Freelancers are busier than ever, but old headaches persist

As agencies and marketing teams increasingly outsource their core offerings, freelancers are being inundated with requests. But issues such as reskilling, timely payments, and burnout are prevalent.

Freelancers are busier than ever, but old headaches persist

Roycelyn Frances To, a Singapore-based freelance art director, has had a busy 2022. With adland recovering sharply from the pandemic and business rushing back to some sense of normalcy, her services have been in demand. So much so that she’s fielding three or more offers for work, as agencies and marketing teams rachet up their business and freelancers or gig workers in areas such as To’s (art direction), as well as disparate fields such as analytics, ecommerce, data sciences and project management. All of these areas see recruiters queueing up for freelance talent.

While the ad industry has traditionally used freelancers, this surge in demand has been catalysed by two factors. Firstly, the talent gap compounded by the 'Great Resignation' has forced agencies’ hand, pushing them to widen their net for key people. Secondly, with companies and agencies now much more comfortable working remotely, they're farming more 'core' work out to freelance talent. 

Better terms

As these two trends have unfolded, freelancers say that they can now dictate better terms than before, especially in high-demand segments such as ecommerce, analytics and project management. They are now in a position to name their price; several freelancers Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke to say their rates have risen by over 30% in the past five or six months. On top of that, they have a greater say in the hours they work, as well as timelines tagged onto their projects.

As agencies and in-house marketing teams scramble to sign up the best freelance talent, they are mining their own databases, turning to recruiters and specialist tech platforms to find the best talent. Large agencies typically have their preferred roster of freelance talent, but this may not be enough to keep pace with current growth.

“We're currently on-track to double our business from 2021—having grown during the pandemic,” says Dave Bentley (pictured above), cofounder of &Friends, a talent management platform. “What we're seeing now is demand shifting from more of a project-by-project nature to brands and agencies looking to use [freelancers] in a more proactive way as an ongoing extension of their in-house resource.”

Booming demand 

Freelancer To says there have been many jobs coming in and everyone is in a hurry to get projects completed.

“Thanks to my [connections], I am often fielding requests for at least three projects at a time and have to agree to work on a first come-first served basis," she says. 

To is hardly the only freelancer to benefit from this new boom. In India, data scientist Ajay Bangar, 31, says he is declining offers from adtech companies and traditional agencies, because his personal order book is flush with business.

“All agencies speak of wanting to do more with data and analytics, but almost none of them have the talent in-house nor the capabilities to hire them,” he argues. “Salary hikes of 80-100% are increasingly common and freelancers are now shopping themselves around.”

In Australia, a deluge of work for agencies and marketing teams has worked out handily for 34-year-old Jay Anderson, a motion designer. “A lot of the new work for me has been overflow work, helping out busy in-house teams,” he tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. “I think there is more confidence in having people working offsite which has had a positive effect for freelancers.”

“With a limited talent pool in market as the Singapore government had made some changes in hiring foreign talent policies, the speed for replacement was and still is a major challenge,” Mandy Wong (pictured above), managing director of TBWA Group Singapore, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. “(The) volume of work for TBWA Singapore has increased in the past year… this is driving multiple briefs running concurrently, majority of them on a campaign-project basis.”

As TBWA and other agencies attempt to keep pace with this explosion in business, project managers are hot property and recruiters are having to look beyond full-time talent to plug the gap. Tony Wang, 48, is a project manager who takes up only one job at a time—and takes a month’s break between gigs—to cope with a boom in business.

“Clients are asking for more projects to be completed and agencies are in a hurry to get things up to speed,” he says. “As a project manager, I manage work that is traditionally core to agencies including timelines to scope-of-work and managing of resources. I feel that there is an increasing demand for project managers… most requests are from agencies I have worked regularly with, but I am also starting to get requests from [others].”

Bentley of &Friends says the scramble for freelance talent is just the first step of an industry-wide transformation. Now, his company wants to build entire plug-and-play teams with global talent sourced from within and outside agencies. 

The company helps compile talent across the business—including full-time people, favourite freelancers, and other specialists—to tee up this capacity in advance. “Our goal is to help clients reduce the cost of hiring, while managing the talent crunch,” he adds. “It's the number one challenge for agencies and brands right now.”

Reskilling and upskilling 

However, in a fast-moving industry, this surge in demand and rates comes at a price—gig workers are having to work double hard on reskilling and upskilling themselves to stave off competition from both in-house talent and other freelancers too. For instance, To, the freelance art director, whose focus was on still images, had to work on video and moving images in a trice as client demands shifted seemingly overnight to these new media. Wang, the freelance project manager, has had to add skills in UX/UI methodology and design due to growing demand on projects.

The challenge for freelancers looking to upskill and reskill in this fast-changing environment is that they need to do it on their own dime and time.

“If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” says To. “This is scary because when you are freelancing, there is an expectation in the quality of work you put out—and your newly learnt skills from YouTube might not be up to expectations, or the time to deliver the work might get delayed because you’re still 'figuring things out' on the application.”

New opportunities arise, old problems persist 

Agency leaders say that they are now treating freelance talent much better than before and taking more care of their workload so as not to result in burnout and mental stress.

“Everyone at TBWA is treated equally, and required support is available for all employees, regardless of whether they are freelance, part-time or full-time employees,” says Singapore leader Wong. “All freelance talent enjoy the same flexible working schedule as all employees such as three days of the week are spent working in office environment; one day a week without any meetings; and the flexibility to choose working at home or the office.”

Data scientist Bangar, however, contends that agencies such as TBWA continue to be the exception rather than the rule. He says that on his last project for a consumer goods marketing multinational, he clocked 80 hours for three weeks and backed off only when he felt burnt out.

“Currently, these companies have too much going on to prioritise freelance work-life balance and wellbeing,” he claims. “As it stands, I have to manage this on my own.”

This booming demand for freelance talent hasn’t completely fixed other frailties in the system. For instance, old issues continue to fester such as being paid on time (without the headache of multiple rounds of follow-ups). On top of that, some agency leaders and marketing heads continue to battle with freelancers on rates, despite business picking up.

Bangsar adds: “Business has surely picked up, but the old pains of being a freelancer hasn’t faded away."

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