Sole traders: how freelancers and agencies can thrive in the new creative economy

How can agencies and freelancers thrive in the new collaborative economy?

You need only step into a coffee shop in any major city to observe that the freelance economy is thriving.

Armed with laptops and lattes, this emergent creative elite flits between projects as it does cafes, responding to the ebb and flow of the industry’s needs at a time when individual creativity is flourishing. As technology allows individuals to connect and share faster than ever before, the way ideas are bought and sold by brands and agencies is transforming.

The latest issue of The Drum explores the implications for agencies and freelancers in this new collaborative creative economy. Here, three sole traders share their motivations for going freelance, their advice for agencies on how to keep freelancers happy, and some of the bugbears of their flexible working lives.

Shirin Majid, freelance creative director and brand consultant, New York

I prefer working for smaller agencies and startups who want to break the mold. I’ve found larger agencies plug you into the traditional creative process – a machine where everyone has their specific role. I like it when everything is being figured out and re-thought and I’m brought in to help figure out the puzzle, whether that’s a creative brief or building a creative team.

My advice to agencies would be to ask freelancers what they think, and not just about their particular brief. Freelancers are incredibly valuable because of their objective perspectives and exposure to an array of agencies. They can give you fresh insights on everything from other briefs you’re working on to agency culture.

Agencies need to start treating freelancers as one of their own. If you require freelancers to work in the office, ingratiate them with the team. Make sure they have a place to sit. Invite them to grab lunch. My most positive freelance experience was as creative director at LadBible for the past year. I was treated as a full-time member of the team from day one. Whether it’s a five-day or five-month gig, it makes you invest so much more to know you’re valued as part of the team, not just ‘support’.

Adam Lowe, freelance copywriter, London

After five years of permanent employment, I made the decision to go freelance, mainly because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to work next and freelance let me ‘try out’ lots of different agencies to get a feel for the work and culture. I’m now in my third year of freelance and have been into agencies such as R/GA, VCCP, Atomic and Possible, to name a few. Making the leap was quite scary and daunting, but also probably the best decision I’ve ever made.

The work agencies do these days is so varied, and you’re unlikely to have a team who can do it all. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so it allows agencies to pull in specialists as and when they need them. Overall I think it’s a good thing and definitely the way more agencies will go. There are so many talented creatives, writers and designers out there, but agencies can only hire so many. Freelance allows them to utilize more talent on demand.

If you ‘penciled in’ a freelancer and they took a gig elsewhere, you’d be really annoyed. The same goes with freelancers if you cancel on them last-minute. Let’s just agree to either book someone or not. You can’t expect freelancers to turn down other gigs on the off-chance your pencil turns into a firm booking – it can be a lot of money to lose out on.

Tim Voors, freelance creative director, Amsterdam

12 years ago I decided to start freelancing after having learned the trade at several agencies such as TBWA, Lost Boys and Agency.com. As a creative director I became more involved with internal politics and reviewing, and spent less time creating concepts and producing great work.

In Amsterdam the industry has been changing rapidly over the past few years. Brands are working increasingly with smaller agencies on a project-by-project basis, with each new project being like a pitch. Agencies have become more network-based with strong full-time teams in accounts and strategy, but keeping a flexible network of specialist creatives close.

I believe the best freelancers should have a specialism. However, if you are a one-trick pony you won’t manage to bill many hours for your client as your specialism will likely be done quite fast. I believe the best way is to get the work based on your specialism and offer a lot more ‘sub skills’ once you are in. I’ve noticed many great agency creatives don’t last more than a year on the market as freelancer. They are simply too specialized and have become too lazy during their time working at a big agency.

To read the full feature in The Drum’s October issue, subscribe to The Drum+.

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