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Agency Culture Freelance Marketing

Freelancer cuts: your agency’s loss is the client’s gain

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By Dan Salkey, Co-founder

March 15, 2024 | 6 min read

Ad agencies better start treating their freelancers better. Clients are more than willing to snap up this talent. Small World’s Dan Salkey explains.

A boss firing staff

With Publicis Groupe recently deciding to cut independent talent (freelancer) spending by 27% and Mark Read prophesizing more cuts to the independent talent base at WPP, it is clear the industry’s attitude to these workers is naive, dismissive, and reminiscent of that thing ostriches do when they get scared.

Ultimately, these cuts are an IR35-shaped cover-up for talent cutbacks across the board as the infamous era of efficiency continues. It also cemented my belief that ‘freelance’ talent has a perception problem. A perception problem that will ultimately injure agencies’ ability to act with agility at a time when they most need it. Let me explain.

So, first of all, it’s not just independent talent falling by the wayside. Headcounts are being cut under the guise of ‘reorganizations’ left, right and center. From Dentsu to Interpublic Group, tech innovations like AI are the latest tools being used to scrape subpar or expensive talent from out-of-network agencies - and yes, that also means some freelancers.

But if we look at the independent talent market as a whole, it’s actually booming. More than half (54%) of marketing leaders say they have more freelancers than ever on their teams, according to a survey by talent platform Fiverr Pro. Ironically, of the marketing leaders who conducted layoffs, 83% turned to freelancers to fill the newly created skill gaps. Ostensibly, rather than being cut, independent talent is actually being flown in to fill in for redundancies like some kind of Wacom tablet totting SAS.

The real trend we should be worrying about is the increasing talent imbalance. The US birth rate has been declining for decades, as have most developing countries. This means there are far fewer people entering the workforce. And those that are don’t want to work in the current model. Therefore, the very best talent in the market now is all we have. That talent is increasingly looking to be independent (see above).

Contrary to the opinion of a few, the very best independent talent has never been busier. We at Small World can attest to that. The interesting thing is where they’ve been busiest. They’re increasingly being tapped up for lucrative in-house contracts at the likes of Google, Netflix and Meta. Those businesses are getting better at running agency setups, although they’re still not totally there.

And this is the real threat. Do the math with me. Organizations worldwide are cutting talent across the board but paradoxically still need access to star talent. That star talent is increasingly going independent. Clients are gobbling up the talent agencies are cutting. Yet another small example of the generally poor treatment of independent talent industry-wide. As a result, that talent won’t be there when they’re needed - they’ll be working for Zuckerberg.

So, how do agencies compete with the gold-tipped fangs of the FAANGs? Well, Small World conducted a talent survey with a large cohort of our roster, the findings are due to be released later this year. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the top-line themes.

Cash wasn’t nearly as high a priority in terms of what they wanted from a client relationship. Yes, being paid fairly and on time matters, but it’s a bare minimum.

What they really want is variety, ownership and freedom. Variety of roles that only the best agencies can offer. Ownership of work - too often independent talent are called in for a pitch only to win it but be dropped afterwards.

Even worse, they sometimes create award-winning work for an agency with no credit when the awards ceremony comes around, as the agency fears embarrassment.

Freedom means working how, when, and where they want, as long as they deliver. COVID gave us hybrid working, but that doesn’t mean office mandates. It’s stopping us from unlocking the top 1% of talent worldwide.

There are simple changes we can all make to outcompete in-house agencies in attracting the very best creative talent, independent or otherwise.

At their best creative shops and agencies are Willy Wonka-style factories (not that one in Glasgow) that draw in mavericks who wouldn’t work anywhere else. The architecture of those factories just needs to shift as styles and sensibilities change.

In summary, is cutting ‘freelancers’ a growing trend for network agencies? Maybe. Is it emblematic of a freelancer perception problem? Yes. Is it to the industries’ detriment? Most definitely.

The future is freedom.

Dan Salkey is the founder and strategy partner at Small World, a creative consultancy that builds curated super-teams from a roster world beating traditional and non-traditional independent talent.

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