There’s Creative Work to Be Done

Demand for freelance creatives has picked up steadily in the past two months, with one headhunter estimating that her firm’s placements have jumped 300 percent in the last month alone. Not surprisingly, the upswing, which follows a particularly slow summer, stems mainly from work created by the recent flurry of sizeable account reviews, such as those for UPS, Pizza Hut, Volkswagen of America and Cadillac, according to headhunters, agency leaders and freelancers.

Creative Circle in New York is now placing about 50 creatives a week and that number has been fairly constant since October, said Sue Norelle, an account manager in charge of new business development at the firm. “Things really turned around,” Norelle said, with placements up “around 300 percent in the past month.”

Other headhunters, including Anne-Marie Marcus of Marcus St. Jean in New York, Susan Kirshenbaum of Greenberg Kirshenbaum in New York and Lucy Marino of The Creative Group in San Francisco, also confirmed a rise in freelance creative placements, though they were unable to quantify the gains.

“It’s a positive sign that there is activity,” said Marcus, expressing an industry-wide sentiment, “and, as a result, the freelance market has bounced back in a good way.”

The recent uptick comes against the backdrop of what had been a miserable year for freelancers. A perfect storm of massive layoffs combined with agency cuts in freelance spending, and a relative paucity of new business opportunities forced some freelancers to slash their day rates by as much as a third, and others to consider taking less lucrative staff jobs.

In July, one freelancer described the market as “catch as catch can, but even more so because there’s more competition and less freelance work available.” Since Labor Day, however, the market has improved.

One veteran freelance creative director said he has worked four jobs since August, after booking just six in the first eight months of the year. Three of the four recent jobs stemmed from new business pitches, including one for UPS’ global marketing services review. “All of a sudden, bang, it turned into pitch season,” the cd said.

From an agency’s perspective, “It went from like a dry spell in the beginning of the year, where you could get pretty much anyone … to people [being] booked for months,” said Paul Schulman, global director of creative operations at WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam in New York. “Most of it is [attributable] to new business.”

VW launched a review for the creative portion of its $220 million account in August, Pizza Hut began a review for the creative portion of its $275 account in September and, last month, General Motors’ Cadillac started a review of creative duties on its $240 million account. (VW’s process ended three weeks ago with the hiring of Interpublic Group’s Deutsch in Marina del Rey, Calif.) And although UPS’ $200 million review began in April, the process intensified in September through its conclusion two weeks ago with the hiring of WPP units Ogilvy & Mather and Maxus.

“People are willing to risk a lot more on big, giant pitches, so you’re going to see a lot more freelancers,” said veteran freelancer Ernest Lupinacci of Ernest Industries in New York.

Of course, after multiple rounds of staff cuts throughout the past year, contending agencies found their creative departments stretched thin across existing accounts and unable to take on the added workload associated with big-ticket pitches. And with freezes on full-time hires still in place, many shops naturally turned to freelancers for help.

“We’re kind of hamstrung” by hiring restrictions, said Peter McGuinness, CEO of IPG’s Gotham in New York, a finalist in Pizza Hut and semifinalist in Cadillac. “So, you’ve got to go freelance. It’s a half-step, [but] it’s a spigot you can turn on and off.”

By going the freelance route, agencies can also “test drive” creatives and vice versa, thereby gaining a better sense of whether a full-time match would work. “It’s like a long interview and it’s mutually beneficial,” McGuinness said. “This can be freelance to full time, but we’re not there yet.”

The uptick in job opportunities not withstanding, working freelancers are marketing themselves more aggressively, especially given the vast numbers of creatives out of work. Also, with each job generally not lasting as long as it had in the past, more engagements are needed to make the same amount of money, said a freelance art director. This year, the art director expects to work a dozen jobs to earn what he made via six longer engagements last year.

As another freelancer put it, “Self-promotion is key. … You’ve got to work the phones.”

See also:

“Shops Get Social in New Talent Hunt”

“Freelancers Feel the Squeeze, Too”

“Revenge of the Nerds”