The days of the Mad Men are over and agencies are grappling with the changing face of marketing and advertising. In a previous post, we mentioned that agencies are facing challenging times, but the need for strong, effective creative thinking and outputs is becoming increasingly evident with some of the world’s largest consulting firms buying independent agencies to add to their range of services.
We still, however, see agencies struggling to come to terms with a broken client-agency model that has resulted in reduced trust and increased rates of client churn.
The question remains, where do agencies go from here? The answer may lie — to the benefit of agencies, clients, and creatives alike — in the freelance market.
In Episode #12 of OneMoreQuestion, Ross sat down with Fran Luckin, Chief Creative Officer of Grey Africa, to find out more about the current state of agencies, how networked agencies are approaching campaigns, ad how freelancing may be the answer to better creative work and a more sustainable agency model.
In this post, we delve a little deeper into how freelancing has affected accessing and holding onto creative talent, and what it means for agencies and businesses.
It’s no secret that freelancing makes up a significant chunk of the creative industry. Globalisation and advances in technology have enabled workers to connect and share faster and more efficiently — allowing them to grow their networks, and take on jobs, sometimes remotely, as and when they choose.
The fact that agencies are grappling with a broken model of remuneration and low levels of trust between clients and agencies has exacerbated this, with a need to reduce costs and find more sustainable business models at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The ability to turn to freelancers to fill resource gaps and take on larger projects, sometimes requiring highly specialised skills, allows agencies to take on projects which they may previously have had to turn down, or may have taken on to the detriment of the client.
Though still fairly new in the agency sphere, the freelance model has worked in other industries, the likes of film and TV production, where a multitude of skilled individuals come together to complete a specified project and then move onto the next one as each project reaches completion.
Some agencies, especially smaller, more agile players seem to have cracked the freelance model and are benefitting from the ability to take on resources as and when they need them. Larger agencies may still need to adapt, finding their ideal working size and sourcing a strong pool of creative talent to rely on when a project calls for it.
What the freelance economy has done to agencies
Increasingly competitive markets have caused some brands to take a more conservative, risk-averse approach. This may not be in their marketing outputs, but in their relationships with agencies — preferring short term contracts over longer-term engagements.
Short-term contracts, or project-based work, don’t necessarily mean that the output changes — clients still expect the highest level of expertise and impact — and this is where there appears to be a disconnect. It becomes risky to commit to paying salaries of experts over the long term when agencies are winning contracts based on shorter-term engagements. As a result, an agile, collaborative framework becomes the norm, and this is where freelancers become essential.
To minimise risk and still deliver work of the highest quality, agencies have been forced to adopt a networked model, becoming leaner in overall structure but keeping strong, permanent teams in strategy and production, account management, and at certain levels within creative departments.
In larger communication groups, the likes of Omnicom and WPP, this has brought about more collaboration between agencies. Where previously agencies in the same group ran separately of one another and would compete for business, there has been a realisation that by selling expertise under the banner of a group and working together on campaigns, they are able to deliver much greater value to clients.
On smaller jobs, or where agencies don’t have specific knowledge or expertise, the freelance market has afforded them greater access to high-quality talent who are continuously growing their skills (at their own expense) and staying up to date on the latest trends.
The final piece of the puzzle is that senior creatives, who have been in the industry or have been freelancing for a long time have started their own micro-agencies. These agencies are leaner, with significantly lower running costs allowing them to take on work at much lower rates than their larger counterparts — expertise at a fraction of the cost. In the same way that larger agencies collaborate with each other to fill skills gaps or complete larger projects, micro-agencies are able to take on or collaborate with skilled freelancers to deliver specialised (or larger) pieces of work.
What this means for businesses and agencies
Traditionally, the cost of running a business with permanent employees has been high. It was accepted that if you wanted top talent, you had to employ people over the long term and accept the risks that accompanied higher operating costs. Companies would employ permanent, in-house creative teams that would be pushed onto projects, regardless of their specific skillsets.
Freelancing has helped shift this thinking to a leaner operating model, keeping a core, in-house team and engaging freelancers or agencies to deliver on specific objectives.
A small, in-house team should be able to deliver on your business’ most important day-to-day tasks and become experts, understanding nuances in your market. This is important as it retains structure and knowledge and maintains consistency without greatly increasing operating costs and allowing organisations to stay nimble.
Bringing in freelancers or agencies as and when they are needed can increase diversity and help push and inspire internal teams for short periods of time, bringing the most out of them and helping them break out of comfortable, set ways of doing things.
The opportunity for businesses to find the right skills for a project is also vastly improved, hiring experts for short periods of time can result in higher creative outputs and a more efficient process. Freelancers and agencies also have no emotional attachment to a product or project and are therefore able to provide an objective, outsiders perspective where teams that have been working since the inception of a project or are engrossed in a company’s culture may not be able to see the wood for the trees.
The relationship between clients and agencies is in flux. Agencies are still trying to define their role and carve out space for themselves in their client’s businesses. This becomes especially challenging when clients are able to build strong internal creative departments and have as much access to freelancers as agencies. What we have found works best is being prepared to work at a strategic level or on a sprint basis, providing an outside perspective and helping support our client’s internal teams, or supporting individuals in roles that don’t have dedicated creative departments. By doing so, we’re able to come in (over a shorter or longer period) and work toward a clearly defined goal. Once that goal is achieved, we either move onto finding the next solution or handover to our client’s internal teams, ensuring we never overstay our welcome.