For over three decades Nigel Sarbutts has been the head of three PR agencies in Manchester, London and Leeds and he is now on a new mission to change the PR industry forever. Connecting clients with freelancers has in the past been a murky, unstructured world. Until now. We caught up with him to talk about his latest venture, The PR Cavalry, a platform to help match-make clients with the right freelancers and vice versa, to keep everyone happy in the game.
1. What drove you to create The PR Cavalry?
Having been in the communications industry for three decades, I realised that the freelancer is used in a very analogue way by agencies and businesses alike. They’ve historically been unsearchable. Recruitment of freelancers has, as far as I can remember, been time-consuming and haphazard, whilst the job search for freelancers themselves is often very random and involves a lot of time spent networking.
The process by which a freelancer is recruited is totally inefficient. You can have the most organised business where nothing could break their stride but then something goes wrong and the immediate rush is to throw bodies into a project to save it. The company jumps onto LinkedIn and calls recruitment consultancies and what they get back is a mess because the freelancer may not have the precise skills for the job. There is the need for something like The PR Cavalry to codify freelancers’ skills and match these skills to a specific brief set by the client.
What’s more, a much larger chunk of the workforce is freelance now. If you’re a team leader, the question you’re asking yourself is, ‘How can I meet the ever expanding list of client needs with a fixed team?’. The answer is to make a flexible team and make a decision to embrace the freelancer. And for freelancers, it would be far better to be found for their specific skills to meet a specific need rather than just who happened to be recommended by someone by chance.
2. What's the biggest lesson you've learnt from starting up The PR Cavalry?
I never anticipated the complexity of building a sophisticated website based on search algorithms. Yes, I knew it would be intricate but there’s been a lot of hardcore tech decisions made behind the scenes in order to build a site that really does something well.
3. And greatest milestone so far?
The milestone we didn’t plan for was having a client approach us with a peach of a job before we’d actually opened the shop. The client nearly fell off her seat when she knew that she wouldn’t have to go to her board of directors to make the case for an appointment with the usual 20% fee on top of this. The freelancers pay 10% for the benefit of being matched with work suited to them. We’re still building the talent bank with freelancers and we’re not seeing resistance to this model of working, which is encouraging.
4. The lack of diversity is well-documented in the PR industry. What do you think is the biggest barrier to people of colour getting in and what should businesses be doing to tackle this?
PR is bedeviled with unpaid internships, it needs to become less the preserve of the privileged, which still means an in-built bias against people of colour. I think anonymised CVs could certainly help. Deloitte have anonymised their recruitment process to become far more representative of our diverse society. At 53, I see ageism also being a barrier to entry - PR is inherently a young person’s game. This needs to change.
5. The PR world is ever changing. What do you think are some of the biggest changes we’re set to see in the future?
The sheer number and types of comms channels that PR is habitually into now beyond media relations. This creates a double edged sword, where PR is fighting for a broader range of jobs whilst trying to maintain the expertise that it stands for. We’re also struggling with the real dip in circulation of media consumption, especially regional media. Because 70% of PR is still media relations, that means we have a smaller lever to pull in reaching key stakeholders. Clients see that as becoming less impactful. The ratio of journalists to PRs is a problem too. If there are fewer gatekeepers in the media room, it’s more difficult to get the message through.
PR doesn’t do well in the evaluation debate either. We’re creating ever more frameworks and dashboards to represent outputs but are we helping to solve real business dilemmas? We’re still not forensically geared towards helping organisations to develop and question their intent and why PR is the answer.
6. What excites you about the PR industry?
After 30 years in the industry I still find it exciting, it’s changing so rapidly. I find it fascinating the many creative ways organisations respond to news in society. Lush has been in the press recently for its window campaign to highlight the issue of undercover police overstepping the mark to infiltrate the lives of activists. What Lush has done isn’t new but brands continue to create debate. And the accountability to stakeholders is interesting. Regional media’s power is falling off a cliff so how do the bodies that the media used to hold to account continue to respond to stakeholders? It changes how comms are organised.
We’re also facing a tidal wave with the gig economy growing. If we get The PR Cavalry right, we will put a dent in it.
7. Where do you get your inspiration?
I am a voracious consumer of news. I am constantly looking to the people I follow on Twitter to get knocked on the side of the head with new ideas. I love the fact that I can go onto the platform and find the new, the odd and the wonderful to keep the day interesting.
8. What's in store for The PR Cavalry this year?
We have two milestones still to come. We need to make sure the shelves are stocked enough with talented freelancers before opening up to clients so they feel that there is a broad and deep talent pool to search. And we need to make a profit. Watch this space!