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The inevitable rise of the creative free agent

Emily Eldridge
The inevitable rise of the creative free agent Emily Eldridge

The world is changing. Economies are reorganizing and dismantling institutional thinking. And as for employees? Countless polls have displayed the lack of stability they feel, and protests have shown who they blame: "The Man." Because of this, organizations like IDC Research and MBO Partners have predicted the double-digit percentage rise of the "free agent" over the next decade. Nowhere is this free-agent trend more obvious and potentially disruptive than in the marketing industry.

"I'm going out on my own"

If you are a true creative, your drive to do quality work comes from your passion. That passion may be for a particular medium or aesthetic style, but you want your work to communicate effectively and beautifully. You need revenue to live comfortably, and as your ideas succeed, they become more valuable in the marketplace. Ultimately, you want to create something memorable.

For many creatives, whether they are UX designers, copywriters, or VFX specialists, the organization they work for is square -- a box that can keep them from reaching their full potential. That organization may be an agency with unreasonable clients who don't understand design or a corporation where you must clock in by 8:00 a.m. Until recently, access to a steady paycheck, healthcare benefits, technology, talented mentors, and interesting brand challenges compelled creatives to stay.

Recent evolution in technology and social media has proven this need false. Designers meet talented teachers with unique perspectives in communities like Dribbble. The cost of technology has dropped considerably over the last 20 years. With open source code, $10 domains, and fledgling innovations like Leap at a price point beneath that of a pair of shoes, an individual can afford the necessary work tools without a corporate bank account.

As economists have pointed out, job security is a myth and corporate benefit packages are in limbo. The creatives have stereotypically never assimilated well in a corporate environment because of their attire, "night owl" productive hours, or lack of concern for the bottom line. They now have even fewer reasons to do so.

Still, some creatives will stay in organizations for good reasons. Their organizations provide them access to learning opportunities, awesome clients, or a culture they value and won't find in their basement.

But when a creative starts to get more personal and professional fulfillment from working with others in on- and offline collaborative spaces than with their own colleagues, the fragile relationship with her or his organization will inch closer to the "two weeks' notice" period. These online communities not only include other designers or developers, but also savvy people seeking talent for projects. As they start to see organic demand build, becoming a free agent looks more and more appealing. No box, all opportunity.

Impacts on agencies and brands

Please don't ask your creatives to take down their personal portfolio sites or community accounts, and, agencies, don't assume I'm forecasting your demise. It's quite the opposite. The growth of free agents is projected to be around 50 percent globally, which means that, on average, half of creatives will continue to work for organizations. Habits and the feeling of stability, even if it's fragile, are hard to ignore.

Instead, you need to prepare in two ways. First, analyze your organization. What creative resources do you need consistently? Creative strategic thinking should be on this list, but you may also have, for example, a regular need for a developer to maintain websites. Once you've determined the resources that are essential on a day-to-day basis, begin to analyze (and ask others) how you can create a workplace attractive to those creatives.

Then, begin considering how you will fulfill your more inconsistent resource needs. One word sums this up: collaboration. If you're a corporation having to deal with legal and procurement, this can be easier said than done. You may need your agency to take on this responsibility. And, most certainly, you will still want at least one strategic partner with whom you have a consistent relationship, who knows your brand and business objectives intimately. If you're an agency, collaboration with niche free agents is where things can be really fun -- creating an eclectic portfolio of campaigns -- but you must plan ahead.

Implications for creatives

With any career, there are opportunity costs. If you choose to work for an organization, you face certain limitations or deal with less-than-pleasant situations. If you choose to work as a free agent, there's a perception of greater risk because everything depends on you. Additionally, if you're based in a tax system like that of the United States, your taxes may be a nightmare. There's no perfect situation.

What is certain is that you need to be open to a variety of opportunities in this volatile market and continue to hone your skills. If you choose to be a free agent, you'll need to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace. If you choose to work for an organization, you haven't sold your soul to "The Man" -- unless your position lacks opportunities for personal development and fulfillment. There are too many options to settle for that.

The opportunity for all

While change can seem disruptive, the opportunities this trend presents for the industry could not be stronger. The creative industry has always had freelancers, so the change should not seem as foreign as it would in other industries.

With more individuals lacking corporate identities, there is greater opportunity for informal collaboration. This means that a brand, agency, graffiti artist, and freelance director can together create content that meets a business objective, while remaining interesting to the intended audience. That same freelance director can partner with another group of designers, social activation specialists, a developer, an agency, and a brand to produce drastically different work. There's lack of collectivism, which leads to greater innovation and originality; everyone benefits from the expertise of the others involved.

For the free-agent trend in the marketing industry, the variations are endless -- and so are the possibilities.

Emily Eldridge is co-founder of The Agency Post and CEO of Pure.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young man climbs the ladder" image via Shutterstock.



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