March 31, 2021

NEON Leaders’ Jennifer Woollford and Joanna Ong-Ash in PR Week Asia on being successful as an independent talent and the value of working with independent talent

First published by Surekha Ragavan in PR Week on 31 March 2021

More senior in-house professionals are leaving the corporate world and moving towards self-employment. The benefits are endless, they say.

Jennifer Woollford spent over 14 years at Mars in senior roles including a period as Chief Marketing Officer and Marketing Director. But the lack of flexibility in a corporate in-house role proved a challenge, especially because Woollford wanted to be more present with her young children.  

It took her two years to figure out that she needed to do something differently and she eventually took the plunge by choosing to work independently. This led to the founding of NEON Leaders in Hong Kong, a collective of self-employed senior marketing leaders with in-house expertise. Over the course of three years, she learned that working this way can be both professionally and personally rewarding.

She told PRWeek Asia that freelancing not only allows talent to hone in on their specialities, but also allows them to build up their experience by working across a broader range of projects than they might be able to as an employee. 

Kim Stockham, who made the career move to freelance via her self-established consultancy The Ginger Jar, concurred with Woollford. 

“It makes good sense for freelancers to focus on a key area if they have a depth of experience in a niche area,” she told PRWeek Asia. “Not only is it a market differentiator for them, it allows them to focus their skills and it sets a clear scope of work expectations between the freelancer and the agency-client. That said, most experienced communicators are very good at pivoting between comms tasks and projects.”

She added that the comms profession is very familiar with hiring specialists for media training, crisis management and investor relations. But the opportunities now lie in less office-based and city-centric world and to consider utilising talent who live outside of capital cities. Their input, perhaps more generalist than specialist, may provide specific geographical insight for clients seeking to better understand grassroot issues in a specific community, and help them communicate with key regional publics ‘like a local’.

Of course, freelance projects and can vary by nature. A good freelance talent will be able to take ongoing responsibility for communications, clients or project in a seamless way, and may present as part of the agency team. This, according to Stockham, is most useful when senior freelancer experience extends existing agency skill sets. They’re able to offer help quickly for an overstretched team on a wide range of tasks including writing and planning.

But Stockham said that recent WFH experiences of some agency team members would give them a glimpse into a freelancer’s life, which could mean a blurry line between work and play.

“While WFH and better managing your own time and client base may be a ‘carrot’ for going solo, I think it’s actually harder to manage your time as a freelancer. Clients need help when they need help, and it can be harder to step away from your screen or take time off when there’s no one covering for you,” she said.

Going freelance is not merely the matter of flicking a switch. Stockham said that PR pros should think about where they’ll be based, how to build their network and brand, and how they’ll charge among other considerations. This means being able to lead yourself, and learning to manage your own time, income and budget wisely.

Other freelancing challenges, she said, are more personal. For instance, how do you stay motivated without a team around you? How will you maintain industry best practice and professional development without the infrastructure of an agency or organisation, and who can you turn to for a second opinion? Therefore, building a supportive network of other professionals and academic connections is important to feeling connected, energised and inspired. 

While all levels of talent can technically choose to go freelance, both Stockham and Woollford suggest that junior professionals build their foundational skills and experience in a corporate or agency set-up before thinking of self-employment.

“All passionate, talented people could consider it, but I do not suggest freelancing as a first role for junior team members unless they have a really close mentoring relationship with a ‘brains trust’ of other communicators,” said Stockham.

“While someone junior may have the skills and confidence to freelance, the experience of being challenged, learning and growing comms skills in an agency, government or in-house role is something I rate very highly when advising clients on how they should engage with others.”

Woollford echoed the sentiment: “Today, we’re seeing a significant shift in how people work and build their careers, opening up the opportunity for working independently at any age or stage or a career. That said, it will be harder for people at a junior level where their experience and network is limited to both build and sell their value.”

She added that freelancing is no longer seen as a bridge between employment and retirement, and is now considered by many to be a permanent way of working. However, the caveat is that the term ‘freelance’ holds connotations both more executional focused work, and the ‘freelance movement’, denoting work fitting around a lifestyle choice, according to Woollford.

“The dominant preference from recruiters and headhunters remains people who have followed a linear corporate career path, and a few years spent ‘freelancing’ isn’t valued in the same way as permanent employment,” she said.

“There is a growing, diverse and dynamic pool of talent working independently across levels of seniority, and reframing the language we use is important to recognise and value the potential of this talent pool both today and for future employment opportunities.”

The value of freelance talent for agencies

Many agencies, especially smaller start-ups, depend on freelance talent for a multitude of reasons. The most obvious one is cost.

“With no employee overheads, the ability to flex your offering to meet client needs and the opportunity to focus on what you do best, this is an entirely sustainable model and one that I expect will become more dominant in the market,” Victoria Coplans Hope, founder of Hope Communications in Hong Kong, told PRWeek Asia.

Hope, who held senior in-house roles at HSBC and Shangri-La, launched her own consultancy last year and relies entirely on freelance staff or on small business services for tasks such as admin and accounting. She is the only full-time member of the agency, and has had to establish working relationships with partners across PR, marketing, graphic design and HR that complement the consultancy’s employee engagement and experience offering.

“Working through the connection economy with freelance staff and partners means that you can be far more flexible in meeting your clients’ needs. I’m not limited by the skillsets of people within my own organisation, and I don’t have to hire to meet evolving client needs,” said Hope. “There’s an increasing willingness for freelance professionals and consultancies to white label their services and so the client experience remains just as seamless.”

She added that the freelance model she employs does require a greater level of coordination and investment in a wide pool of freelancers. One risk at hand is that your preferred partner might not be available to co-pitch or deliver work. But Hope emphasised that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Joanna Ong-Ash recently launched Bravery Communications in Singapore after more than two decades serving in-house roles at AIA, Mastercard and DBS Bank among others. When PRWeek Asia interviewed her earlier this year, she said: “I didn’t want to be part of a corporate machinery, and I didn’t want to work within an agency tied to an agency framework. So by creating my own, I have the flexibility of working within my own framework but with other agencies.”

Ong-Ash is a huge proponent of freelance talent in the region and the purpose they serve client briefs: “There is a growing pool of independent talents that are rich in their diverse perspectives and experiences who we can tap on to make an impact on the businesses that we serve.” She said that it’s no longer practical to serve businesses with a team that is akin to a one-size-fits-all approach.

She added: “Freelance talent is critical to the success of an agency. They are the new model for forward-thinking agencies.”