5 MINUTES WITH MAEVE O’SULLIVAN
Maeve O'Sullivan, founder of freelance PR consultancy, MOScomms, spoke to Communicate about making the jump to freelance, the impact of Covid-19 and what's in store for comms post-lockdown.
What made you decide to make the switch from in-house PR to self-employed?
It was an idea I’d been circling around for quite a few years. I was working at Fitch, a retail and brand consultancy, and prior to that I’d started dabbling in freelance a little bit. The move actually happened because of something completely external – my partner got an opportunity in his job to move to Birmingham. We'd been in London for a long time and we just thought, why not? We were looking for a change and I thought this is the moment. So we did it, I left Fitch in 2018 and set up from there. I was very lucky because I had two clients from the get go who kept me very busy. So I definitely landed softly into the world of freelance, which was fantastic.
What was the biggest challenge in going freelance with MOScomms?
Most definitely learning to be my own financial accounts and learning the business of running a business. If I had some advice for anyone making the move, it is to do a few tutorials on keeping accounts and things like that. I knew some basics already, but I could have done with properly focusing myself before being in the middle of becoming a freelancer, because there's so much that's new at that point.
Longer term I needed to start marketing myself properly. I got a website together but really figuring out how to pitch my services right took a little bit of time. I thought it would be easier than it was, but you really need to find that niche. It's just finding the right way to articulate what you do and how you do that.
What are the biggest opportunities for yourself and other freelancers working in the PR industry?
I definitely felt fortunate that I'd gone through all the learning curves before Covid hit. PR and marketing departments are very often the first ones to face cuts in-house when times are tough and there is value to being an external resource. By the end of last year, companies were starting to feel more confident, realising that lockdown wasn't going to last forever and there was a vaccine. Then suddenly, they realised they hadn't been thinking about their comms for a long time. The advantage, especially right now and probably for the next few years, is businesses may not be in a position to invest in in a full time senior resource, but having someone freelance there as a guide gives them what they need without the long-term commitment.
For me, I enjoy the variety of having different clients. The clients I have now are in everything from design to business, consultancy, architecture and even a private equity fund. Obviously they're within my background, which is creative industries, advertising and design and that whole world, but there is so much diversity within that. It’s also leading me to other opportunities that I would have never had if I were still in-house. I think people should be realistic about the business side of running a business, which takes time. But there are amazing opportunities in freelance and there's a very supportive community as well. I've been involved in projects through other freelancer referrals, and likewise I've been able to pass on business to other people.
Do you think the growth in freelancers will continue post-lockdown or do you think businesses will return to in-house PR?
I think there is room for everything. As of last year there are two million freelancers in the UK and I think the real kick off for that was the economic crisis of 2008. That was the first real shift to that idea of a freelancer economy as being really significant. I think what's happened with the pandemic, we've taken another great leap forward in our understanding of using flexible resources alongside permanent. For one client I work with, part of the remit is to look at how I can support them and help build an internal team. That’s going to be interesting because I did that in my in-house role and I'm going to really enjoy doing it as an external resource.
So I think there is room for both. PR professional are the outside eyes and ears of the business, you're there to look out for their reputation and help the business understand its position in the market and in society. Being external, I am already there. I can also work really well and be an ally to internal comms teams, because it helps to have an external voice come through to validate what they already know and what they're trying to sell internally.
Which project from the last twelve months are you particularly proud of?
I work with a creative studio called Honest, who are part of a bigger group, Principle. I actually started working with them the same week the country went into lockdown. They're amazing because they stuck with me. It wasn't appropriate at the time to be going out with press releases about this, that and the other. So we had to think creatively about how to help build the studio's reputation. The founder has tons of charisma and lots of stories to tell, so we ended up creating a podcast, which for me was brand new. So I got to learn how to produce a podcast very quickly, scripting and organising guests. We're just finishing season two and it gets a different kind of conversation going about the role of brands in culture and what bold thinking means for brands, especially at a time when everyone is having to think creatively and be more agile. It’s helped the business to have a different kind of content and reason to be connecting with its audiences, potential clients and the community.
In terms of having to think more creatively, in March last year I was due to fly to Amsterdam where I work with an agency called Hooton. We developed a media-training workshop for one of their clients and I was going to fly over and run the training. Of course, all that stopped. So we came up with an online media-training course and we road-tested it with the in-house client comms team because it was specifically tailored towards the business leaders. We ended up running it very successfully over Zoom. I was worried that maybe the whole thing would get abandoned, but everyone was really willing and wanting to stick with it. I was really proud of that, as it was all hands on deck to make sure it worked smoothly - and thankfully the Wi-Fi worked!