Creative freelancers network through the gloom

Every sector in Britain’s creative job market has followed the downward trend of the economy in 2009, leaving its freelancers fighting over far fewer roles than a year ago.

Recruiters supplying freelancers to the sectors – Media, Marketing, PR, Design and Digital – said recent signs of an upturn were too faint to avert a yearly fall in demand.

They said the latter sector was the most resilient to staff cutbacks, partly due to its skills deficit, which all sector clients had made at stages depending on their pressures.

Jobs in media sales, for example, were hit hard at the start of the economic slump, as companies expectantly scaled down, shelved or scrapped their advertising campaigns.

Whereas traditional and integrated marketing freelancers only began to feel clients paring back their supply of work recently, most visibly in this year’s first quarter.

“Overall the availability of all creative jobs is down on this time last year,” said Maggie Maupin, of Xchangeteam, the recruiter behind Freelancer of the Year.

“Decision-making on the part of clients has got longer. There is also increasing competition among candidates – meaning more people are going after the same jobs.”

Evidencing the claim, the agency cited an Events and Communications role, which may have had 20 applicants in 2008, that this year attracted about 200 applicants.

Although the firm’s database shows no sign of freelancers’ pay being cut severely, clients are acting “cautiously” by only hiring them for short periods initially.

“Last year, we would see assignments for freelancers lasting from three to six or even nine months, but now the duration is much shorter,” Ms Maupin explained.

“Clients are taking on freelancers for say three weeks, seeing how they fare and then considering extending them” based on their performance during the ‘trial’ period.

But regardless of which sector they face, creatives working on a freelance basis are currently more sheltered from the hail of cost-cuts than their full-time counterparts.

The agent partly put this down to the public sector, where left over 2008 budgets needing to be spent favoured freelancers, who are easier to dismiss than employees.

Creative agencies were also said to provide a ballast to the freelance job market in this first quarter, as their hunt for new business required freelancers to give them the edge.

Maupin said these agencies were continuing to need subject matter freelancers, such as social media consultants, who could be rapidly “bolted on” to their pitch or project.

For being more flexible than permanent staff, freelancers on Xchangeteam’s books have also acted themselves to maximise their chance of success in the job market.

“It’s not massive, but there has been a slight increase in the number of senior freelancers prepared to be flexible and apply for roles that require less experience,” Maupin said.

“Or freelance candidates who previously came to us with strict criteria, specifying a certain type of client and specific location, are now relaxing such preferences.”

She said demand for creative staff seems to be edging nearer the upturn in the U-bend model of freelance demand, but it was still “far too early to say” when its ascent would begin.

However, not all creative freelancers are feeling the pinch: those not using recruiters but using Freelance Alliance, the UK’s freelance network, said it was almost ‘business as usual.’ 

The Alliance is a pioneering sales platform where companies, agencies and freelancers springboard into new business by forging partnerships with sole and paired up freelancers.

“In the last few months and certainly the last 12 months I have seen a big upturn in freelance enquiries and my skills are very much in demand,” said Glenn Bramble-Stewart, a freelance architectural designer.

Echoing Xchangeteam’s analysis, he said freelancers, whose notice periods are shorter than those of employees, appear to have the edge in this economic downturn.

“So long as you keep your rates competitive,” he advised freelancers, “many… companies see a huge advantage in being able to pick-up and drop freelancers when required.”

Also on the network is Alison Bates, a freelance art and illustration consultant specialising in ad campaigns, who said demand for her services had “not noticeably levelled off” in 2009.

Tougher economic and business conditions have however brought about a change in her concerns but, she said, these were yet to adversely affect her bottom line.

“Twelve months ago my main worry was late payment of invoices, now I’m more likely to worry about clients going bust and not getting paid at all.”

She added that the same challenging climate had scared creative agencies into caution, as they were sticking to “bread and butter work” and cutting any cost they saw as an extra.

But Bates hinted it was tools like Freelance Alliance, helped by a dash of creativity and persistence, which gave freelancers a master key to unlock lucrative contracts, even in a recession.

“There are still opportunities out there but finding them is harder,” she said, addressing freelancers. “You have to really be creative in your search for new clients.

“You need to think laterally and find opportunities in new fields. And really push every opportunity that comes along.”

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