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There’s a talent shortage. Freelancers are your friends, not foes

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By Jon Williams, Founder and chief exec

January 8, 2024 | 6 min read

The Liberty Guild’s Jon Williams reflects on how the ad industry can better overcome its freelancer aversion. Soon.

Freelance

It may be a New Year, but advertising still hasn’t changed much in decades. Same old, same old. That so many creatives are now leaving the industry shouldn’t come as a surprise. That so few are joining should worry us all. The traditional agency set-up has done nothing to look after its current staff or make itself attractive to fresh talent and is now paying the price.

Costs have been out of control for years, but agencies still have to get rid of ‘expensive’ experienced staff because they simply can’t afford them. Others are leaving broken and disillusioned with a workplace environment of toxic masculinity and blame culture.

Put yourself in the shoes of the creative. They joined the business to turn ideas into a reality - to bring their talent to the table and to create genuinely great, inventive, imaginative work. Jump to today, and many will tell you there simply isn’t time. The ability to meaningfully collaborate with your colleagues and clients to create greatness has been superseded by an emphasis on timesheets and getting projects out of the door. Ultimately, everyone and everything suffers.

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To compound the issue, there simply isn’t a queue of new intake at the door to replace those leaving. The talent is out there, but agencies are no longer an enticing, rewarding, inspiring proposition. It’s time for a reset.

Let’s talk freelance. In medieval times, they were the crème de la crème, the pinnacle of excellence, the ultra-elite of fighters who would be called upon in the knowledge that they’d come in, sort out the problem and ride off triumphantly into the sunset. They were the Free Lances. They worked for whoever they wanted to.

As I was leaving my big old network job, I excitedly explained my startup idea to a senior creative officer. A friend. Someone I rated. He raised his eyebrows and said: “Wow, so you’re going to do that with freelancers?” He sort of spat that last word and, at the same time, left it hanging in the air. That’s the battle right there. What’s the problem some people have with the word? That’s changing fast.

So much quality talent has gone freelance. And agencies now need them more than they need agencies because when you rightsize (a horrible euphemism that just means tearing the soul out of the creative department based on the bottom right number in an Excel document), the only way to cope with pitches or upwards flex is to use freelance.

But, despite this switch in the power dynamic, freelancers still aren’t respected. There are so many stories like the Black Pencil winning team, bullied into accepting 25% of their day rate by a very famous agency. Did they do their best work? Of course not. Feeling deeply disrespected, they rattled off any old rubbish and took the cash. No-one wins. Clients lose value, agencies lose respect, and talent loses money. Understand they are a team of elite troops who turn up and get shit done. They’re specialists; they have a freshness, a swagger and an enthusiasm that’s missing in many agency businesses. But how HR treats them is disgusting.

Working practices have shifted everywhere - even Hollywood accepts it. Teams flock around and then disperse when the work is done. Who wouldn’t prefer that? So why is the industry so slow to recognize?

It’s the freelancers that now need a champion and business models to accept how they work; but as usual, everyone is looking from the other end of the telescope. It should no longer be a prerequisite of a freelancer’s life to fit into the agency structure; it should be the agency structure that will have to work around a freelancer’s life.

Just like the knights who pledged their allegiance to whoever treated them the best (and I don’t mean paid the most), that independent elite does the same today. Treat them like you hate them, crush them on cost, cancel at the last minute, pay late, make them work the weekend, all of that... isn’t going to have them queuing up at your door. And that’s where you need them.

We have to unite behind this very real call to arms. We can only make advertising fit for purpose by working together, appreciating each other’s strengths and being flexible enough to allow new ways of working which enhance everything we do. Treat freelancers as friends, not foes. Oh, and charge for IP, not time.

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