Is a growing freelance culture making it harder to recruit great designers?

Brexit, a recession and a healthy freelance market have left many design agencies struggling to fill senior roles. Rachael Steven explores the impact this is having on the industry – and considers how agencies can respond to a talent shortfall

The UK’s design industry is booming. The design sector is growing faster than any other and the number of design jobs available rose by almost a third between 2011 and 2014.

But it seems that some design and branding agencies are facing a recruitment problem. In the past few months, CR has spoken with several creative directors who have reported the same issue: a struggle to find designers with the right mix of skills and experience to fill senior roles.

“I’d say it’s a problem across the industry,” says Sean Thomas, creative director at jkr in London. “At jkr, it’s not been too bad – we’ve had a really good couple of years profile-wise and awards-wise, so that makes hiring a bit easier, but prior to that, even though we were doing good work … we found it incredibly hard. We had two or three years where we didn’t make a senior hire at all.”

Greg Quinton, chief creative officer at The Partners, says he has noticed an increase in the number of job ads for senior designers and adds: “Our centralised talent team struggle and we rely on our network more than ever before.”

A talent scarcity

Kate Lenton, managing director at Bristol agency Taxi, says she still receives a large volume of applications for senior design roles – but few from suitable applicants with an understanding of what is required at a senior level. Senior designers must be highly skilled and able to come up with great ideas but they must also be capable of leading projects and getting the best out of creative teams. Lenton believes there is a shortage of designers who meet this criteria – particularly outside of London.

There are several possible reasons for this shortfall. Thomas believes some designers may be reluctant to leave their agency while the UK faces the threat of another recession post-Brexit. Quinton believes we are beginning to see the impact of the financial crash in 2008 – an event that left many graduates struggling to find work.

You have less people developing their skillset for later and that is what we are experiencing now – the experience gap

“Only a few graduates were lucky enough to get an agency job – many had no other option than to find alternative careers or set up their own practice from university,” he explains. This led to a smaller pool of people working their way up the ranks at top agencies: “You have less people developing their skillset for later and that is what we are experiencing now – the experience gap,” he adds.

Another major factor is a healthy freelance market. Freelance designers are in high demand and many are earning more than they would at an agency, while also enjoying more annual leave or working less hours. “I’ve got friends who are taking two or three months off and earning what some companies are offering as a design director salary,” says Thomas.

One creative director CR spoke with said they had seen full-time staff leave their agency and re-apply to work there on a freelance basis – and Thomas has seen even recent graduates charge what some senior designers will earn on a daily basis.

Anyone debating becoming a freelancer can see they’re not going to be short of work

“I’m seeing more and more portfolios from people who are one or two years out of college, who are charging themselves as a freelancer what [some agencies] would be charging for a senior designer. They have next to no experience but they seem to be getting jobs, so there’s obviously a lot of work out there,” he says.

“Anyone debating becoming a freelancer can see they’re not going to be short of work,” adds Lenton. “I think some people see how regularly freelancers are getting booked, see the flexibility and freedom they have and wonder if the grass is greener.”

It’s unclear whether growing demand for freelancers is a cause or effect of a talent shortfall – but it has certainly made freelancing a more attractive option. Bruce Duckworth, co-founder of Turner Duckworth and D&AD President, believes that political uncertainty and strict UK employment laws have also played a role – with many agencies preferring to hire staff on a freelance or temporary basis rather than offering permanent contracts, making it difficult to let someone go if things don’t work out.

“Most of our workforce is in the States and that freelance world doesn’t exist in the same way over there because employment laws are much less supportive of people in full-time employment,” he explains.

Freelance designers are an integral part of most creative agencies’ workforce (something everyone who spoke with CR for this article was keen to point out). Without them, companies would lack the ability to scale up and scale down at busy times. Agencies and in-house teams benefit hugely from freelancers who are skilled specialists in a particular craft – be it logo design or typography. The problem now is that some agencies are (it seems) having to hire large numbers of freelancers to provide extra cover or replace full-time staff.

The number of freelancers needs to be tightly controlled

As Duckworth points out, this is not a sustainable model. Freelancers are expensive and hiring too many can drastically reduce a company’s profit.

Duckworth, Quinton and Lenton also believe that only a small percentage of an agency’s workforce should be freelance.

“Clients are buying the people in an agency, the team – not external people who could be working for someone else the next day, so the number of freelancers needs to be tightly controlled,” says Quinton.

“I think [having too many freelancers] stops companies being able to invest in their culture the way they should,” adds Duckworth. “[Freelancers] come and go, but what you really want is to look after your staff, give them a good career path and progression and all the benefits of being part of a family and a team – a good diverse set of clients, with a varied selection of work for big, small and not-for-profit businesses,” he says.

