This 20-Something Communications Pro Nearly Tripled Her Salary By Becoming a Consultant
Want to make more money at work? Of course you do. For our series The Top Up, Canadians across different industries tell us exactly how much they earn—and how they navigated every raise, promotion and job change to get it. Each month, a different executive shares their journey and their best advice for how you can better negotiate your salary, too. This month, a Vancouver-based communications consultant tells CB how she took a leap to land a significant pay increase.
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Current job title: Communications consultant
Industry: Tech PR
First full-time job salary: $30,000 in 2019 as an editorial coordinator for a content marketing agency
In university, I did a bachelor of business administration in professional communications, and part of that program involved a two-month unpaid editorial internship. So in the summer of 2018, I interned at a content marketing agency for school credit. When that ended, the agency hired me as a contractor at $14 an hour for 20 hours a week while I finished my last year of university. I fact-checked and copyedited every document they produced, ensuring the writing aligned with the company’s style guides.
When I finished school in May 2019, the agency offered me an editorial coordinator position with a salary of $30,000. I wanted to negotiate, but I was so young and too scared to lose the opportunity. I’d heard horror stories about people not getting jobs for seven months after graduating with a comms degree. So I accepted the job, and figured I’d stay in editorial and pivot to PR later. I thought about becoming an independent PR consultant in the future. My dad was a consultant who worked with power utility companies and he talked about how much he enjoyed working for himself. But I knew I needed to get some on-the-job experience before I could do that.
In my new role, I did social media management, edited slide decks, supported business development and helped with RFPs. The agency had a range of clients, but most of the accounts I worked on were B2B tech companies. I’ve always been interested in technology. As a kid, I would stay up watching YouTube videos about quantum computing. But I was bad at math and science, so I figured this was a good loophole for me to work in tech.
First raise: $2,000 in 2020, bringing salary to $32,000
I quickly realized that $30,000 was not enough to live on in Vancouver. So I got a second job working at the front desk of a fitness studio for 12 to 15 hours a week, earning minimum wage, which was about $13 at the time. When Covid hit, the studio closed, so I worked at a coffee shop on the weekends, doing two eight-hour shifts for $14 an hour plus about $25 a day in tips.
At the one-year mark of working full-time for the agency, I had an annual review with the CEO, chairman and CFO of the company. Prior to the meeting, I told my manager that I wanted to ask for a raise. She was super supportive and advised me to make a business case for my raise, so I put together some measurable results to show my impact at the company. Then I did some research and found a study from Van City Bank about the living wage being $45,000 a year in Vancouver at the time. So I decided that’s what I would ask for. I wrote a script and practiced it with my manager and my parents.
I presented my findings at the end of my annual review and asked for $45,000. It was nerve-wracking. I was making my case to three C-suite executive men in their 40s and 50s. Thankfully, it was over Zoom because of Covid, which helped mitigate my nerves. They were very nice about it but they didn’t get back to me for four months. I followed up with my manager every week and with the executives every month. By the fall of 2020, they finally offered me a raise of $2,000. I was really upset. Obviously, I accepted the raise, but at that moment I thought, “I need to leave.”
Second full-time job salary: $55,000 in 2020 with a 2 per cent bonus as an associate at a tech PR firm
I started looking around for other roles in the late fall of 2020. This was the beginning of the Great Resignation era—it was a job seeker’s market. I kept talking to my manager, who I was still close with. She knew I was looking for another job and was really supportive. I remember her saying, “I want you to make as much money as you can.”
She connected me to a friend with a boutique PR firm that was looking for an associate. Someone new to PR would typically start as a coordinator, but my manager helped me finesse my resume so that I could go in at the associate level. For example, we highlighted the projects I did that would apply to an associate role in PR. I had three interviews with the company. I presented them with a salary expectation of $55,000 to $60,000 and they offered me an associate role at $55,000. I was so excited. I could finally stop working side jobs. In retrospect, that’s not even much money to live off of in Vancouver, but going from $32,000 to $55,000 felt life-changing. I’d also get a 2 per cent bonus if the company hit our revenue targets for the year.
They offered me the job on a Friday and gave me the weekend to think about the offer. The role came with 10 days of vacation, which was five days fewer than my previous job. My dad suggested I negotiate for more vacation days—I hadn’t realized you could do that. On the Monday following, I responded over email saying how appreciative I was of the salary but that I’d like 15 vacation days a year since that’s what I had at my previous role. They said they typically don’t do that at the company, but they were happy to do it for me. It was the first time I asked for something and got it, which felt good.
As an associate, I worked under an account manager and compiled media lists, researched angles for media pitches, drafted press releases and sat in on client calls to take notes and give media relationship updates. After a few months, I started to lead small accounts by myself. I was the support person and the manager, creating strategies and executing them. I continued to work mostly with B2B tech clients, such as tech industry associations, early-stage start-ups and community organizations.
Third full-time job salary: $50,000 in 2021 with a 2.5 per cent bonus as an associate at a tech PR firm
I had job alerts set up on my LinkedIn because I was curious about what was out there. I wasn’t looking for another job at the time, but an opening for an associate role came up at a tech PR company that I admired. I applied for the job, went through rounds of interviews and got an offer of $50,000 with a 2.5 per cent bonus if the company hit revenue targets.
