Monday, January 28, 2008

Challenger: 21 Years On

It's worth reflecting for just a moment today that it's 21 years since the Space shuttle Challenger disintegrated as it hurtled towards orbit killing all seven astronauts on board. The BBC tell the story much better than I can here.

Perhaps this was NASA's lowest low, and showed up the Shuttle for the poor compromise craft that it is, and more damningly, amply displayed NASA's disfunctionality in the decades after the moon landings.

I wonder if the anniversary will even merit a mention in today's news outlets?

Back to business

I'm really glad that the new year hangover has finally shaken out and that Britain finally seems to be back to business as usual.

For whatever reason, it was a really slow start to the year and business only really took off again last week. It probably didn't help that my phone line was out of action for three days. But that aside, most clients and business contacts I spoke to weren't exactly rushing to get new projects on track in the first couple of weeks of 2008.

Last week the pace began to pick up, bringing immediate work; remedial action on some very ancient work; the prospect of additions to some fairly recent work; plans for the next step on some ongoing work and two leads that look promising and have required some quite detailed follow-up. So, from having the time to languorously read my Masters text books for a week, I've gone head-down into hyper-work mode in the last six days. Added to that I played squash for the first time in about eight years yesterday......and then, because the weather was so gorgeous here, followed it with a game of tennis.

So, today there's lots of writing to be done, but my whole body aches every time I move proving it's impossible for a 43 year old to go from couch potato to athlete overnight.

One nice piece of post that arrived today was the latest issue of Connections which I write large chunks of for Badenoch & Clark. It covers issues around the recruitment field and is an interesting one to write. While this one's not up on their website yet (it's issue 4), the first two are, and can be viewed here.

Anyway, back to the grindstone now - and hopefully a bit more regular posting on the blog.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sod's law!

I spent a good chunk of this afternoon emailing companies who might like to use my services - some know me, but others were more or less a 'cold call'.

Now I wouldn't expect an immediate response from anyone - but you never know......

So, I was less than best pleased when I went to use the business line late this afternoon and was met with just a hiss and a crackle. I called my line from my mobile....and was diverted straight to voicemail.

I registered the fault online and four hours's still being investigated.

Somehow, the law of sod always kicks in just when it's least wanted.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

All 'freelancers' aren't the same

I've had one of those infuriating exchanges this afternoon with an agency looking to bring in freelance talent to help with their projects.

I'm always looking to expand my comms network and have had a couple of conversations with this agency before. So I responded to the person putting out the call, explained a little about my background and the kind of projects I'm currently - and previously - have worked on.

It must have sparked a little interest as she came back almost immediately and asked my date/hourly rates.

Now I'm probably upper quartile for writing/editing but cheap for consultancy - I sent back some rates but explained that I'd far rather quote on a project basis as I work a lot quicker than many others in my situation. How do I know that? Mainly from a year where I've commissioned a lot of writing from other sources - and have been gobsmacked by how long it takes some people to produce the goods (or how little they seem to think merits a day's pay).

The contact came back almost as quickly stating they paid about a third of my day rate to freelancers - and was I still interested?

No! No! A thousand times no!!!!

When will agencies realise that they have to treat freelancers as individuals and actually marry the skills on offer to the projects they're handling. Freelancer skills can't simply be commoditised. We have different experience and skills to bring, and judging people only on price brings everyone down to a 'word rate' which takes no account of the insight an individual brings to a job.

If we were making widgets to a set formula, then fine.

But comms isn't like that and while agencies select talent on price alone, the only people who suffer are clients.

Now not all agencies are like that - but in the UK at least, too many still are.

It's more effort to get work directly from new sources - but I keep coming back to the thought that it's so much more satisfactory than working through an agency whose goals are maximising their own profits while minimising their costs.

Funny enough, if this agency invested a little more time in selecting their freelances, they'd probably not spend a whole lot more and gain far higher client satisfaction.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Back to student life

I'm off to Brunel shortly to hit the library and also drop off my fourth essay.

Essay writing has been, perhaps, the hardest element of my return to academia - quite surprising really as I've made my living or the last 20 years from stringing words together in one shape or form. But that's part of the problem.

One of my modules last term was on Globalisation - a fascinating and often disturbing issue, since what emerged from 12 weeks of discussion is an impression of continued US hegemony, providing an environment for big business to get bigger at the expense of the developing world. My tutor was a guy called Nafeez Ahmed and while he remained suitably above partisanship in the classes, his extremely well articulated views - found
here make compelling reading.

Anyway, I've had real trouble hitting the right level of academic rigour in my essay writing - for 20 years, I've written journalistically, either telling a story from whatever angle suits the publication, or editorialising where my views mattered. Academic writing is so different. I'm reading for a Masters, so what matters is not my views at all, but my ability to summarise an argument and replay it using the voices of those already recognised in the field. My tendency is to summarise journalistically; to simplify the debate too much without sufficient referencing and too often to polemicise. Only four essays in do I feel I'm even beginning to get the hang of both what and how I should be writing.

