Nov 11, 2007

Lasting Effects of the Great Freelance Boom

Back in the late 1990s, hiring freelancers, which had previously been something big agencies did as a last resort, became far more commonplace, and, as the Dot Com Boom overtook us, it became more or less de rigeur.

For a vast majority of my friends, it was a goldmine. It seemed like anyone with a halfway decent book who’d done a stint at a good agency could more or less double their salary by going the freelance route. Heck, I know I did. We could make up numbers and still find people to pay us a big fat day rate. Double dipping was not uncommon, especially in the throes of dot com madness when agencies needed all the bodies they could muster.

And while the party came to a crashing end on September 11, 2001, the aftereffects are still being felt throughout the industry.

You see it in who holds creative director positions at big agencies. With one or two exceptions where turnover has been high (JWT comes to mind) big agencies are led by people who’ve spent a goodly part of their career at that agency. Which is not to say that they’re a bunch of hacks— but the fact remains that the people who were winning awards and setting the ad world on fire 10 years ago are now the ones whose names come up when I go looking for freelancers. And I can’t help but wonder what today’s big and mid-sized agency scene would be like if most of these guys had stayed and were actually running groups or running shops rather than bouncing around helping to lay out print campaigns or landing pages for last minute pitches.

And despite dropping day rates and a rapidly contracting pool of agencies to work for, the freelance road is still the career path of choice for many of the top talents in our business. They’ve realized how easy it is to work for themselves, to feed off the big agency trough without ever having to be a part of it. Or having to go out and actually start their own agency.

Not that I blame them. Except for a certain lack of control over your schedule and uncertainty over the next paycheck, freelancing is a pretty sweet gig. You don’t deal with politics or personalities or long term issues. You just go in and make ads. Your goal is to make the CD who hired you happy and to make sure everyone at the agency knows he’s happy so they’ll keep you around or bring you back soon. Period. End of story.

It’s not a bad life, but it’s not one that leads the industry to a better place. Imagine if the top players in the NBA were free agents who moved around a few times every season. Mostly to fill in for injured players or to shore up the team for an important series.

But that’s exactly the position our industry often finds itself in. It’s demoralizing to the people on staff, to have these highly paid superstars jump in and show them how it’s done, all while collecting nice sized day rates. And yet agencies aren’t reaching out to the freelance talent pool either, and trying to figure out ways to bring them on board. Now it may just be that they don’t want to: someone who’s been a freelancing for 10 years may not have the mindset necessary to succeed at a big agency. And then of course there's the salary requirements: agencies can rarely match what a hard-working freelancer brings in per annum.

So then the question that remains is how do we save the next generation from falling into the freelance trap? Should we save them? And if so how?

Curious to see if anyone has a theory. And if my UK and other international readers have seen a similar trend in their markets.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you would post this - my agency has a new initiative to bring good freelancers in as full-time employees.

A lot of the very best are a little too senior (read: expensive) for the little shop that I work at, but the idea is a good one.

Beyond cost, our biggest challenge is getting people to want to give up the freelance lifestyle. We usually get around that by being an easygoing agency in terms of office hours and bringing dogs to the office and all that little stuff that appeals to the independent-minded.

But when we bring ex-freelancers in, it's after the ultimate interview and we've had good luck with them.

Alan Wolk said...

@DB: Yes, cost, as I noted, is definitely a major factor in this. Smaller shops like yours can't pay big money and bigger shops, due to restrictions from the holding companies, just won't.

But when even an $800/day freelancer is bringing in the equivalent of $200K/year, you need to cough up a lot of money to get them to come on staff.

Anonymous said...

i'm not sure there will be a next generation of advertising creatives to worry about. freelance or otherwise. i just don't see the ddbs and Leo Burnetts having a raison d'etre in ten years.

don't mean to be a downer.

Anonymous said...

Freelancing sucks. Lately.

For creative work that is. Even pitches. Strategy is often already figured out and many times you're reduced to being just an extra pair of hands. Frustrating, you know?

Anonymous said...

Just curious, what are day rates like these days for freelancers?

Alan Wolk said...

@TSR: I hear you. Much reinvention is needed before these shops become relevant again.

@MTLB: Use of permalancers is definitely down as budgets shrink and existing staff is generally adequate. That will change again soon enough, but enjoy the time it affords you to work on your blog.

@Neener: In NYC, it's averaging about $800/day for senior level people working for bigger shops, mostly general work.

$600/day seems average for smaller places, interactive and/or direct.

If you're in demand you can get more than that ($1,200) maybe more for a short-term gig.

