Why agencies need to embrace the new Free Lances
A view from Jon Williams

Why agencies need to embrace the new Free Lances

The Liberty Guild's chief executive responds to Campaign's analysis on the health of creative agencies.

I read Campaign's article about the fallout from WPP’s capital markets day. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair of WPP's chief executive, Mark Read, to lay the "didn’t reinvent quickly enough" thing at the feet of the creative shops.

It’s clearly true, but as I remember it (as an EMEA chief creative officer of a WPP network), the barrier to reinvention was also the fact that WPP would never sign off any margin relief to do anything. That and the institutional immune system in agencies that tries to attack anything acting differently or entrepreneurially. Anyway. Financial performance has been in decline for years. On that, we agree.

Further down the piece, someone was talking about a supposed "shortage of talent" to capitalise on growth opportunities. We can argue the toss about whether or not there is a shortage in agencies. But in the market there is absolutely no shortage of talent. It’s just that agencies are looking in the wrong place. And if they should happen to find it, they are just not set up to work with the growing global pool of A-list "independent" creatives, strategists, technologists and entrepreneurs that are the key to growth.

There is an incredibly talented crew out there for whom the agency Kool-Aid has curdled. All ages, all genders, all over the world, don’t understand why they need to work all the hours god sends and have zero work/life balance when there is an alternative. There is an exodus to the portfolio career. Some have private clients, some work with a number of agencies, some work directly with brands, some are entrepreneurs, some have personal projects. They flourish. 

On the whole, they haven’t been forced to work from the kitchen table by a global pandemic: they made the explicit choice to jump off the burning platform and find sanctuary.

You can find them in the north of Scotland, on the west coast of France, a beach in Indonesia, Crouch End, Goa, Wherever. Technology allows the creative diaspora to go wherever it damn well wants to, in a way that couldn’t happen just five years ago. Technology has changed the game for good. And the pandemic has only expedited this process. 

But here’s the rub. As I was leaving my big old network job, I excitedly explained my start-up idea to a European chief creative officer. A mate. Someone I rated.

He raised his eyebrows and said: "Wow, so you’re going to do that with freelancers?" He sort of spat that last word and at the same time left it hanging in the air. That’s the issue there. What is it with the pejorative use of that word? 

In a more chivalrous time, when knights wore shining armour and rode white horses, the Free Lances were the elite. A warrior class for hire. Tied to no one. Not your poor plodding foot soldier. Not pawns on the battlefield for a top-down feudal system (bit too obvious for a network analogy?) – but the best and most skilful crew money could buy.

They went wherever they wanted to and commanded a huge price because they got the job done brilliantly and quickly. Everybody wanted them… Pretty fucking cool right? When did the word get its negative connotation? How did it fall from grace? Where did that arrogance creep in? Is it somehow better to have a full-time job in this business? Right now? Not sure.

Just like the knights who pledged their allegiance to whoever treated them the best (and I don’t mean paid the most), that independent elite does the same today. But agencies don’t get it. Treat them like you hate them, crush them on cost, cancel at the last minute, make them work the weekend, all of that... isn’t going to have them queuing up at your door.

What’s the best way to add some Free Lances to your ranks?

  • Put people first. Those beautiful, crazy, amazing people and the ideas they have are the reason we all got into this business in the first place. Rebuild your processes around the portfolio careers of the world’s top independent talent
  • Pay them well, pay them fast. Don’t haggle. It’s beneath you
  • Because the scales have tipped, let the talent retain the IP of the work that doesn’t run. It matters. It’s theirs
  • And yes, culture is important. But theirs, not yours. Great talent wants self-determination now. They’ve stopped believing the hype. Agencies don’t hold the glamour they used to have, pretty much anything from a tech giant to a start-up to a walk on the beach is more attractive.

Please don’t tell me there’s a shortage of talent, when, actually, the shortage is in the vision to see where the opportunities for growth will come from… and the ability to lose our arrogance.

Jon Williams is chief executive of The Liberty Guild and the former chief creative officer at Grey Group EMEA. 

(Image: peepo/Getty Images)

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