Demand stalls for freelance marketers

Having ‘not fixed the roof while the sun was shining’ was a charge recently put to Gordon Brown to suggest failing to set aside in the fat has left us unprepared for the lean.

Although they may deny it like the PM did, a sharp annual fall in the number of new jobs for freelance marketers is making them look guilty of the same charge.

In fact, according to one veteran marketer and three marketing recruiters, not having built up either a niche skill or a regular clientele is almost a brief for joblessness in today’s climate.

Typically in a recession, companies trim operating costs by first cutting non-customer facing jobs, or non-core projects where savings are quick, easy and less visible to prying reporters.

Staff first for the chop are often those working on a freelance basis – typically higher cost workers whose notice period, if they have one, is always shorter than those of employees.

Today’s recession is proving no exception: recruiters at Xchangeteam, where briefs for full-time agency marketers are on the up, said demand for freelance marketers was suffering.

Maggie Maupin, head of its marketing and PR unit, said that compared to this time last year the decline in the number of client requests for freelancers was “fairly significant.”

She told FreelanceUK that some client companies “aren't taking on freelancers anymore, are pressing freelancers to cut their daily rates, or finish [their] contracts early”.

Maupin said freelance marketing work was now so hard to come by that even candidates from overseas, lured to the UK in the fat days, were talking of returning home.

Less money in the pot for marketing – the least for nine years – is even making established marketers sit up ‘and do some marketing of their own’, said staff portal Skillfair.

And Duncan Taylor, the managing director of People4Business, said he saw “no general evidence” of firms investing at an increased rate in sales development and marketing.

He confirmed that, contrary to the upbeat outlook for marketers just three months ago, many sales and marketing departments were being told to make their share of cost savings.

At a glance, then, observers would be forgiven for thinking the entire marketing industry, and its intake of staff, has followed the economy into the red.

But unlike the previous recession of 2001-02, Maupin said today’s economic contraction is not seeing huge numbers of layoffs in marketing and PR departments.

One reason is because prior recessions, notably 1990 and 2001-02, have helped executives realise how PR and marketing can grow their business, even as the economy shrinks.

Maupin added: “We've also noticed a sharp increase of more than 60% in the total number of briefs received from our agency clients versus in-house [clients].

“As agencies (offering both above and below-the-line services) are usually the front-line to marketing budgets, this would seem to indicate that marketing budgets remain strong.”

Gill Taylor knows agencies are doing well, not because she works at one, but because her marketing firm gets the same amount of work from them today as it did this time last year.

Her existing clients are also providing the same volume of work and, although one company she supplied fell to the recession in December, she’s already gained two new clients in 2009.

“Freelancers like myself are always going to have the edge at a time like this,” Ms Taylor said last night, shrugging off the market gloom for freelance marketers.

“We win over…employees as the resource we provide is more flexible and cost-effective, and we win over agencies as they are generally perceived as being more expensive”.

Helping fathom the falling demand for freelance marketers, overall, is ‘Talent on Tap – Getting the best from freelancers, interims and consultants,’ by Xchangeteam’s CEO Emma Brierley.

"The demand for freelance consultants tends to follow a U-bend model, shadowing the economic cycles of boom and bust, recession and recovery," the book states.

The thinking today is the UK is heading into the bottom of that U-bend when, Brierley states, firms reduce “headcount through redundancy… and demand for freelance consultants is minimal”.

Based on her model, demand for freelance staff will increase just after business confidence returns to growth and companies look to hire but “remain wary of increasing fixed costs.”

Mr Taylor agreed: “Employers are still primarily focused on cost/staff reduction and it is after they have completed this process the demand for freelancers…will rise significantly.

“The trigger will be when firms have completed their cost reduction programs and then win new orders or commence new projects.

“They will then need additional resource and will be naturally reluctant to increase their permanent headcount so soon after redundancies.”

Until that time, freelance marketers facing the public sector, where budgets for big projects are set up to a year or two in advance, are among the best placed to find work.

Skillfair’s director Gill Hunt said: “We're still seeing strong demand for marketing of all kinds in the public sector, so…creative types should brush up on their proposal and bid writing skills.

“Public sector is starting to pick up on some of the newer marketing methods, including SEO, internet marketing and social media, all of which have become more prevalent in tenders.”

People4Business testified that demand for consulting from non-private sector clients was buoyant, as did Xchangeteam which pointed to the marketing campaigns of healthcare providers.

Niche digital skills were also resilient, the recruiter added, particularly if they enable PR, which corporates are looking upon favourably for being comparatively cheaper than advertising.

Almost regardless of whether their skills fit into these categories, Maupin explained some private sector marketers should see a boost in demand for their services in the coming month.

“With many budgets being reviewed or renewed in April, we have seen an increase over the last four weeks of short-term requirements from clients being cautious about the state of their budgets after April 1st.”

“Internal and change communications…present a lucrative opportunity for freelancers as organisations downsize, restructure and prepare to upscale once confidence replaces caution”.

If the ballast to the market fails to emerge, Contract Marketing said freelance marketers should line up referrals or testimonials in a bid to convert contracts from one-offs into repeats.

“Keeping existing clients happy and maybe 'going the extra mile' even more so than usual is definitely the right approach”, Ms Taylor advised.

“If budgets are squeezed than you need to avoid your valued existing clients being swayed by the offer of a cheaper service - however happy they might be with you.

“This is especially relevant with copywriting work where there is always someone out there who is willing to write thousands of words for a dollar!”

 

4th February 2009

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