There was a time, not so long ago, when being a freelance was viewed with suspicion by agency and client alike. Freelance creatives were those who couldn't hack it in the cut-and-thrust agency environment; their assignments were those the full-timers didn't want. It was a hand-to-mouth existence that treated few well.
How things have changed. Freelancers are now commonplace, and for many, it's a better way of life than full- time work. Demand is high and a new breed of agencies is emerging, powered by freelance talent.
The latest recruit to the world of freelance-based companies is the former Wieden & Kennedy strategist and global planning director at Nike, Russell Davies. This summer, he launched The Open Intelligence Agency, which comprises four senior freelance planners, working from different points of the globe.
Strategy is by no means the only area where there is demand. In a growing number of creative companies, a small group of permanent staff work with a bank of tens or hundreds of freelancers, bringing in the appropriate talent according to client demand. They claim to be quicker, cheaper and more creative than traditional companies.
Some might describe them as "freelance collectives", but most see themselves as agencies, albeit in a virtual form.
The new "virtual" shops will shoulder responsibility for a client relationship and see work through to execution. But they are not all the same. While some concentrate on cracking creative briefs, others will pull in a whole team. Most are generalist, but some specialise in offering more than just traditional ad expertise.
There are even operations, such as Host Universal, which only take on workfrom clients that they see as "change-makers".
While many of these agencies work directly with clients, there is also a growing agency demand for a flexible workforce. The global agency Strawberry Frog might have a staff totalling 100 in its New York and Amsterdam offices, but it draws heavily on 350 specialist freelancers to work on its global accounts, including Diet Coke, Sara Lee and Wal-Mart's Sam's Club.
One of the big draws for clients using freelance agencies is their speed and flexibility. Often, clients and agencies turn to them when they need a quick turnaround on a brief.
Lastminute.com chose to work with Big Al's Creative Emporium (a freelance agency launched in 2004 by the former WCRS creative group heads Tom Burney and Stef Jones), following a pitch involving traditionally structured agencies. One of the advantages, according to Mathew Hart, the then UK marketing director at the travel company, was timing: "Lastminute.com is in the travel market and work is often needed ... at the last minute. We wouldn't be able to do that with a traditional agency model."
The freelance agency model can also be cheaper, having removed the overheads that the traditional creative agency structure creates. But, even with project-based fees, freelance ad execs can often command high day rates. "We're not necessarily cheaper, but more cost-efficient, in the sense that you only pay for what you use," James Ballantyne, the co-founder of The Gallery, says.
One argument runs that clients get a more creative approach by using freelancers, who are free of the shackles of permanent employment. More important for many clients is the chance to tap into senior creative brains and bypass less experienced teams. Drugstore, which bills itself as a "talent management" agency, has worked extensively with Napster, which has plugged into the collective's bank of heavyweight strategists and creatives, stretching across different disciplines.
The Napster strategic marketing director, Christopher Moisan, says: "With traditional agencies, there's no guarantee you get the most senior teams working on your briefs. With Drugstore's approach, you get some fantastic talent working on your briefs, without paying for the army of suits and big agency overheads, so ultimately, the creative output should be a higher standard."
For clients, working with freelance agencies generally means more direct contact with the creative process, which can be exciting and involving. Still, it can mean an off-putting amount of hands-on agency management.
So should more traditional agencies be worrying? Opinions vary as to the degree of threat these new agencies pose. There is a general consensus that they have their place, but some senior ad executives argue that collectives are most useful to smaller companies where there isn't a sufficient budget to go to one of the big agencies. Using freelancers on business can be inconsistent, and big brands need to know that there is the same team of people who know their business, it is argued.
Others are more moved by the flexible way of working that a large bank of freelance talent provides. For instance, being able to describe itself as "the world's biggest creative department" puts Big Al's in an enviable position.
Big Al's works with both clients and agencies, including Leo Burnett. "I think it's brilliant," the Emmtt executive creative director, Jim Thornton, says. "Crucially, it's kind of the essence of what the name 'advertising agency' suggested in the first place. We would have been agencies for specialist talent in lots of areas. Unfortunately, the model has become less flexible.
"As clients increasingly move into more project-based work, we need to start taking them seriously as competition ... They're paving the way in a way that we don't seem to be able to."
