The role of the creative freelancer in the modern advertising world

How freelance creatives are thriving in modern advertising

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.

Freelancers have risen to represent 35% of the US workforce, according to a study from Upwork.

In the EU the rate is 16.1% (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and in Singapore it’s 14% (Singapore government). These figures demonstrate the same global trend: from entrepreneurs to those who are part of the so-called gig economy, freelancing constitutes a significant chunk of the economy – and particularly in marketing and advertising.

According to the Creative Industries Federation, nearly half of workers in the UK’s creative industries are freelance compared with 15% across the workforce as a whole. In 2016, the IPA’s member agencies alone hired a total of 1,727 temps and freelancers. But while it’s often portrayed as an empowering and glamorous way of life, the reality of being a freelancer is much more complex. Scratching below the surface, the root of this high demand for creative freelancers is an industry grappling to find sustainable business models, turning to temps to fill resource voids when responding to briefs that are otherwise out of their scope.

Marketing director churn was at a record high last year, according to research from executive search firm Russell Reynolds, as marketing leaders are under increasing pressure to prove return on investment from creative output. The report details that creative-led chief marketing officers are waning as financial departments become increasingly aggressive about identifying fat to be trimmed. In some industries the trend is staggering, with sectors such as retail looking particularly volatile – 48% of the top 30 US retailers had a change in marketing leadership in the past year.

So what does this look like for agencies?

Pressurized, increasingly risk-averse brands are demanding more for less as models move from ‘agency of record’ to short-term projects. In the Creative Industries Federation’s Creative Freelance report, M&C Saatchi’s head of marketing Elle Tylee explains: “We use freelancers in creative, design and production. Primarily we use them when we need specialist expertise from a team or individual. Equally, good freelance resource is useful for short periods of time where we are working on projects that are out of our scope and impact on our permanent resource.”

This change in the creative process makes an essential component of the workforce for a project-by-project business where retainers are seemingly becoming the exception, not the rule. “The brief changed a long time ago, so agencies changed the offering.

Retainers became projects and projects became agile,” says Steve Cater, communications partner at freelance platform YunoJuno. “This has totally changed the way businesses work with freelancers because the output has become so much more complicated. And with complexity comes the need for specialists.”

According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey, 90% of businesses say agility and collaboration are crucial to business success, yet only 6% say they are ‘highly agile’ today. In a bid to become more agile, brands and agencies are bypassing formal structures and going directly to creatives with the skillsets they need through freelance marketplaces on a project-by-project basis.

Brands such as Google, Skyscanner and Dell, for example, have gone directly to freelancers through Movidiam’s platform for creative content production services, while agencies turn to platforms such as YunoJuno and The Dots to source creative talent to match the brief.

Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, says: “Creative talent mobility is the key to our future prosperity. Traditionally, companies would have a full-time in-house creative team that they’d shoehorn into different projects, even if that team didn’t have the right skills to deliver those projects.

“However, with the rise of freelancing, there is a good opportunity to improve skills-matching across the industry, leading to better creative output and efficiencies for the economy as a whole.”

Creative network and agency Livity operates with an open-door policy, allowing young talent to use space and equipment free of charge with the aim of bringing artists, agency creatives, entrepreneurs and strategic thinkers into their offices on a daily basis. “We work with some of them and bring them into our teams, while others just inspire everyone else to do better,” says Katy Woodrow Hill, strategy director at the agency.

“We are always looking for diverse, interesting people from a spectrum of creative disciplines rather than searching in the same pool of agency talent. We recruit for our own creative roles but we based in Portland. “Creatives have restless, inquisitive minds, so frequently working on new projects helps generate fresh ideas, keeping clients and freelancers happy.”

Utilizing freelancers can have positive implications in terms of diversity, as more flexible working patterns enable recent parents to get back into the workplace sooner. Mixing up the team by bringing in objective outside opinions can create a positive atmosphere, provided temporary staff are properly integrated into teams and included in lines of communication. Besides the commonly cited problem of late or absent payments, which appears to be rife in the industry, a major pain point for freelancers is account directors bringing in creatives with the wrong skillset for the job and being given vague or sloppy briefs and unrealistic timelines.

“The briefs are more or less the same. The point so fluid and collaborative, who owns the idea and what is the best way to credit freelance input?

“I have worked on many projects as a freelancer that have started as someone else’s idea, and I’ve been brought in to finish off and help mold it,” says Bird. “This has also worked the other way round – I’ve come up with an idea, then I’ve seen it developed and produced by another creative team who claim it as ‘theirs’. If an agency has half their workforce as liquid talent it’s important to still credit everyone involved – whether they started it or finished it.”

Despite the frustrations of freelancers, the rise of marketplaces and networks like The Freelance Circle, YunoJuno and The Dots are democratizing the creative process by plugging workers with specialisms in and out of agencies to meet their demands in tandem with the ebb and flow of project work.

Thomas Frey, executive director and futurist at Colorado’s DaVinci Institute, notes that in the filmmaking business, freelance talent comes and goes as opportunities appear and vanish. “The movie industry has been doing this for years.

Every new project attracts writers, directors, actors, actresses, camera guys, lighting guys and makeup people for a short period of time. Once a project is finished, everyone leaves and the talent dissipates, forming around new projects. It’s a very organic process.”

Could this be what the agency of the future looks like? If brands can hire entire teams, spanning strategic, planning, creative and

administrative services, this calls into question what role an agency plays, besides aligning and organizing workers. The general consensus seems to be that agencies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but that agility is essential for survival. As Bird concludes: “Agencies need to mold and adapt to the times. They can still be great and create bad-ass work, but it’s a time of change and I’m very interested to see how the industry adapts to this new liquid workforce.”

This piece was originally published in The Drum's October 2017 issue, which can be found here.

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