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.

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