Wednesday, April 30, 2008

This is what I do mum

For the past 18 years, my parents have been totally unable to explain to anyone what I do. I've variously been a corporate communications manager, a head of internal communications and, for the past eight and a half years, a corporate communications consultant.

Now much of that time has been spent on internal change programmes, and partly through client conidentiality, and partly because material pertinent to one company is immensesly boring to anyone else, it has been hard to bring them into my world and explain that I'm not a straight-forward journalist or editor, website creator or anything they'd consider a normal job.

However, over the last two years, in an effort to bring some regularity to my income - and to play back to my core strength in writing - I have been taking on more regular magazine work. This is certainly easier when having to balance my workload with the demands of a university course at the same time. And, actually, after the rollercoasters of about five years of solid change programmes, planning a magazine, interviewing people, writing it up, getting stuff signed off and seeing the production process through (though I'm actually less involved in that than I used to be) is a really rather satisfying process. It even fits in with days like today, when one child has been throwing up in the sink, the rabbit's got another vet trip and Jac is off on a course in the wilds of Yorkshire, remote from phone and email.

While the internal comms magazines still tend to stay internal, I've been writing b2b and even b2c publications for a charity and a number of corporate clients. Two have come out recently and you can see Solve - for a law firm here and Connections for a major recruitment business here.

I'm really pleased with both of these publications, and both have earned praise both from the clients and, most importantly, from their clients and potential clients.

But of course there's no time to rest on any laurels, with the next issue of Solve already underway, and more Connections just around the corner.

There's definitely something very pleasing in producing a tangible result from my communication efforts, even though these externally-focused magazines are just the tip of the Leapfrog iceberg......but at least I can show them to my mum!

Friday, April 25, 2008

There's the hourly cost, and the cost of the job

I've come to the conclusion that hourly rates are meaningless, and the only thing that matters to clients in the end is the cost of the job. Yet so many still demand an hourly rate - and, since mine comes across as quite expensive (particularly for writing jobs), I'm ever more reluctant to provide it.

One of my clients has recently moved jobs. Over the past five years, I've always quoted a project fee for his work - and nearly always come in under the original estimate. But his new employer is demanding day/hour rates for all suppliers, and up to last week, that had lost me a couple of small pieces of work.

Last week though we had a chance to discuss a piece of work and I was able to show him - and his boss - how hourly rates were meaningless.

As context to the conversation, he was talking about having to let one freelance go. Her rate seemed good and the examples of her work on her website were excellent - yet when she'd actually taken on some work for his new company, it had gone back and forth between client and writer half a dozen times before the job was finally signed off. The end result was that the final cost was rather more than expected - even though the client had refused to pay some of the hours invoiced by the writer.

He was looking to put another piece of work out when we spoke, and said he'd already had a quote from another writer/editor - five days for the work at £300 a day. My rate's somewhat higher than that, but I asked to see the brief to see if I could possibly compete. Frankly, I had doubts that I could make what seemed to be five days work make sense commercially.

When I got the brief, I couldn't see how the other writer could stretch the project to five days. Even though it would be new ground for me, the interviews were set up; there was a comprehensive brief of what was required, and the final product wouldn't run to more than a couple of thousand words.

Allowing for interviews, write-up and approvals, I priced the work at two days at my normal rate - cost-wise, less than my rival's five.

In the end, it took me a shade over a day and a half to complete the project. It was signed off with minimal changes and the client, his boss and their internal client were all extremely pleased.

At the outset, the client had looked happy to pay £1,500 for a five day job based on a low day rate. My final bill was £862.50 based on a day rate almost double my rival's - yet the client got the result they wanted three days earlier than expected.

So, now do I continue to try and quote for projects, or simply quote half my normal rate and twice the time for the job?

In the end, we're not all robots producing widgets and it's about balancing quality, speed and price.

Generally, I can produce high quality, quickly - but the clients will have to pay for it. Or I can produce the goods just as effectively a little more slowly for a little less. But what I can't do is weave the magic at high speed for peanuts.........and I'm not sure that any decent communicator can!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reaching for the stars

I've just received a new certificate marking my election as a member of the British Interplanetary Society. I didn't know I had to be elected when I sent off my annual subscription, but back came a very formal looking scroll - along with the last five months' copies of the rather excellent Spaceflight.

My reason for joining the BIS is my upcoming dissertation - cumbersomely titled at present: Rockets without warheads: how the US used weapons of mass communication to win the battle for space supremacy in the Cold War.

I'm focusing on the period from Kennedy's speech to Congress in 1961, to the final Apollo Moon landing just over a decade later and the main thrust of the piece is on the tools and techniques the US used at Cabinet, Congressional, NASA and contractor level to use the race for the moon as a lever to offset Soviet propaganda and enhance American standing among its allies and the emerging nations in the post-colonial world.

