Though freelancers have long been a part of the agency workforce, their numbers are swelling as shops look to staff up or scale down based on the size of the new-business pipeline. With clients' marketing budgets rallying after a recession that led to the layoff of thousands of full-time staffers, freelancers are shouldering much of the workload at crunch time for a project or pitch.
"We took a lot of costs out when we had to three years ago," said Andrew Benett, CEO of Havas' Arnold Worldwide. But now "the pace of pitching is picking up, and agencies don't have extra people sitting around looking for things to do," he added.According to Ad Age 's latest Agency Report, revenue growth has outpaced staff growth during the recovery in sectors from advertising to media to PR.
Over the last several week, Ad Age talked with agency execs, freelance talent and staffing companies. The discussions indicate that though expanding opportunities for freelancers benefit them and the agencies they work for, agencies are not attracting and managing freelancers appropriately, which in the long run could impede shops' ability to find the best and brightest.
"The freelance community is getting more demanding about pay and about the environment of agencies," said Lisa Marie Ringus, a director at recruitment firm 24 Seven. "The talent satisfaction is a reflection of an agency, so it's crucial to take time to make sure that you have the expectations aligned."A happy lot
So far, advertising freelancers appear to be a happy lot. According to a survey with 3,000 national respondents conducted by 24 Seven and Ad Age , 62% of freelancers are optimistic that their job satisfaction will increase in the next year, vs. 46% of full-timers. (Twenty-five percent of the survey respondents were freelancers or consultants, and 70% of the freelancers were women.)
Freelancers are more likely to report a healthy work-life balance than full-time employees. They also feel they have more control over their career path than full-timers. In fact, once an agency staffer goes freelance, it's hard to turn back; the survey found that the longer people are independent workers, the less likely they become to accept traditional employment with a single company.
The trend isn't confined to the ad business. The Freelancers Union's 2011 Independent Worker Survey of 2,500 members throughout the 50 states shows that U.S. labor is generally evolving away from traditional schedules and into "more flexible, contingent work." Almost half of respondents, 46%, earned their income from at least two work sources in the last year. Most people in the survey were involved in the advertising and publishing fields.
"In the ad business, there's also an influx of interest in specialized talent," Ms. Ringus said. "We get a lot of business around pitch work. Another big area is anything in the digital realm."But finding that talent is another matter. According to Roo Rogers, president of Redscout Ventures (a division if MDC Partners' Redscout), the process is lacking. "Our current system of sourcing freelancers is incredibly inefficient," said Mr. Rogers, who has been researching advertising's freelance market and working to develop digital tools to manage it. By his estimates, the independent workforce comprises 16 million people, a quarter of them in the creative industries. His projection is that the figure will reach 40 million in 2016 and 70 million in 2020 -- 50% of the overall workforce.
Mr. Rogers has been experimenting with a digital platform, which he called "an eBay for the freelance market," that gives workers scores and lets users see which agencies scored them. A beta version of the tool could be ready as early as July, with a formal launch in the fall.
Compelling prospect, high costs
Ad freelancers are most often art directors, copywriters or strategists. Less frequently, they're account people employed to deepen category experience in a vertical, such as beauty or cars. No agency can maintain the perfect mix for every client scenario, which is why the ability to hire temporarily is such a compelling prospect.
"There's enough work for good freelancers with specific skills or a good track record, and what freelance offers agencies is flexibility," said Mr. Benett, a frequent speaker on the topic of talent management. But, he said, "it comes at a price -- you're paying a premium."