Warm up for a more flexible future: How the gig economy is reshaping the creative industry

Charlie Spargo's picture
Dave Nutter, Perfect Storm

Dave Nutter, Director of Leeds' Perfect Storm, says flexible working is redefining what the future of creative looks like - and traditional agencies need to work hard to keep up. It benefits workers, clients and agencies; and it's time to embrace the freelance revolution. 

Two decades ago, I started my career with one of the world’s most prestigious advertising agencies, and I couldn’t believe my luck - it was like living Mad Men in real life.

I spent the following 15 years working for agencies - balancing expanding teams with shrinking budgets and schedules, until one day it struck me that although our ways of working have evolved significantly since the days of Don Draper, the agency model itself was stuck in the bygone era. It was time for agencies to catch up with the times.

2019 saw a 31% annual surge in the number of freelancers here in the UK. For our industry, freelancers are not new - agencies have been employing  freelancers for years, enabling them to scale up and down as and when projects come in and out of the studio. But a few years ago, my business partner Adam and I could see that there was a shift occurring - one that we believed would change the shape of our industry for the long term, and we wanted to get out ahead of it.

There was increasing evidence coming to light of a noticeable move towards a preference for a more flexible way of working, and the benefits associated with it.

Greater autonomy, boosted productivity

A survey of British workers found that 89% of people believed flexible working would boost their productivity. Flexible working seemed to be no longer just about people searching for a healthier work/life balance, but about them wanting to be more productive and more effective, while taking control of their own time, and future. 

Businesses have responded and are becoming more supportive to flexible working practices, for which there are measurable benefits: 

60% of HR directors said that they believe giving employees greater autonomy over working practices, with initiatives such as flexi-time, results in an increase in productivity.

There’s also a knock-on effect for how these businesses work with agencies. P&G are a prime example. They’ve changed the way they engage with agencies, implementing what they call a “fixed and flow” agency model retaining some work with external agencies whilst also using many “smaller, more agile shops” for other work, and they’re not the only ones…

Clients are under pressure to cut expenditure

When we first started planning the foundations of Perfect Storm, client costs were a key driver to how we developed the model. We knew first-hand from clients that they were, and continue to be, increasingly under pressure to cut expenditure, and the often-sizeable retainers or fees commanded by traditional agencies were getting harder to justify.

“The added benefit of their freelance-led team is that they are able to respond so proactively to deadlines,” Rosanna Butler from Mars Petcare has said. “The nature of their model is that they want to do a project efficiently, do it to perfection, and move on to the next task.”

Not only do clients gain access to a pool of leading experts, but they don’t pay for what they don’t use, and the work generally gets completed quicker. But what about the benefits to agencies?

Flexible working enriches the quality of work

Working flexibly within an agency environment can help to enrich the quality of work being produced which, in turn, keeps clients engaged. 

88% of agency owners believe that diversification has enhanced client retention. We’ve all been there - those stalemate meetings with a client where they’re not happy with the work, but you’re already over budget on it, and the studio’s at capacity.

In this situation, the agency often ends up taking the hit, financially eating up the overspend and forcing an already exhausted team to keep plugging away, or the client walks. The freedom to shift between team members, air-lifting in experts to troubleshoot complex, or niche issues, without affecting progress enables the work to get completed in a much more agile and cost-effective way. 

It’s important, however, to work with people you trust. When we were first launching Perfect Storm, many were sceptical, thinking we’d get stung relying on freelancers.

The reality is, however, that remote workers are often more diligent when it comes to delivering a project. The flexibility they have helps them create more time to focus - 39% of remote workers, versus 24% of office workers, regularly work additional hours to complete a task. The notion that anyone working remotely is work-shy, or simply spending their days watching TV from bed, is long gone. 

“I have my dev set up with large screens and all the tools I need at home,” said Stephen Griffin, freelance front-end developer, “so I can be far more productive working at home where it’s quiet. I usually work in silence with no music or distractions.”

Adapt to survive and thrive

39% of firms expect their use of freelancers to grow faster than permanent hires over the next five years, due to successes yielded with freelancers.

Establishing Perfect Storm was about future-proofing the role of the agency. The writing was on the wall four years ago: Clients needed more agility, more value for money and more expertise on their projects, while people working in the industry wanted more control, more flexibility and more variety.

I certainly believe there’s a place still for traditional agencies, but as with any period of evolution, there’s a time to adapt in order to survive, and I believe that time is now. 

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