Freelancer, interim or independent consultant: what’s the difference and why does it matter?

By Andy M Turner

When I first became an independent consultant in 1998 it felt slightly pioneering. People frequently asked me when I was going to get a proper full-time job again, assuming what I was doing was a stop-gap measure until I jumped back on the employment bandwagon.

Since that time, thousands more people have chosen self-employment: some of their own volition; others out of necessity. The result is that marketing departments and agency teams have woken up to the advantages of flexible resourcing and many now include people who describe themselves variously as freelancers, interim managers or consultants. Here’s how I define each one.

Freelancer

Generally speaking, in marketing agencies, these people are client-facing staff at executive and manager level; occasionally account directors. In-house, they are often skill-specific working on a defined projects like special event management, CRM or business development.

Some are committed career freelancers but many are simply filling time while looking for their next permanent role. Make sure you know the difference, because it’s possible you’ll be left in the lurch if that ideal job comes along.

On the plus side, you can ‘try before you buy’ if you’re looking to hire staff at the level your freelancer operates. Freelancers are there to do your bidding just like payroll staff and will usually stick around for as long as needed.

But they are more inclined to walk away if they don’t like how they’re being treated, or if a better, more lucrative offer arises. They often come via an agency (that you pay), usually work on your premises and come with a standard day or hourly rate that’s pro-rata to the average salary for their experience level.

Interim

These people are usually manager level and above, and may also have worked in-house. They’re more likely to be career interims rather than filling time between permanent jobs, but it’s still wise to check. If they have a limited company and are VAT registered, that gives you some clues.

Interims are often specialists called in for specific, time-limited projects (e.g. change communications) lasting anything from three to 12 months, sometimes longer. These projects may be tightly-defined but a good interim will usually want to do their own situation analysis and have a say in what the solutions/success factors should be.

They are not there to say yes to everything you ask them to do, so expect firm, diplomatic resistance to project ‘scope creep’. They are motivated by landing in new, challenging situations, getting the job done well, then moving on to the next one.

Day rates for interims start at about £200 although you may find rates are lower outside London and the South East. There are people in my network who earn significantly more than this, and a few who would expect to negotiate fees based on tightly defined outcomes – value-added fees, rather than day rate remuneration. Interims sometimes use specialist resourcing agencies to find work but many are highly-networked and rely heavily on referrals. 

Independent consultant

This cohort is almost exclusively senior level. They tend to ‘hunt and eat what they kill’, rarely relying on specialist resourcing agencies. They often overlap with smaller marketing agencies to work for clients directly but those who have the right experience also offer specialist support to agencies too.

They might mentor or coach senior staff, or provide a neutral perspective on some key aspect of running the agency/marketing department or managing a challenging client or situation. They have no career aspirations with your firm so will be dispassionate; maybe disarmingly frank.

Don’t be surprised if these people negotiate their fees based on anticipated value added. And always remember when you meet them that you are walking into a business-to-business contract discussion, not a job interview.

Understanding these differences allows every organisation to make smarter flexible marketing resource decisions, and ultimately to achieve better outcomes from their expenditure on off-payroll staff.

Rising demand for marketing services and digital expertise, plus a dearth of talent requires skill at navigating this environment - if you want to avoid the inevitable collisions.   

Andy M Turner is an independent consultant specialising in B2B public relations. He has worked extensively with freelancers, interim managers and other consultants, and has also served as an interim account director at Havas PR. You can follow him on Twitter @andymturner