Aside from the work, my impression is that students have changed a lot too - and not necessarily in a good way. there's a core of us in each seminar who keep the discussion going - and aren't afraid to throw in opinions even if we're ultimately proved wrong. But more than half the class say nothing - which seems a huge waste of the opportunity for debate offered. Even more strangely, there has been a significant number of students who have hardly shown up for classes at all, despite the fact that they're meant to be compulsory. while in my first life as a student, i wasn't the greatest lecture attender, I never missed a seminar or tutorial . Back in the '80s, I was privileged to attend university. Now I get the impression that students feel they're pretty much owed a degree once they've paid the fees. Somehow, the course has become a transactional arrangement, and that's a bit depressing for me.

Allied to this change in attitude, the other thing I notice on campus is how rude people are. Perhaps it's because I'm old enough to have fathered most other students at Brunel (though I would have had to have a pretty fast bike!), but I'm struck on a daily basis by how 'polite society' seems to have disappeared. if I hold open a door, 10 people push past in either direction; people walk straight at anyone coming in the opposite direction and barge past rather than stepping out of the way. Common courtesy is rarely, if ever, met with any thanks and there's a distinct surliness among too many undergrads and even post grads. Maybe we were all like that 25 years ago too - but I distinctly feel that there's a lack of respect not just for elders, but for each other among my young student contemporaries on campus today.

Anyway, 'old git' rant over.

Finally, I'm enjoying the US race for the White House, and recommend
Justin Webb's blog. It's amazing how the world's one remaining superpower has such a weird and convoluted election process which ensures the current incumbent is a lame dog for at least a year or more of their presidency - who's even vaguely interested in Bush now, when Hilary and Barack, Mike and Mitt and all the others are wheeler-dealering around various cold bits of Uncle Sam's back yard?

I picked up my Hilary 2009 badge in Washington DC last year and I'm still with Hil. Following the disastrous lurch to the right the US has experienced with 'Dubya', I'm really hoping the Democrats get in this time. I think they have the best chance of this with Clinton, since I'm worried about Obama's inexperience and also worried that if he get the Democrat ticket, he'll prove unelectable at a national level where I'm not sure that ultra-conservative middle America is actually ready for a black president. A woman in the White House is a big step: a black man may prove a step too far and let in the Republicans. that would be a travesty.

My 'dream ticket' would be Clinton for President and Obama learning his trade as VP. Trouble is, the only truly statesman-like Democrat at the moment is Al Gore - and he shows no signs of entering the fray.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Out with the old and all that

So it's January 2nd and I'm back at my desk though I can't say I'm really working. My three kids are much in evidence around the place today and most of my clients are still off so it's a chance over the next couple of hours to clear the mountain of 'pending' that piled up during a very busy December before the pressure to entertain my offspring means work has to take a second place to Christmas holiday activities.

Christmas and New Year passed off pretty well here and this this very short lull before the grindstone gets turning again has given me a bit of time to reflect on the good and bad parts of 2007.

The pluses

Leapfrog has been busier than in the two previous years with a good variety of work mixing b2b publication work with change projects and tactical internal comms projects. I spent a lot of time with one particular client, but for once managed to keep my other work going in parallel without any client work suffering.

I've had some of my history writing published in BBC History Magazine and am working on a commission for a publication detailing the secret role of one of the UK's stately homes during WW2.

I've embarked on an MA in International Relations at Brunel University , and while it's tougher than anything I do in work, and has taken just about every spare hour I have in the week just to keep up with the reading, it really has given me a new spark. After probably five years of feeling in a bit of a rut about work, I'm finally seeing real possibilities to expand into new areas - and perhaps take a slightly different direction once the course is complete.

On the margins

My TV wannabe-ness got me onto the BBC's Mastermind. It was a fabulous experience and I felt great just to get through the selection process and into the famous black leather chair. But once there, nerves and a slightly daft selection of specialist subject combined. While I was never going to win the heat, I didn't do as well as I could or should, so left the studios in Manchester a little disappointed with my own performance.


One downside of being a microbusiness has been having to turn down work. For the first time in three years I've been approached for projects I simply didn't have the capacity to fulfil. some I was able to pass on to associates, but I simply had to knock back a few other opportunities. 2007 was certainly the year when a couple of clones would have been very useful.

Another downside of being stretched workwise and by the MA was having to give up my CiB involvement for the time being. The final straw for this was the huge apathy within the organisation for making the changes necessary for it to remain relevant to the communications industry. There are a few people who do a great job to keep CiB going - but it's all too few. For a year, I was part of a membership group that delivered very little. Partly this was the perennial problem of a volunteer organisation: too little time and little money to back plans. But more so it was down to a much wider apathy. Initiatives got little support and most members simply wanted to get everything spoon-fed without making any effort to put anything back in. Around 70 people out of over 1100 could be bothered to vote in council elections, and when just 62 participated in a CiB-sponsored communications survey in the Autumn I really felt I was wasting my time. I had little enough of that time available anyway, so putting CiB on the back burner wasn't hard.

Finally, 2007 saw the usual tale of projects that started but got pulled; late payments and mounting costs. I'll need to review my rates early this year, since they haven't really changed for rather too long now, while all of my costs have spiralled. The present government has made it harder and more expensive to run a business, and too much of my time is spent on bureaucracy when I should be earning money. We may well face a consumer recession this year, and I'm genuinely apprehensive about how the credit crunch will affect this distant link on the business food chain.

However, I'm going into 2008 with a good pipeline, strong contacts and enough nous to get me through any potential tough times.

Anyway, I hear the call of squabbling kids....