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29th October 2015

Three Years Freelance: 10 Things I’ve Learned

Three years ago today, after a thoroughly enjoyable early career with several businesses I still admire, I bit the bullet, went freelance, and sowed the seeds of what was to become Zetteler Creative Publicity. People still ask me what made me do it, why I did it then, who helped along the way, and what advice I would give to someone who wanted to become a freelance publicist – so here goes.

Disclaimer 1: This is all fairly specific to what I do and the circles I work in, but there are, I hope, some ideas in here that apply to other working worlds too.

Disclaimer 2: Bear in mind it could all have been down to luck.

When you're a freelancer, or planning to make the jump, it can feel like you’re going it alone, in the dark, in a cave, but in reality, you’re just part of a new team. You don't have a boss; you have loads (they’re the people who pay your invoices) and although you may not be working with the same people every day, you will be working with an ever-changing group of interesting individuals who are depending on you. So although it might seem like you'll have no motivation to work, no framework to structure your life and no one out there to help you, you will. They’re the people you've met you’ve agreed to do something for and, shit, you’d better deliver. There's your motivation, right there.

One of my favourite things in the world is when someone looks me up and down and says "Really? You work in PR?” I'm a jeans-and-jumper kind of person. I'm also a really hard-working person. They're not mutually exclusive. Red lipstick and shoulder pads do not make me better at my job – in fact they make me feel like a fake. You can be a serious person and wear jeans. You can communicate ideas and do all the things that make your heart beat faster with holes in your shoes (I'll get them fixed). My job has never been about me, what I look like, what I wear or how I do my hair  – it's about those makers, doers, dreamers and believers – and I hope I am allowed to share those goose bumps and heartbeats without a twinset.

If you're working with interesting people who are making good things for the right reasons, then all you need to do all day is tell the truth. Don't get tempted to make things up or gild the lily – that isn't PR, that's bullshit. It's why most people out there in the world hate 'PRs' and why I rarely tell anyone I am a PR person. I hate the associations of the term, because it’s not representative of who I am, what I do or what I believe. Of course you need to distil the thoughts and ideas of the client and create a pitch, conversation or release from the bits that you know will be of interest to the writers you've come to know, or whom you admire... but it's still the truth! Say it with film, imagery, events, experiences, humour, whatever – don’t be a bore and do things one way and one way only, but keep the truth at the heart of what you do. Prove them wrong: this job can be done without making up stuff – and if it can’t then ditch the client – they're just not doing anything of worth. Trust your gut and be trustworthy.

There are loads of articles online about self-made millionaires and successful people patting themselves on the back for being the sole creators of their success. They’re mostly untrue. If you're working 23 hours out of 24, then someone is feeding you, washing your clothes, hanging out with your relatives and making sure the world is turning while you're busy being a ‘genius'. Take a step back, thank the people who enable you to live your dreams, congratulate your friends, pimp out your peers as they're probably working as hard as you, and thank the people you outsource some of the load to. They make it all possible and make it all worth it. Don't do things expecting reciprocation – that's a depressing motivation – and be aware that there are probably loads of people you don't know well enough to acknowledge their role in making your features run, your events fun and your life your own to design. Feed the system, see the big picture and support others whenever you can. 

It seems obvious, but when you're fulfilling your dreams, people assume that you're doing it for fun and that favours are the main currency. Yes, we'll all help our friends and we'll all stay up all night to make something work, but there has to be a limit. I've always paid everyone (or seriously tried to) for everything: editors, tech people, designers, useful mates with cars, interns. I prefer it that way. They can do favours for me another time when my life or happiness depends on it, but until then, I enjoy paying people for their skills and time; it removes confusion, keeps things clean and saves friendships, I'm sure of it. Unless you're a charity, of course, but although there's a lot of good will in this, it isn't charity.

I speak to a lot of people (you know who you are) who hear the words "Can I just pick your brains?" every day. But just about all of them got to where they are by doing, working, meeting, being fun, being kind, being enthusiastic and not by spending all day asking other people who would be good for this and that, where to go and what to say. Work it out; it's liberating. Of course ask for help where you need it, but be careful about those questions and make sure that person feels rewarded: take them for a drink, send a card, send a book, send flowers if you like, or ask them if there is anything you could ever help them with (pimping out their shows/articles/features on social media), but make it a two-way process or you'll bleed all your connections dry – everyone will help, but only for so long.

In all honesty, being a freelancer is fun. Being a business owner is stressful and intimidating, but it's still fun. After a few false starts, I now have a team I'm really proud of, who are growing by the day, are nice to be with and who use their own initiative to make my business much better than it could ever be with just me alone. Work is work and it is serious, but it can also be fun – it definitely is for me. I choose clients I like, who are doing interesting things, and I share their beautiful products or ideas with inspiring writers and journalists who are keen to hear and write about them. What a lovely position to be in. You're allowed to laugh – your ability to smile and have a nice time in no way reduces from your ability to be a serious person and deliver when you need to.

Work with good people. If it feels wrong because a client is a pushy chancer, they're working in a way that offends your moral fibre, or they just don't listen to anything you say, step away. The money will not be worth it, it'll leave you demoralised and that will affect not just that particular project, but everything you’re working on. Make less cash in the short term, but get up every day without a feeling of dread. If you're a publicist, then your natural enthusiasm for life, art, design, everything, is part of what you do, and if someone is sucking that joy from within you, it’s very dangerous. You can't fake this; and if you are doing, then what’s the point? Do something else.

(Disclaimer 3: I am rubbish at this one.) Enjoying what you do can make the figures a bit of a blur. But the 9,000 emails, FB messages, text messages and Twitter DMs I get every week asking me to tell everyone I know about something or other are time-consuming to wade through. Creating relationships with writers and editors is not an awful job by any stretch, but accessing people and nurturing relationships requires a lot of investment in terms of both time and money (all the lunches and coffees and tickets and subscriptions add up fast). In publicity, like all relationships, your professional capability is built on who you are as a person and how you work with someone else at a very basic human level. There is value in that. If your potential new client doesn't recognise that, then that's fine, let them go and communicate their idea themselves. If it’s really good and they have the time, then perhaps they'll succeed, in which case they didn't need you anyway – then the world is just as it should be.

Now for the big finale: everything is interesting. Every person, every sight you see, every place you go, there is something fascinating. Even if I see a bad show or a 'boring' film that didn't pique my interest that moment, then I still learned something about my tastes, about someone else's creative process, about how different I am from other people. And that's bloody interesting. If your clients are interesting too, and you spend all your days finding out who they are and what they believe, then, wow, what a life this could be.

I am sure I'm divulging nothing new here but I think telling the truth, having a nice time, treating people fairly and knowing your worth are so essential to this job that it seems worth repeating.

Happy days. Today and every day. For another three years, and beyond.

Sabine x


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