BIG AL'S CREATIVE EMPORIUM
Big Al's Creative Emporium launched two years ago under the guidance of Tom Burney (pictured, left) and Stef Jones (right), former creative group heads at WCRS, who were responsible for accounts including the Prudential and First Direct, for which they won a BTAA Gold.
The agency is based in Soho with minimal permanent staff - three project managers and a TV producer. It has more than 60 freelancers, including creatives and strategists, on its books.
It prefers to keep them anonymous, crediting any work as being produced by Big Al's Creative Emporium, rather than by individuals. Pitching itself as "the world's biggest creative department", Big Al's works with both agencies and directly with clients, wherever the need for new creative thinking arises.
Work with agencies includes a TV campaign for Heinz and ads for Nintendo, both of which were created in conjunction with Leo Burnett. It has worked directly with clients including Air Miles, Borders and Books etc.
The agency's highest profile campaign was Lastminute.com, where it worked alongside the strategic agency Branded on a multimedia branding campaign which was nominated for a D&AD award.
Martin Handyside and John Stuart are both former creative services heads, respectively at Ammirati Puris Lintas and CDP. They founded Breed in 2005.
The agency is based in small offices in central London and has 300 or so freelancers on its books. Working either for agencies or directly for clients, it can put together a team and execute a project - with or without strategic input - in a relatively short space of time. Like an agency, it keeps a degree of control over the team it assembles and remains accountable for the results.
Typically, clients in need of a quick turnaround are the most likely to use the agency's services. BT has used it for a number of briefs, as has the credit card company Capital One. The marketing manager at HP Foods, Paul Harvey, used Breed for TV work and says the team selected was "highly flexible and communicative, and despite demanding timelines, they were able to deliver. Creatively, we were impressed with the expertise and reputations of the teams working on the assignment."
Breed has worked on a number of international projects, with clients including SAB Miller and Kia Cars. Its bank of freelancers is multi-cultural and it claims to be able to find talent outside its books when required. Lloyds TSB and BT have used Breed to help reach specialist ethnic audiences.
Launched three years ago by the former Euro RSCG London and Banc account man James Ballantyne and Mike Chubb, one-time head of traffic at Euro RSCG, the Gallery is based in small offices in Covent Garden, where there's room for a small number of full-time staff and the odd client meeting.
The Gallery only works directly with clients, choosing not to provide freelance talent to other agencies. Brands which have used its services include Emap, Flextech, Bacardi Martini and Sharwoods. It focuses on providing creative teams, but can provide other aspects of communications solutions. The company has partnerships with a number of operations, so that it can offer planning, online expertise, brand development and events. Several of its clients are media owners which typically have strategy in place and are looking for creative solutions.
Vikki Timmons, the marketing director at Emap TV, says: "The Gallery is ideal if you're fed up with, being a small fish in a big pond. It's an extension of my marketing department. Its teams aren't tied into selling any one creative route, so it's a much more honest relationship."
Among the 15 or so teams on the Gallery's books are the award-winning DM creatives Damon Troth and Joanna Perry, and Dexter Ginn and Dave Jennings, the team behind last year's British Heart Foundation ads that brought Saatchi & Saatchi's executive creative director Kate Stanners to tears (Private View, Campaign, 25 February 2005).
Drugstore was set up in late 2004 by Mark Cave, the former vice-chairman of Lowe Group, together with Ben Clapp, an ex-creative director of Tribal DDB, and Russell Schaller, who worked with Clapp at both Mother and Tom Dick & Harry.
Where other agencies rely on freelance staff almost entirely, Drugstore has a larger core staff of 20 based at its offices in London's Shoreditch, with just ten of those on the payroll.
There are around 50 UK-based and 20 US and European freelancers with whom it works regularly. It also boasts an alliance with the creative hotshops Tugboat in Tokyo and Acne in Stockholm.
Drugstore focuses on working with clients to come up with a "big idea". It takes that intellectual property into whatever channel makes sense for the client and the brand, although it does extend to working below-the-line.
It has so far created ad campaigns and branded entertainment solutions for clients including H&M, Coca-Cola, Selfridges, Jamie Oliver and Napster. Last year it produced 2005's most downloaded viral campaign for Napster.
The agency has a proactive attitude to intellectual property, taking the view that its creative talent owns any IP it creates. Clients are free to negotiate from there.
Names on its books include the writer Alain de Botton and Bafta-winning television writer/producer, John Dale.