Skip to main content

Specialized freelancers are challenging the traditional business model, and finding work-life balance as they do it.

Art director and designer Nicholas Bujnak goes to work every day at the same ad agency in Toronto, but only until he's finished covering for employees away during vacation season. After that, he'll go somewhere else, or more likely to a number of places as he works on a slew of advertising projects all at the same time.

Freelancers such as Mr. Bujnak have long been a significant engine of the ad industry, sweeping in to add creative heft to a pitch for new business; helping to run hard at a client's demanding deadlines; or simply covering for other employees on leave. Agencies navigating a fluctuating business have always needed extra hands on deck occasionally, but at numbers that may not warrant keeping them on the payroll permanently.

More recently, however, there has been a growth in reliance on freelancers in the ad business as the nature of the industry changes.

"The way the industry is going now, it's demanding more specialized talent. There are a lot more job titles that exist, within disciplines, that didn't exist five or 10 years ago," Mr. Bujnak said. "Agencies bring in freelancers for their specific specialties – and clients demand that."

Out of nearly 69,000 jobs in advertising, public relations and related services last year, almost 17 per cent were self-employed, according to Statistics Canada. Those people often put a sizable amount of work into projects and often do not get credit for that work.

This week, Toronto agency Co-Op Advertising is launching an award show just to honour freelancers. Co-Op is one of the agencies that leans most on those hired guns: With a core staff of just 10 people, Co-Op brings in people based on the needs of each project. Other agencies have adopted similar models in the past. Even larger, established agencies are increasingly leaning on freelancers.

"We're not just making TV spots and print and radio any more. There are all these other types of media. Which means you have to expand your talent roster, and work with different kinds of people on different kinds of jobs," said Pete Ross, creative director at Co-Op.

While large agencies often still work on retainer as the "agency of record" for a marketer, even big clients such as Frito-Lay, Best Buy and Mondelez are experimenting with investing in advertising on a project-by-project basis. As corporate procurement departments have become more aggressive about identifying fat to be cut, marketing departments and the agencies that serve them are coming under scrutiny. Asking agencies to do more with less is a common result; moving from an "agency of record" model to a "project" model is another. That has posed a challenge to the traditional business model of ad agencies.

"Retainers are going away for a lot of agencies and creative partners," Mr. Ross said.

The push toward freelance is coming from employees themselves as well, who realize that the old norm of working an entire career at one or two companies is over. Some people want control over which projects they take on; the ability to limit their hours; and variety in their work.

Advertising is just one part of the broader growth of the freelance economy: According to Statistics Canada, there were nearly 2.8 million self-employed people in Canada last year, representing a growth of 9.7 per cent in the past 10 years.

Mr. Bujnak, who says he enjoyed working full-time with agencies including Blast Radius and BBDO Proximity, went freelance four years ago because he was craving more control over the types of projects he works on. He wanted to do a wider variety of design jobs including creating brand identities and print design, in addition to his existing work in digital design.

Copy writer Courtney Colomby Brown enjoyed agency work and could not have gone freelance without that training, she insists. The shift to freelance last year after eight years working at agencies including DDB, Juniper Park and Zulu Alpha Kilo, was partly about work-life balance. She had her first child in 2014; just this week she was able to take a full week off to be present for pickups and drop-offs as her son enters preschool for the first time.

"I knew if I had any chance of juggling full-time mom and full-time copywriter, something would need to change," she said. She has also noticed a rise in freelance work in the industry. "I think it started off during the recession when a lot of people ended up doing freelance not by choice, and realized how awesome it is."

One of her recent projects was at Co-Op, helping with the launch campaign for the new "Freelancers Unite" website and award show. The launch video features real freelancers working in the Canadian industry, and the campaign is selling merchandise with slogans including "Anytime anywhere" and "Shitshow cleanup crew."

Freelancers Unite is accepting submissions soon and will hold an event in November. Very few people would argue the industry needs another award show. But awards are sometimes regarded as currency for employees looking for career development, Ms. Colomby Brown said, and could be helpful for freelancers.

Some question whether the agency model – with its overheads – is even working any more in an environment where profit margins are being squeezed and where the work is changing so drastically.

"As we get more and more fragmented in what the client needs, it's impossible to predict," said Scot Keith, president and chief executive officer at Vancouver agency 123w, which started out in 2013 in a garage with an all-freelancer model, and now has roughly 25 core employees. That number can sometimes more than double when freelancers are brought on board.

The agency is currently creating brands for a number of startups, designing a concept for a fast-food restaurant, and working on a marketing strategy for a cannabis company. All of that requires very different skills.

"I'd rather bring an expert in and collaborate than do the job badly. That's why there are some very large agencies in very big trouble," he said. "Something's happening right now. I don't know if we're in a mini-recession, or funds are getting even more spread out. It's a bad time to be an ad agency … The freelance model is going to happen more and more, because it's sustainable."

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmailOpens in a new window

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story