Digital design industry sees freelance numbers boom

The number of people in the digital and design industry working as freelancers has increased five-fold in the last year, meaning the self-employed now account for more than a quarter of the workforce.

Unveiling Design Industry Voices 2010 – ‘what digital and design agency workers really think’, On Pointe Marketing showed that freelancers represent 26% of the sample, up from 5% last year.

“The increase in freelancers means more people are regularly working at different agencies,” the firm’s Stef Brown said of the findings, co-released by staffing firms Gabriele Skelton and Fairley Associates.

She added: “These people [freelancers] can create or break agency reputations through word-of- mouth, potentially impacting on future recruitment.”

Her warning is a timely one because it seems the owners and leaders of digital and design agencies “still have much work to do” on retention and recruitment – their “lifeblood,” the groups said.

In fact, almost six in ten digital or design workers plan to look for a new job in the coming year, raising the prospect that agencies may see projects understaffed or their staff defect to a rival.

Suggesting why they might move, Design Industry Voices pointed out that workers’ perceptions of how their digital or design agency actually performs have got worse and are generally poor.

“Rewarding people for going the extra mile remains the biggest concern,” said Fairley Associates. “Agency bosses should take heed that their…[workers] feel their ideas and opinions are not valued”.

Chief executive Rachel Fairley added that being new to an agency, or being freelance, “doesn’t mean the person will have a different point of view of how well the agency is performing” compared with employees.

In the current climate “this matters all the more”, she said, because the number of design and digital personnel “shaping agency reputations” by writing their thoughts online is increasing.

Last year, 19 per cent of the surveyed staff said their shared their thoughts about work online, perhaps by keeping a blog, against 27 per cent who say the same this year, the DIV study found.

Alongside sector-specific complaints – ‘my agency doesn’t value my ideas enough’ or ‘the brand is not compatible with my own values’ – the wider issue of pay is probably lighting up staff blogs, and pushing them elsewhere.

Like many of the agency attributes asked about, there is a gap between how the workers score the “pay/benefits package” on offer, and how it is seen by the agency’s owners and its executives.

Just 18 per cent of the workers questioned thought that the rate or package was up to par; a low approval rating that falls to 12 per cent among the agency’s executives, but which rises to more than fifth (22 per cent) among owners.

Owners did generally emerge as scoring the agency’s overall performance higher than the workers on seven separate performance criteria, indicating that there is “perception gap”, which widens even further if executives’ views are factored in.

“There appears to be a disconnect between senior staff and the rest of the workforce,” Ms Fairley said. “Perception is reality, and leaders need to share their vision for the business so that all staff may have a common view.”

One of those perceptions may explain why a growing number of design and digital workers are looking to quit their agency to ‘go it alone’ as a freelancer.

“Agencies seem to be continuing to reduce in size, the days of the large agency seems to be numbered,” one survey respondent, an agency owner, said of the design marketplace.

“This means that the role of the ‘good’ freelancer is ever more important. Across the industry there seems to be a lack of really good freelancers who have a wide range of experience.”

The age-old pull factors of freelancing are also playing a part, particularly as salaries and pay packages have lost their shine.

“It’s better to be freelance,” one designer three months into a permanent contract at an agency regretted. “[It’s] much less stress, and better pay.” Another designer, an executive, added: “I might go freelance to be able to do more creative work.”




8th December 2010

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