Lenton says she has spoken with some studios who are moving towards a majority freelance or freelance-only model, but says this wouldn’t work for Taxi. “Being able to call on specialist skills when required is core to what we do but culturally, I think the ratio needs to be weighted more towards permanent teams than freelancers,” she says. She acknowledges that freelance-only models could be more agile – allowing agencies to assemble new teams with each new project – but adds, “I think you’re building something very different from an agency there.”

I’ve worked in so many places where they’ve been panicking about how they’re going to get something done, so they hire 30 freelancers

So what can agencies do to avoid relying too heavily on freelance talent? And to convince senior designers of the benefits of agency life?

Thomas believes that agencies should think carefully before hiring freelancers to ensure they are only brought in when they’re really needed.

“I’ve worked in so many places where they’ve been panicking about how they’re going to get something done, so they hire 30 freelancers, and I’ve been sat there as one of those freelancers with nothing to do, thinking ‘do we really need this many people?'” he says. “A lot of people also tend to book freelancers six or seven weeks at a time, months in advance and then let them down at the last minute – and that’s what’s driving freelance salaries up, that part of the problem is our own making.”

“Interestingly, in the last three years [at jkr], we’ve had a lot more work in and have more clients than we used to, but we haven’t grown much design-wise – we’ve hired three or four more juniors, two midweights, a couple of freelancers, but we’re still leaving at six most nights, we’re not here until 11, and I think that’s because we just stop and think, ‘what’s the best way to do this job?’” jkr often hires skilled freelancers to work on specialist tasks such as crafting logos, he says, but it does so sparingly.

“It comes back to being smart and doing due diligence before panicking,” he explains. “I think freelance has become a way to cover your back a bit when you’re busy.”

Why people are freelancing

Agencies should also think carefully about the reasons that people are turning to freelancing. Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a freelance book designer based in York and a columnist for Creative Review. He went freelance after being made redundant from his job at the Higher Education Academy but says it would now take “one hell of a dream job to lure me away from the cosiness of my home studio.”

Benneworth-Gray acknowledges there are perks to agency life – from IT and accounts support to training programmes – “I now realise how much I took staff development for granted – training never seems to find itself onto my list of priorities anymore,” he says – but feels that he has more control over the direction of his career as a freelancer, with more freedom “to work when and how I like, with an ever-changing variety of clients and projects.”

Lucy Painter, director of design recruitment agency Studio, believes rising living costs – particularly in London – are prompting people to go freelance in search of higher salaries. The average home now costs £400,000 in London – requiring a staggering £90,000 deposit-  and as a result, many people see freelancing as their only option to save up for a property. “That’s something I hear quite a lot,” says Painter. “In turn, if people can’t save to buy a property, even when they’re on a full-time salary, then a lot of them think, ‘I may as well look for a flexible lifestyle, so I can work on my own time and choose when to go on holiday’.”

A better work-life balance

This desire for more flexibility and a better work-life balance is often a key factor in the decision to give up full-time employment. As a result, agencies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to offer staff flexible hours and the option to work from home.

jkr has become more lenient around start and finish times, and introduced longer paternity pay for fathers, as well as flexible working at quieter times of year. Taxi has also introduced a flexible working policy: “A lot of people like freelancing because they feel in control of their working week so we just try to make sure that our team does too,” adds Lenton.

Everyone loves the idea of saying ‘we’ll offer flexi time’ but only a small minority of design firms will actually allow that

However, Painter says that many agencies are reluctant to embrace flexi-time – despite recognising there is a growing demand for it. “Everyone loves the idea of saying ‘we’ll offer flexi time’ … but only a small minority of design firms will actually allow that,” she says. Companies that don’t risk losing out on talented staff – particularly parents who might find it difficult to adhere to a traditional nine to five schedule for five days a week.

At Studio, employees work a certain number of hours each week but have more freedom over when and where they do so. Painter says this has resulted in happier, healthier and more productive staff. Most work the same hours each day but enjoy the option of taking longer lunch breaks or working from home from time to time. Painter says that among her clients, the ones that have introduced flexible working have seen an increase in the number of people taking up permanent contracts, resulting in a lower staff turnover and less money being spent on recruitment fees.

You have to know what it is that really motivates your employees

Companies don’t have to offer a one-size-fits-all policy – Painter recommends finding out what motivates staff in interviews and offering incentives tailored to their interests. If someone enjoys travel employers can offer the possibility of longer breaks during busy periods. If someone is in a band, then they might be interested in an offer of coming in later the morning after gigs. “So many people feel there has to be one rule for everybody but that’s not the case … you have to know what it is that really motivates your employees,” Painter explains. “If you do, then you’ll end up with happy staff – and if they’re happy, why would they go elsewhere?”