Can't speak to other markets, but I assume they pay less. Maybe someone else can shed some light on that.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, rates have plummeted. I remember when I could get $2,000-$2,500 a day at the larger NY agencies.

Gave that thankless lifetsyle up several years ago, though. Too many crappy assignments, and even when you got a good one, you'd receive no creative credit. (Believe me, probably 10-20% of CA or One Show finalists/winners aren't who you think they are).

Anonymous said...

@Neener: I second Toad. I was offered that the other day for a gig a major pharma shop. Not if you paid me 4x that.

(Okay, well, maybe 4x.)

Otherwise, I've been doing the hourly thing.

@Toad. LOL, yeah, you can tell who's on staff vs. not by their blog activity.

Alan Wolk said...

@Anonymous: If you were getting $2K or so back then, you'd be looking at $1200/1500 now.

Main reason is that most all the freelance is at interweb and direct shops these days and those places traditionally pay much less. General shops are having a tough time keeping the people they have on staff busy.

Curious: What are you doing now? You on staff somewhere or are you out of the business completely?

Anonymous said...

Hey Toad,
Getting back to your comment about the most talented folks not hanging around the big shops long enough to become CDs and provide inspiring leadership, I thought you might like this blurb a co-worker sent me. Seems appropriate, if a bit dramatic. Enjoy.

In their book "Snakes in Suits," Paul Babiak, Ph.D. and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., explain that a surprising number of workplaces employ psychopaths. While psychopaths make up 1 percent of the general population, Babiak and Hare found that 3.5 percent of the executives they worked with "fit the
profile of the psychopath." Psychopathic employees are pathological liars who get away with doing little
or no work. They charm senior management with their "leadership potential," con co-workers into covering for them, and successfully blame others for
their mistakes. If you're the only one who sees what they're up to, you're in a tough spot. Sometimes it's the whistle-blower who gets fired, not the snake.

Anonymous said...


hilarious and true. anyone who has worked at a big agency has worked with or for a real psychopath/sociopath. i did. and the funny part was, when i realized i was dealing with a clinical sociopath and tried to tell my co-workers, no-one would believe me.

true story. the aforementioned sociopath got advance warning that the agency was about to get a new ECD.

the new ECD was from texas. and famously dressed like a real texan: cowboy boots, cowboy shirts with floral patterns etc. it was his shtick. but hey, at least he was from texas.

so imagine our surprise when, completely out of nowhere, our sociopath (who was from the midwest) starts inexplicably showing up at work in full authentic cowboy regalia. boots, shirts, jeans. day after day. he must have spent a fortune on it. everyone at the agency was perplexed/having a good laugh at his sudden ridiculous get up. not having a clue as to why he was doing it.

then, three months later it's announced that this texan ECD is coming and the agency has a big "welcome" party. and lo and behold, there's our faux-cowboy talking to his new boss and they're wearing the EXACT same outfit. black cowboy boots, black cowboy shirt, black jeans.

the texas ECD lasted only a few months and then quit to go somewhere else. and POOF! our sociopathic GCD drops the cowboy outfits like the proverbial hot potato.

Anonymous said...

A real-life Michael Scott/David Brent!
I love how nuts like that behave as if no one is noticing.
Like the guy in the Snickers spot wearing the Snickers toupe. Too bad it's all too true.

Anonymous said...

//Curious: What are you doing now? You on staff somewhere or are you out of the business completely?//

On an agency staff, full-time. No where near $2,000 a day, but at least the income flow is reliable, the health care is (almost) free, and I get lots of good assignments.

Anonymous said...

still, the nice part of freelancing is that you don't get thrown into the deep end politically wherever you are, they're paying you too much out-of-pocket for that.

it's not really a trap is it? you can make a decent living, get involved in work that might not come your way if you were an agency staffer, and get to leave to go someplace else and then possibly get called back for another project.

i wouldn't dissuade our next crop of fine communicators from that sort of lifestyle given everything that's been happening in the agencies these days.

going into the agency life can be very sketchy these days for the young 'uns... most of the new kids on the block at my agency are a bit taken aback by the way things are done and the level of work that gets thrown t them... seems they were getting better assignments when shopping around...

Alan Wolk said...

@LD: I agree - freelancing is not a bad life. Provided you've paid your dues and provided you've got a solid book and equally solid resume. (It's tough for people who don't have the right names on their resumes)

My point was that having the best and the brightest consistently take the freelance route ultimately hurts the industry. And that maybe it's time for agencies to think of a way to bring them back into the fold rather than enabling them.

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