How will adland's freelance industry and gig economy change due to COVID-19?

"While marketing budgets are also being slashed to create 'oxygen' for these companies on 'life support,' taking marketing budgets to zero is not an option for many companies."

Even before COVID-19 hit the world, the gig economy was blossoming within adland, but now, the freelance world could have an even bigger surge due to the pandemic.

In recent weeks, holding companies, independent agencies of all sizes and brands have all gone through layoffs, furloughs and other cost-cutting measures.

Campaign US asked industry experts how they think the gig economy and freelance work will evolve in the aftermath of coronavirus.

How will adland’s freelance industry and gig economy change due to COVD-19? 

Oscar Ortega, VP, Talent, UM Studios

Physical limitations are preventing brands from producing ads through traditional methods, which opens an opportunity to influencers within the gig economy. 

In the short term, while under lockdown and due to production challenges, there will be an increased emphasis by the advertising industry to work with influencers who have direct access to audiences that brands want to reach. Agencies can work with brands to pivot their marketing strategies to a direct-to-consumer media model, creating content with influencers for social media distribution as a way to stay connected with consumers in a relevant way. 

Looking further into the future, we could see a new normal where both agencies and consumers have incorporated COVID-19 era behaviors in their everyday lives, continuing a long-term expansion of influencers connecting advertisers to consumers and driving e-commerce for brands.

Nancy Hill, Founder, CEO, Media Sherpas

For many independent agencies, this was the first time that they have had to do layoffs and salary reductions. It was painful. Emotional. Gut wrenching. I witnessed it first hand with many of my clients. They don’t want to find themselves in that position again. They are rethinking their staffing models and the appropriate balance of FTEs to "contracted partners."

Combine that with agency and contractor friendly platforms like We Are Rosie (full disclosure: I’m the Chair of the Board) and I think we will finally come to a place that makes more sense for everyone. More like a studio model: flexible staffing based on a given brand or project need matched to the right expertise. The possibilities that this model opens up are endless-think how it could support diversity.

By the way, I think it would help if we as an industry (trade press, too) stopped looking at the number of employees as a measure of size and growth.  We should look at revenue and profit. If an agency can grow those with less people, they are doing something right. 

Karen Kaplan, CEO, Chairman, Hill Holliday

Moving forward, we’re all going to have to run a little leaner and start staffing to the valleys, not the peaks, which should bode well for freelancers. This experience is also teaching us all how to collaborate better with people, both inside and outside our agencies. 

Someone at Hill Holliday shared an observation about how Zoom has leveled the playing field. On a video call, we all occupy the same amount of space on the screen. There are no layers, no hierarchy; it doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert, freelancer or on staff. We’re all just working and thinking together.

I think that makes it easier for freelancers to seamlessly integrate into agency workflows, instead of being relegated to the "empty desk" or required to literally mail it in. We’re all going to have to be less precious and less limited by our legacy structures, and there’s no doubt in my mind that freelance talent will play an important role moving forward.

Tobey Van Santvoord, SVP of Sales, Central and West, MightyHive

As COVID-19 hits marketing departments across the globe, reductions in the workforce are proving to be quick, albeit painful, ways to drive necessary cost-savings as companies fight for their lives. And, while marketing budgets are also being slashed to create "oxygen" for these companies on "life support," taking marketing budgets to zero is not an option for many companies. They simply must stay in touch with consumers so they can move product today and prepare to take advantage of the recovery tomorrow. In the absence of a scaled full-time employee base, some companies are turning to low-cost center options to execute their marketing objectives. 

Outsourcing marketing work to consultants and freelancers is being used as a stopgap to keep the "lights" on, short of investing in full-time salaries and benefits. This approach also gives them the flexibility to be more adaptable to the needs of the moment so they can scale work up and down based on the needs of the marketing organization. And, if these consultants and freelancers play their cards right, there could be a post-pandemic new-normal where marketing departments inside enterprise brands leverage freelancers instead of bringing back furloughed staff or hiring anew. 

COVID-19 has forced companies to get comfortable with a distributed workforce and when you think about the massive cost-savings associated with real estate and likely virus resurgence, a virtual workforce makes a lot of sense, boding well for outsourced marketing execution. 

Lara Vandenberg, CEO, Founder, Publicist

Even before COVID-19, the freelance economy was the fastest-growing market segment in the U.S with more than 35 percent of workers making up the gig-economy. In the last couple of months, particularly around COVID-19, the broader environment has inadvertently accelerated trends with more talent moving to freelance-based work, more companies are being better served by flexible support than retainer-based agency relationships and more brands are continuing to rethink the size of their internal teams. 

I have always believed that the industry was moving toward project-based work. Pre-COVID-19, we experienced much inefficiency around hiring and engaging with marketing and advertising. In light of the current pandemic, the freelance and gig economy will dramatically grow, and fortunately there are solutions to help rebuild this recently out-of-work workforce. 

Jennifer Houston, Co-Founder, The Bench

There are many ways this will affect the freelancer and the gig economy. First, I believe this will push a 3rd category of worker. Days of the exempt and non-exempt are in the rearview mirror. The Freelance Revolution is here and it is here to stay. Secondly, either by choice or by crisis, talented people don’t want to go back to FT work and work on someone else’s schedule. More and more people are choosing to not work for the brink and mortar establishment and want to pick their own passion projects to work on. This in effect will limit the quality talent agencies and brands can bring in house and will force them to look to freelancers to get the quality of work they are used to delivering.

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