The economic downturn has led to a major change in the freelance
market, with clients increasingly seeking specialists rather than
generalists. Many freelance PROs may have to think again if they are to
survive, says Chris Mahony.
The term 'freelance' first described medieval mercenary fighters. If
freelance PR professionals are still weapons for hire, interest is
focusing only on the Top Guns.
Freelances and recruitment firms are in agreement that while the
economic downturn is not necessarily a daunting prospect for freelances,
employers are being increasingly choosy.
Publishing a full survey last week on freelancing, xchangeteam commented
that it had seen a major switch in demand in recent months.
While briefs from agencies plummeted from 70 to just 30 per cent during
the past six months, contracts from companies and organisations rose
from 30 to 70 per cent in the same period. The reason for this
turnaround, according to xchangeteam, is a demand for specialists to
build in-house teams, rather than generalists working via agencies.
xchangeteam marcoms manager Charlotte Adams firmly believes that the
economic downturn is a major factor in the growing demand for freelances
with specialisms, particularly in public sector, healthcare, internal
comms and crisis management 'rather than those with more general media
Adams added: 'When a company is trying to run a tight ship it will look
at whether it should pay a retainer to an agency and pay all the
agency's overheads - even if they have a lot of expertise. If they can
get three experienced freelances they can create their own in-house
agency and have the best of both worlds.'
While admitting that she and her colleagues 'are not run off our feet,'
she says the freelance market remains buoyant, particularly when
compared with troubled agency life.
xchangeteam's research, complied by business analysts at Leeds Business
School and UMIST's school of business psychology, showed that the
freelance market for specialists is not just attractive in terms of
actually getting work but also in financial terms.
Of the 191 freelances surveyed, 36 per cent had seen a salary rise,
compared to just 21 per cent seeing a drop.
Professor Ralph Tench from Leeds Business School, who co-ordinated the
research, added that choosing to go freelance leads to a less stressful
and more fulfilling life. A third of all freelances interviewed stressed
the desire to spend more time with their family as a key factor in going
it alone. And two thirds of respondents highlighted greater personal
Robin Swinbank, a partner with freelance agency The Counsel House, says
that once a PRO decides to go freelance the best way to maximise earning
potential and get almost constant work is to look to a corporate world
crying out for specialists.
'The anecdotal evidence we have is that agencies are being hit hard by
the downturn but the corporate market generates demand for different
reasons. Freelances offer flexibility and fulfil specific needs,' he
While the economic downturn is costing many in-house and agency staff
their jobs (this week it was revealed that British Airways had axed just
under a quarter of it's in-house PR team following the events of 11
September) it appears the recession is a welcome turn of events for the
A survey of 100 freelances conducted by Counsel House in the summer,
when the first economic clouds were building, found an upbeat mood: 54
per cent expected the year ahead to be good for them and just 37 per
cent expected work opportunities to decline.
Also the fact that nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) got the bulk of their
work direct from corporate clients while only 11 per cent said they
worked mainly through agencies, indicates a need for generalists to
either retrain or market themselves differently if they are to get the
And the opportunities are there as both xchangeteam and Counsel House
say that subject specialists are in short supply, and both point
particularly to the public sector.
Paul Richards, a PR consultant specialising in the public sector,
says:'The early indications of the recession suggest that the great fat
consultancy fees for all-singing, all-dancing agencies are becoming less
Richards, currently interim head of communications at quango the
Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, which is tasked by the Government with
spending £3bn to alleviate poverty, added, 'More organisations are
bringing in specialist smaller teams and individuals, which has to be
'Freelancing is recession-proof and doubly so in the public sector. A
big agency, perhaps global and American-owned, is like a super-tanker:
when a wave comes along it gets swamped. Maybe freelances are like
champagne corks floating about.'
Jackie Geller, a freelance with 15 years experience under her belt,
backs the claim that the writing is on the wall for the generalist
freelance adding that the 'virtual agency' is 'very much the way of the
By this she means an informal consortium of five or six freelances with
different specialist skills who work together on a project. A sort of
band of mercenary brothers and sisters, perhaps.
Clearly, freelance PROs cannot afford to ignore the changes in the
market caused by the economic downturn. In order to survive, freelances
must take a long look at their CVs and ask whether they are promoting
their clients better than they are promoting themselves.