I'm starting to look at some of the obvious communication sources and also at aspects of the black propaganda emanating from the CIA, the NSC and other agencies.....and its all very compelling to a space nerd such as me.

Combining my communication and space interests for my dissertation is a no brainer'll just demand rather a large portion of my brain to get across the wealth of information that's out there.

All help and any useful steers gratefully accepted!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The only team in the bible

I'll be at Adams Park this evening cheering on Wasps as they mount a late-season charge for the Premiership play-offs. It's now 10 years since I reacquainted myself with my childhood rugby heroes, and over the past decade, the side has managed to win three Premiership titles, two Heineken Cups, a Parker Pen trophy, two Tetley's triumphs and the Powergen Cup. Twickenham has become a second home to the club and half the side is regularly away on international duty.

Wasps fans have come to expect success, yet strangely this season we might win nothing. But victory over Sale tonight and at Sarries at the weekend should set the black and gold hordes up for at least a play-off place.

Unfortunately Dave Walder (pictured) won't be part of the squad having fractured his fibula against Worcester at the weekend. Dave's one of those guys who epitomise all that's good about rugby players - skillful on the pitch, with a fantastic kicking record, and a great club ambassador off it - and was just returning to his best form when he picked up the injury. I wish him well for his recovery.

Meanwhile I'm both a rugby and footie fan, so I'll have one ear on Wycombe Wanderers' match at Grimsby in the basement of the football league. While my rugby team regularly picks up the trophies, their landlords in High Wycombe have been stuck in the Football League's bottom division for a few seasons too long. They've only been in the League for about 16 years, and I was at Wembley back in 94 to see their one and only promotion triumph. Snce then, there have been a few close-run things and now, at the sharp end of the season, the play-offs and another possible Wembley trip loom again.

If Wycombe, managed by the Scot, Paul Lambert, need any inspiration, they should look north of the border at the fantastic achievements of Queen of the South last weekend. The 'only team in the bible' - it's a reference to the Queen of Sheba - stuck four goals past Aberdeen to book their first ever Scottish Cup Final appearance - there's a cracking little video feature about the triumph of the tiny south west Scottish outfit here.

Sometimes things work out well for the underdogs.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing payments?

Ok, so I've nicked the header for this post from one of my favourite songs of 2008 - Adele's terrific Chasing Pavements (what the hell does that mean???) and corrupted it to fit the continual bane of the micro-business - getting paid for the job done.

I've just been switching money between accounts to cover payments I need to make and am currently feeling poor - but I shouldn't be. At present, I have aged debt amounting to around £5,000 and nearly all of it's from one company.

Funnily enough, it's a brilliant company to work for and one of my very favourite clients in every respect except payment. It's a very large organisation and some time ago it off-shored its accounts payable function....and that's where things started to go wrong. The resulting dislocation between those who commission the work and those who settle payments and the numbers of people involved in the chain from raising a purchase order to receipting it to reconciling that with an invoice to final settlement mean that while I know I'll get paid eventually, the process is slower than any other client and also has a tendency to fall down - not least because the payments staff are not at all proactive if there's any discrepancy between an invoice and a purchase order (I've had an invoice held up for months in the past because I charged less than the PO raised!).

The net result for me is unpredictable cash-flow and too much time wasted chasing payments.

About a year ago, someone in the company told me not to bite the hand that feeds me - no doubt after reading of my payment frustration on this blog in the past. I took heed at the time. But now feel that's not fair. They should be getting their payment system in order, not playing on the fears of freelancers that we'll lose projects a) if we stop taking on work before any purchase orders are raised (their standard, though wrong, practice), and b) making a noise when payments don't happen. Being told not to bite the hand feels ever more like being leaned on by Goliath.

Waiting on payments of £5k (some of which go back over a year) would have no impact on this company, and anyone on a regular salary wouldn't feel the impact either. But this is my salary, and pension payment and payment to a designer for a bit of work and to my bookkeeper plus insurance, bank charges and all the rest. I have no comeback on this company. Should I make any threat, they can just move on to another supplier - and I actually really enjoy the projects they put my way and have a good relationship with the people who commission me.

Taking the brunt of their internal inefficiencies beyond their direct control is very frustrating.

Of course, they're not the only company that operates in this way - far from it. Increasingly, the larger the company, the longer I have to wait for payment and the more chance there is for a cock-up along the way. I've got used to it, but it doesn't make things any better.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Happy Poisson D'Avril!

Ok, I liked the BBC's story about flying penguins this morning, but it's not a patch on this farming special, which first took to the air in 1957.