How to Leverage the Gig Economy Without Getting Burned

On-demand talent is here to stay

Nothing can stop the growth of the sharing economy at this point. Shutterstock

Back in the day, when a client needed public relations or marketing support they went to an agency if they weren’t big enough to have full-time employees handle it in house.

Now, there are other options.

In today’s on-demand economy, clients large and small are using online talent platforms like Upwork, 99designs and Marketeeria to hire everything from web design gurus to media relations pros.

This shift is causing traditional agencies—burdened with the overhead of full-time salaries, benefits and office space—to rethink the distinct value they bring to client engagements.

And somewhere between these two worlds—brick and mortar and on-demand—are a new crop of niche agencies that have carved out their own value proposition, to stay competitive.  These agencies are realizing that the on-demand workforce isn’t just for clients. It is also a way to scale up and down quickly to staff for new business.

When it comes to branding, this hyper competitive marketplace has resulted in a more finicky customer. Brands want authentic, integrated multi-channel campaigns that resonate with their target audiences. Their requirement can overwhelm the capacity of a solo freelancer. “Assembling a collaborative, creative team that can deliver a coordinated campaign on deadline is where niche agencies really shine,” says Karen Maxwell, partner at a branding agency in Los Angeles.

"It doesn’t seem like anything can stop the growth of the sharing economy at this point."
Eric Schwartzman, vice president of technology at Howard Industries.

While a single freelancer can’t replicate a team effort, that doesn’t mean agencies are resistant to roping on-demand talent onto new business they win, particularly when they have to staff quickly. Maxwell says she’s definitely open to sourcing freelancers through online talent platforms.

Is the agency of tomorrow a hybrid of full time and on-demand talent? And what kind of full-time employees will thrive in this environment? Will it be those with solid remote workforce management skills?  Will the best and the brightest creatives wind up earning more and enjoying more freedom?

An October study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that as many as 162 million people in Europe and the United States engage in some form of independent work. That’s a staggering 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population.

Michael Terpin, Marketwire founder, recently rolled out Marketeeria, where clients can hire public relations professionals on a freelance basis through an online marketplace.

“The key to a successful client-agency or client-freelancer relationship is the fit: large vs. small, specialized vs. general, price vs. performance.  Marketplaces can help make the search easier,” says Terpin.

Either way, it doesn’t seem like anything can stop the growth of the sharing economy at this point. Uber has 160,000 drivers, Airbnb has 640,000 hosts and Upwork has more than 10 million independent contractors ranging from architects and engineers to graphic designers and art directors.

The PR and marketing agencies that thrive in the gig economy will be the ones that can best augment their in-house account teams with on-demand specialists. Full time staffers will need to get better at identifying, hiring and managing on demand talent.  And those HR recruiters focused solely on conventional hiring will become less important.

Remember, when it comes to technology, the economic benefits arise not from innovation itself, but from the people who discover ways to put those innovations to practical use, as economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Lorin M. Hitt pointed out in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.  Economic growth comes from the organizational changes through which businesses reshape themselves to take advantage of new technology.

The marketing and PR agencies that put online talent platforms to use effectively for their clients will realize those economic benefits and better satisfy their clients. They’ll build better account teams quicker at a lower cost, translating into better services for clients.

Eric Schwartzman is vice president of technology at the Center for Digital Innovation at Howard Industries and the founder of iPRSoftware, where he procures and implements digital technology solutions and incubates new internet businesses. Formerly, he was a big data analytics consultant to the U.S. Dept. of State.