ANALYSIS: The end of the generalist freelance?

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

relations skills'.

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

specialist freelance.

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

more cost-effective.

'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.

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