companies take a generic,  one size fits all approach to project delivery , they also have a tendency to wheel out the big guns at pitch time, dazzling clients with the lustre of their track record and the expensive cut of their suits, and hand the actual work to an altogether scruffier junior colleague.

The place to be – if you’re a client – is with a company which REALLY values your business, because you represent a significant chunk of their annual income. They won’t palm you off with the newly qualified trainee, they’ll make sure you get the personal attention of the MD.  They’ll know their reputation relies on how well they do, because your project is going to feature in their portfolio in future.  They’ll make sure they hit the deadlines and stick to the budget. And because they probably don’t have expensive overheads (or buy handmade suits), they won’t charge you an arm and a leg every day for the pleasure of their company.

Can you be too small to invest in the future?

I ran a training day this week for a small charity which is, warily, thinking about dipping its toes into PR and marketing for the first time.

It quickly became clear that even the simple ideas we were coming up with were beyond their limited resources and the event became an impromptu staff meeting as they looked at ways of restructuring teams to free some time to allow people to do more communications.

Now, this is all very gratifying for me – they  liked what I was suggesting and could see the value it offered.  But it raised some uncomfortable issues, too.

Where do resources go – future investment or current staff?

Like many charities they run largely on volunteer and part-time labour.  To get additional things done they’re going to have to take work away from some staff and give it to other, already over-loaded colleagues.  Or they’re going to have to stop doing some things completely.  Or they’re going to have to find a partner organisation with  resources they can share.  Or they’re going to bring in a new member of staff from outside to do the work.  To get someone who’s worth having they’re going to have to pay – not big bucks, but something.  How does the CEO explain to volunteers, some of whom have stuck loyally to their task for years, that there’s no money to pay them, but there is enough to hire someone else?

The answer is that without investment in communications the organisation’s membership won’t grow, its income will stay fixed and  there’ll never be  enough money.  But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one doing a full day’s work just for the love of it.

Where to go for more advice on funding?

I had a quick squint at the websites for ACEVO and NCVO – two of the biggest support/membership organisations for the third sector –  looking for advice on sharing services, diversifying income streams, or just managing staff through financial hard times.  I may just have missed it in my haste, but there’s less around than I’d expected (though the advice I listed here almost two years ago is still valid).  NCVO’s Sustainable Funding Project looked helpful for small voluntary organisations looking to widen their funding base – linked here in case it’s of use to anyone.  Other suggestions gratefully received!