Jennifer Houston, co-founder of freelance collective The Bench, speaks to Addison Capper about the shifts in the US freelance market since Covid-19 hit and why a big change in the power dynamic of hiring is coming - and agencies need to be ready
The Bench, founded in 2018 by Jennifer Houston and Sarah Musgrove, is a curated collective of freelance talent with around 400 vetted, top-quality freelancers on their roster. Jennifer comes from an ad agency background while Sarah's experience lies in experiential marketing. They flex this experience with The Bench by hand-matching clients with the right teams of creatives, strategists, art directors, designers or producers in a matter of days.
But the freelance market influx is right now. Many laid-off fulltimers are turning their hand to freelance work in a big to make ends meet. Then there's the huge pool of freelancers whose work has dried up and who, in the US particularly, have received very little or no government support. And then there's going to become a point - hopefully soon - when project work within agencies picks up again and that ever-growing pool of freelance talent is going to be needed more than ever.
In an attempt to make sense of it all and to get an essential snapshot of the freelance market in the US right now, LBB's Addison Capper sat down for a chat with Jennifer.
LBB> What impacts have you seen on the freelance market since the effects of Covid-19 truly started to be felt?
Jennifer> The financial hardship has been devastating for freelancers. The CARES Act had a lot of independent contractors hopeful that they would receive a benefit, but unfortunately many of the freelancers in our network have yet to hear back from their unemployment office or the SBA. Of those who have heard back, what they received is only a fraction of what they need.
LBB> Are there any trends / stats that have particularly startled you?
Jennifer> It took a pandemic, but I am happy to see that working from home is here to stay. This will allow agencies to exit the real estate game or at least downsize. New agency roles dedicated to managing a hybrid workforce (split between full-time employees and freelancers) are starting to emerge, which is also interesting.
LBB> Many agencies, especially in the US, are having to lay off staff at the moment. Is there still a demand for freelance talent right now? More demand?
Jennifer> There is considerable demand for freelance, but it’s cooled given the downturn in the economy. However, we’ve heard from several agency owners that they’ve been downsizing their full-time staff and are prepared to leverage freelancers once project work picks up. We’ve also seen several agencies lay off their creative teams while keeping one or two senior creatives to lead the department.
LBB> What type of talent is most in demand right now? Why do you think that is?
Jennifer> Content producers and creative problem solvers. By that, I mean freelancers who can think outside of their core disciplines. For example, someone who can take their CPG experience and make it relevant for a tech startup.
LBB> Are you also seeing an influx in the amount of freelance talent as people are being laid off?
Jennifer> We are, but not as many as we believe we would be seeing. I think the surge will come once things start to open up. Meanwhile, more and more folks are realising that their full-time days are over. They want to choose which projects they work on and when and where they work on them. A large shift in the power dynamic of hiring is coming, and agency owners must be prepared for it.
LBB> What advice would you give to people stepping into the freelance market? Especially in this current environment?
Jennifer> Treat your freelance career as a business; you are allowed to say no. Also, make sure you are able to tell your story in a clear and decisive way.
LBB> And what advice would you offer to brands and agencies when it comes to hiring freelance talent right now?
Jennifer> Find a staffing model that fits your needs. Our agency partners typically adopt a 78% FTE to 22% freelance model, which increases their bottom line by anywhere from 20% to 30%.
LBB> Why is it a positive option right now for brands and agencies to explore working with freelance talent?
Jennifer> Pay-as-you-go talent allows you to bring in a more diverse, higher quality group of people overall. It also lets you say ‘yes’ to interesting talent more often while paying only for what you use. We’ve also found that tapping into fractional teams leads to higher retention rates. That’s because morale gets a lift when full-time employees aren’t overworked or burned out - and when they’re given the opportunity to work with new people who bring in great ideas, high energy and category expertise.
LBB> What are your predictions for the long term on this? Even once the virus is hopefully under control, what do you see for the freelance market?
Jennifer> Agencies that adjust their legacy internal structures and acknowledge a shift in the marketplace will be positioned to leapfrog peers that insist on the traditional, old-school model of talent acquisition and retention. You can choose to fight it or embrace it, but you can’t choose to stop it. The future of agency life is here.
Agencies that embrace the 78% | 22% model will also be more likely to overcome the next downturn because they can run lean.