Agency Freelancers Face Uncertainty as Marketers Press Pause Amid Pandemic

For the self-employed, finding reliable work has become even more challenging

Freelancers are finding themselves in a bind as projects are canceled due to COVID-19. Getty Images
Headshot of Minda Smiley

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Agencies, beholden to their clients, are grappling with the cancellations, delays and changes marketers are putting in place because of the coronavirus. While agency employees, many of whom are working from home for the foreseeable future, are no doubt feeling the impact, it’s freelancers who are left wondering where their next gig—and paycheck—will come from.

Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of 99designs, a global creative platform that helps freelance designers find work, said opportunities on the platform have been “up and down” in recent days. He compared its volatility to that of the stock market.

“It’s a little bipolar,” Llewellyn said. “We’re seeing big news days impact the velocity of work because all of a sudden, people are not thinking about the project they’ve got to get out the door.”

"No one is going to be immune to the impact of this, and work is definitely going to be impacted in the short term."
Patrick Llewellyn, CEO, 99designs

He said people are instead distracted by trying to work from home or their kids being off from school. “No one is going to be immune to the impact of this, and work is definitely going to be impacted in the short term,” he said.

Freelancers are bracing for this new reality, one in which gigs are even more up in the air than usual.

Sarah Young, a Chicago-based freelance art director who’s spent the past five years lending her talents to the likes of DDB, FCB and Calvary, recently wrapped up a six-month agency gig and was preparing to start a new one next week—until she received an email saying it’s on hold.

Young said she has some savings for times when work takes a downturn, but she’s still concerned about what’s next.

“I am worried. Also, I have no idea when my kids will go back to school. I will see if I can find some remote work, but I don’t know,” Young said. “All these agencies are trying to figure out how to get their current employees working from home. Why would they add on another person? That’s my biggest fear.”

Carole Trickey, a freelance strategist based in Boston, said she’s seen opportunities sputter before stopping completely over the past few weeks. Not only did she have a project put on hold, but she’s also struggling to get someone on the phone to wrap up a previous project.

“It’s all understandable stuff because people are just trying to deal with what they have in front of them like reestablishing communications with their core teams,” Trickey said. “But I also feel very stuck. Student loan payments are about to get even more difficult than they already were. I’m worried about a lot of people right now.”

Trying to make do

Some freelancers are trying to find new ways to bring in income or at least use their expertise until things go back to normal. Don Whitlatch, an Atlanta-based freelance copywriter, wants to figure out how he can help local bars, restaurants and other small businesses maintain their branding and exposure until he can find paid work.

“I’m still in the process of putting a plan together but hope to be reaching out to places in the next few days,” Whitlatch said.

Matt Berman and his wife, Kristen, are the sole employees of Philly Made Creative, a Philadelphia-based shop they founded together that specializes in outdoor advertising. As fewer and fewer people spend time outside, some of their clients have pulled the plug, forcing them to rethink how they can move forward.

“At least two very significant projects are either going to be delayed or canceled for this year, so that was a big hit to us,” Berman said. “I haven’t even gotten confirmation if they’re canceled yet, but my gut tells me trying to sell candy in retail stores with outdoor advertising in the summertime is not guaranteed right now.”

To account for the changes, Kristen Berman said they are toying with other ideas that could potentially bring money in at a time when people are staying indoors. For instance, she’s now trying to find sponsors for her podcast Made To Be in which she interviews women in business.

“Before, we wanted to just keep it ours, but we’re opening it up for sponsorship opportunities,” she said. “Brands will need to find new ways to get in front of people if they’re not going outside as much.”

Scrambling to help

A number of people and organizations are also trying to do their part to help freelancers in a bind. Michael King, founder and managing director of digital marketing agency iPullRank, recently started a spreadsheet called “Freelancers Available due to Covid-19” that currently has more than 400 submissions.

“Student loan payments are about to get even more difficult than they already were. I’m worried about a lot of people right now."
Carole Trickey, freelance strategist

King said that although his agency’s existing clients haven’t been affected by the coronavirus, new business has slowed, and he knows many brands have been pulling back their campaigns in light of the pandemic.

“I’ve seen a lot of people across my network say that their freelance work has dried up,” King said. “I’ve also been mindful that, as a small agency, if anyone on our team gets sick, we need to find a way to backfill them quickly while they self-quarantine and take the time to get through their illness. [We] can’t be the only shop that has that problem, so I figured it’d be good to have a public resource to connect companies and freelancers so both parties can quickly find each other.”

Working Not Working, a platform that connects creatives with opportunities, is spearheading a number of initiatives to help its members, 58% of whom are freelancers. According to Manda Wilks, talent and brand manager at Working Not Working, the firm is currently working on a partnership to provide funding to self-employed people who are financially strained.

The Freelancers Union is also stepping in to protect its members during what its president, Rafael Espinal, described as “the greatest crisis to the freelance workforce in modern history.” In addition to urging elected leaders to put forward a comprehensive plan that will get workers the resources and cash they need to stay afloat, Espinal said the union is “working around the clock” to establish a freelancers relief fund.

“We plan on fundraising from the general public and partners to get cash in the hands of workers facing dire financial constraints,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the health and livelihood of thousands of Americans, and freelancers face a disproportionate risk of financial hardship. Sources of income have dried up for a majority of workers because venues have closed, productions have been stalled and they don’t have the social safety net conventional employees do.”

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.