Beware – Freelancers Are Taking Over

Yay! Another sobering stat from our good friend the coronavirus. Marketing Week  is predicting “significant job losses” as the furlough scheme comes to an end. With marketing departments shrinking, are we now relying on freelancers to pick up the pieces?

Like anything in the digital/creative space, it depends. Certainly, in recent years we’ve witnessed a palpable boom in self-employment.

In 2019, the UK freelance workforce grew by 31%. Among accountants, tutors and dog walkers, we saw a spike in creative roles such as graphic designers and photographers.


[Disclaimer: I may have found a new face-merging app this week. Sorry about that.]

Then corona came along and kicked our asses.

Prior to the pangolin, UK creative industries were thriving. They’d grown by 43.2% since 2010, contributing £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018.

Fast forward to March 2020, and more than one in three freelance creatives claim they’ve had all their contracts terminated. Both in-house marketing teams and freelancers have taken the hit – or have they?

Freelancers “flourishing in the COVID labour market”

If there’s anything we’ve learnt from corona, it’s that circumstances change pretty damn fast. In a heartening report from July 12, People Per Hour noted that freelance design, illustration, graphics and audio-visual projects were on the up.

CEO Xenios Thrasyvoulou told FreelanceUK: “Our belief remains the same that the freelance economy can flourish in uncertain times, due to its flexibility and on-demand nature.”

That’s very encouraging considering what we have to put up with. Up to three million creatives may have missed out on the government’s £1.57 billion support package, says ExcludedUK. We’re tough cookies.

Taking matters into my own hands

So, what can we make of all this conflicting evidence? Are shrinking agency teams paving the way for outsourced work? Or are we all as universally shagged as one another? I spoke to agencies and business owners to find out.

Respondents comprised agencies at 40%, SMEs at 40% and sole traders at 20. The long-term outlook looks good at first glance: 51% of us have been using outsourced talent for seven years or more, and 87% plan to carry on.

Which skills are most in demand?

This is my happy dance – 75% of you outsource content writing. Carry on, my wayward sons. Likewise, design is in high demand at 51%, trumped ever so slightly by web development at 53%.

Digital marketing also ranks highly, with 42 and 29% of respondents outsourcing SEO and PPC respectively.

Other skills included:

  • Admin and project management: 7%
  • Photography: 6%
  • Social media: 5%
  • Translation: 4%

but why

What makes freelancers an attractive option?

There were two big winners when it came to in-house alternatives. 44% of you would hire based on a specific specialism.

The other big winner? Flexibility.

Certainly, outsourcing saves HR teams a whole lot of recruitment headaches, and this flexibility was a big plus point for four in 10 companies. 13% of you aren’t exactly crazy about the whole interviewing process either.

In a perhaps surprising revelation, one sixth said they appreciated having an “outside perspective”. I must admit this is something I’ve overlooked – but as freelancers new to a project, we don’t have an emotional attachment to a product. If we think it stinks, we’ll tell you.


What about the C-word?

Ah, yes, cost. 16% of you felt that freelancers were more cost-effective, particularly for short-term projects. We’re also more efficient – 15% said that outsourcing saved time, while the same number said that freelancers were “more motivated”. Time to look at workplace culture? You decide.

What about the bad stuff?

Scrap that. There is no bad stuff, obviously. Sigh, if only. It seems the biggest pet peeves were:

  • Unreliability: 24%
  • Availability: 18%
  • Communication: 16%
  • Lack of understanding: 15%
  • Being part of the team: 13%
  • Finding the right talent: 11%
  • Cost: 11%

Remember – almost a fifth of you said that outsourcing saves money, making freelancers a valuable alternative. But these findings can teach us a lot.

bad stuff

The takeaways for freelancers

If more than one in 10 companies can’t find good talent, we need to market ourselves better! We know the pain points now, such as lack of flexibility of expertise. We should use these to our advantage and showcase our skills in every way we can. Qualifications. Testimonials. Kick-ass blogs.

Likewise, we should be transparent with our availability and costs. That might knock a few points off that scary ‘unreliability’ score. And as for being part of the team, well – that all comes down to communication, n’est pas?

The takeaways for business owners

It’s evident that we know what we’re looking for, but we need to improve the onboarding process. For example, we could agree a set of processes to improve communications and set boundaries. If you need a weekly Zoom call, say so – and factor it into the budget.

This may help your freelancers feel more like ‘part of the team’, and it could also plug those knowledge gaps. Indeed, we’re not going to be experts from day one, but with a little communication and honesty, we can all improve.

What’s next for freelancers?

So, is the future bright for the self-employed, or are we all sinking into a corona-shaped hole? Hearteningly (and contrary to the articles above), 22% of us are not amending marketing budgets. Even more encouraging, 27% are increasing them – a wise move if we’re to believe marketing guru Mark Ritson.

A quarter of us are actually busier post-COVID, which means we’re taking on more freelance talent. Some are outsourcing for more sombre reasons, mainly as a cost-cutting exercise. But the outlook isn’t entirely bleak.

Of those increasing their budgets, agencies and SMEs were matched at 41% each. Meanwhile, just 33% of agencies are decreasing marketing budgets, compared to 55% of SMEs. If you’re looking to pitch, it would appear that agencies are the way to go.

Final thoughts

Notwithstanding COVID-19, 50% of us think the UK workforce is moving towards a more freelance-focused approach.

“Change is already here”

“I think change is already here and will continue to accelerate. Freelancers will always have a place and will ensure there is flexibility and agility,” says Owen Turner, of United by Design.

A more competitive landscape?

Of course, we should proceed with caution. Matt Saunders, of Charity Box, warns that the remote future could give rise to more competition. “Could this suppress hourly rates? What it means for teamwork, and on a wider political/economic level, I’m not sure!”

A hybrid approach

Phil Myerscough, of pjm:digital, says we could be moving towards a freelance/agency hybrid model. “Up until recently, I would have pitched my business as a freelance consultancy, but now it’s become an agency with a small core team. Customers are talking to the best people directly.”

Ian Lawton, CTO at PureClarity, says: “With tax initiatives like IR35, some may feel that the insecurity isn’t worth it anymore. They may need to expand by adding employees and other services.”

So, does that mean we should go beyond being “just a freelancer”? Don’t get me started.

you do youYou do you.

Wherever you stand, the only way you’re going to survive this crisis is by being proactive and talking to people. This little exercise has highlighted the importance of:

  • Transparency
  • Quality
  • Communication.

Stick to all three and you’ll weather the storm, self-employed or otherwise.

Freelancers might not be ‘taking over’, but they’re not going anywhere. As we continue to evolve beyond COVID, our work styles might change. The fundamentals of good business do not.

Want to improve your communications? Let’s have a chat.

freelance heroes
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
30th July 2020