Do advertising creatives need a union?

As the ad industry moves increasingly quickly towards a freelance model, our advertising correspondent Ben Kay asks whether it’s time for creatives to unionise

The other day, I read a press release for a new advertising agency. It ran through the usual “revolutionary” new ways of working that would “tear up the old model”, but one part of its suggested structure made me stop short. Instead of using a permanent creative department, it intends to use a pool of freelancers, depending on a client’s needs. Now, this idea isn’t new (see Big Al’s Creative Emporium for an excellent example of how it can work), but its prevalence is.

Backing up slightly: over the past decade, the advertising industry has shifted. More money for ‘GoogleBook’ has meant less money for the rest of us. In addition, many clients are moving from retainers to a more project-based payment system, leading to greater instability, lower remuneration, and a fear among some agencies of committing too much money to unused resources.

Wages have spent a good decade going downwards, talent is finding homes in other creative industries, and the job ain’t as attractive as it used to be

And that’s not to blame those agencies. Between those changes and the effects of the pandemic, this is simply where we are now, and the choice for many is stark: adapt or die.

So the freelance creative department model is here to stay and will probably spread further still. But that also means that advertising creativity is veering perilously close to becoming a gig economy.

No benefits, no stability, regular contract negotiations which will tend to favour the one providing the money, chasing up increasingly long payment terms, no legal support if someone cuts your contract short or asks you to reduce your day rate, or insists on free overtime, or sends you round the houses of creative services and finance, explaining to an increasing number of people that someone, somewhere owes you £500.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need a union.