Even though it was a pay cut of $5,000 from my previous role, the new agency was bigger and I would have more opportunity to move up the ladder quickly. I didn’t negotiate any of the terms because back then I was still worried that asking for more would jeopardize the job offer. My responsibilities were very similar to my last position, except I never led my own accounts. I just contributed to other accounts as part of a team.
Next raise: $5,000 in 2021 as a senior associate, bringing salary to $55,000
About four months into my role, the company offered me a new position. They said I had been excelling and wanted to put me in a senior associate role with a $5,000 raise. I think they valued me as an employee and wanted me to grow in the company. I had a great relationship with the company founders.
I didn’t negotiate the offer, which I now regret. At that time, I was still in the mindset of continually trying to prove my worth and being too conservative, so I likely left money on the table. Today, I believe that any time someone offers you a new position, there’s always room for negotiation.
Second raise: $15,000 in 2022 as an account manager, bringing salary to $70,000
Throughout my time with this company, I was very vocal about wanting to be in a leadership role. My next step would be becoming an account manager. I wanted to get more experience with client-facing tasks. I liked talking to people and networking. I also saw the value of meeting with companies, making connections and building my personal brand. My manager was very supportive and put me on a three-month action plan with specific KPIs to hit, like getting a certain amount of media coverage per month and attending industry events.
I did research on Glassdoor and saw that PR account managers were getting between $70,000 to $90,000. I figured I’d still be junior in that role, so I decided that $70,000 was the number that I wanted. I knew I was hireable and felt more confident negotiating. Around this time, another agency in Vancouver reached out and wanted to hire me at $90,000. I was a bit naive and felt loyal to the company I was with. I would have felt bad for leaving. Plus, I really did like it there and was learning a lot.
I did use the job offer to my advantage, though. I decided to tell someone that I trusted at the company, who was in a VP role, about it. I didn’t know for certain that they would get the information back to the right people, but I I had a hunch they might.
My company ended up offering me $62,000 for the promotion. When it came time to negotiate, I told them I was really appreciative of the new role and excited to keep growing at the company, but I wanted to get closer to $70,000 because that number fit with my value and experience.
I think they were surprised I countered right away. They said they would have to discuss it internally. They came back the next day with the $70,000 that I asked for, which was really validating.
As an account manager, I became the point of contact for a client and managed their services. I ran all the client calls, set and sent agendas, negotiated for more budget and pitched new ideas to increase our services. I also worked on strategy and managed the team of coordinators and associates working on the account.
Current income: $205,000 as an independent PR consultant
At the end of 2022, someone really important to me passed away very suddenly. It really rocked me. I was doing some soul searching and my company had a professional development platform where I could talk to a career coach, so I decided to take advantage of that. She asked me: “Now that you’re a manager, what do you want to do next?” I knew I wanted to progress and have more responsibility. I thought it might be time to look around and see what other opportunities were out there. So I set up informational interviews with people in roles that I was interested in, like tech sales and in-house communications.
The third informational interview I had was with an independent tech PR consultant to talk about what it would be like to start my own consulting business. She said: “Your experience is perfect. I think you’re ready.” That was the push I needed. The loss that I experienced that year made me stop caring about being scared of failure or what other people would think. I thought, “Life is short. I’m just going to do it.” A few months before I gave notice at the PR firm, I started building my business in the evenings and on the weekends by creating a website, setting up my incorporation and booking my first business development trip to Toronto. I gave my company four weeks’ notice.
While I was building my business, I reached out to people in my network who were also PR consultants. One of them told me he was in desperate need of a subcontractor. He signed me on a retainer working three hours a day for $75 an hour, which amounts to about $6,000 a month. That was basically what I was earning full-time in my last role before tax. It was the perfect safety net to start off on my own. I was so excited about the potential for what I could do with this new opportunity. Now I just needed to find clients to fill the rest of my time.
I announced on LinkedIn that I was open to work and the referrals started coming in. That’s how I got my first client—an old friend who had a start-up and needed to prepare a big announcement. It was my first time setting my rates so I asked other consultants what they typically charged and how their hourly rates compared to a retainer. When calculating my quote, I included my estimated hours for each aspect of the project. I landed on $5,000 for about 35 hours of work.
Since then, I’ve taken on two regular clients on monthly retainers that range from $2,500 to $3,500 a month, depending on their needs. I’ve also increased my hours and rate for that first subcontractor role. It fluctuates based on need. But each month I’m invoicing him between $10,000 and $13,000 for about 5 hours of work per day. If everything stays the same with my retainer clients and that subcontractor work, I’ll earn $205,000 by the end of year. I feel lucky to be in this position, and proud of myself for going for it. It was high risk, high reward.
I have way more autonomy now. I get to pick the clients I’m working with, and I get to do relationship-based sales and take on discovery calls, which is something I wasn’t able to do when I was working as an account manager. I enjoy leaning into these different parts of being a consultant and seeing what happens next.
Best negotiation tip: Find sponsors, not just mentors
A mentor is somebody who’s willing to give you their time and advice. But a sponsor is somebody who will put themselves on the line to help you get ahead. My manager at my first full-time job at the content marketing agency was a sponsor—she taught me how to vouch for myself and ask for what I want, and she introduced me to connections that helped me get subsequent jobs. It was so helpful early in my career. Now, I try to pay it forward and be a sponsor for people I work with.