She also suggests offering fixed term contracts before offering them a permanent job. “Companies could buy into that more … effectively, it’s a three or six-month probation period but after three months, you both review it. People want so many options nowadays. There are so many options for what to eat, what to wear, how to get to places … so a fixed term contract is a really cunning way to attract great talent.”

It’s about making sure designers are stimulated by working on projects that are interesting, that are challenging their abilities, and that they’re going to really learn from

Flexible working alone isn’t enough to convince people to work in an agency: employers need to offer support, progression and incentives to make staff feel valued and fairly rewarded for their hard work. “It’s about making sure designers are stimulated by working on projects that are interesting, that are challenging their abilities, and that they’re going to really learn from. Then add to that some fun,” says Quinton. “The worst thing is a bored designer.”

As well as offering healthcare plans, bonus schemes and good pensions to rival the financial benefits of freelancing, companies should place equal emphasis on fostering a sense of community – something Quinton, Duckworth, Thomas and Lenton all agree on. “We place a huge emphasis on holding socials, celebrating successes as a team and saying thank you to our employees,” says Lenton. “It’s about making sure that big moments and small gestures are celebrated in equal measure.”

Lenton says she has also had to limit freelancers’ access to some perks such as company outings or socials – “It can feel harsh if you have a celebratory lunch and freelancers aren’t invited, but you have to foster the sense of belonging that comes from being [a full-time employee],” she explains. Duckworth agrees and believes it is “unfair” to give those who are being paid more as a freelancer access to the same rewards as full-time staff.

We’ve done a lot of work on making sure everyone has a clear development path

Thomas worked as a freelancer for over a year before returning to agency life and says the thing he missed most was professional development and a sense of progression – that, and the camaraderie of being part of a team and having “a wealth of people to engage and mix with”.

Lenton believes agencies must make a virtue of this, adding, “We’ve done a lot of work on making sure everyone has a clear development path, and they have personal training and development budgets to be used however they see fit.”

Helping junior creatives realise their potential

For companies that are struggling to fill senior design roles, Quinton recommends encouraging talented junior creatives with great potential to take on more responsibility. “If there are people who are interesting, who have unique raw talents, you can push them, you can accelerate their exposure to run jobs, have clients and give them the opportunity to progress very quickly,” he says.

“People do not all progress at the same speed [so] it’s risky, but if you have someone with the raw talent, they can handle going faster – but equally, don’t overstretch people who aren’t so able. It’s not fair to them,” he continues. “After all, they don’t know what they don’t know. [If you overstretch someone] they get frustrated, it dents their confidence and it can even lead to them leaving.”

It is harder to convince people of the benefits of a full-time post than it used to be

Duckworth – who was 29 when he co-founded Turner Duckworth – agrees. “I would really encourage people to give [junior employees] a little more scope and responsibility and see how they get on. It’s about delegation, but delegation isn’t dropping somebody in it – it is about nurturing and advising and encouraging people and getting them to the next level.” He says Turner Duckworth has had great success with this approach and Quinton says The Partners has also seen huge benefits.

The past decade has seen a shift in attitudes towards full-time work. Thomas believes it is “harder to convince people of the benefits of a full-time post than it used to be,” and Lenton says the industry has changed since she was a junior designer in 2001. “Back then, there was a very much a culture of agencies feeling like their team should be grateful to be there and I think now, the pendulum has swung a little more towards ‘we also have a responsibility to make sure our team want to be here,” she says.

How to hang on to a talented team

Quinton believes the freelance market might soon change – resulting in less work out there for freelancers, and more people returning to agencies – but the growing desire for a more flexible lifestyle is unlikely to disappear as a result. “I imagine we’re going to see more agencies taking a more relaxed approach to where and when staff work,” says Benneworth-Gray. “The idea of one fixed address for a business, with everyone under one roof, may soon look rather quaint.”

The job market is very healthy at the moment so if you don’t hang on to your talented team there are plenty of other choices for them

Agencies can’t match the freedom of freelance work – but by creating a great work environment, and offering more flexibility, they can ensure their agency’s culture isn’t the reason they are finding it difficult to hire or keep talented designers. There might still be a shortage of talented designers with experience of managing projects – but in the long-run, this will be filled by providing the right support and development paths for junior and midweight employees. As Lenton points out, employers must work harder than ever to ensure their staff feel fulfilled, challenges and supported.

“The job market is very healthy at the moment so if you don’t hang on to your talented team there are plenty of other choices for them – that could be a freelance role, it could just be another agency that is doing it differently,” she adds. “It’s about making sure that your values – what you say you are as an employer – aren’t just something you stick up on the wall but something you live by. People get very easily turned off if you say your culture is one thing and in reality, it’s another.”

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