The Case for the Year of the Freelancer

You’ve likely heard people saying “It’s the Age of This” or “It’s the Year of That.” Fine, call it what you like, but where’s the evidence?

Based on what I’ve seen and experienced first hand, 2017 will go down as ‘The Year of the Freelancer’ for three very good reasons. I’ll lay out my case below and you can decide if you agree with me.

Before we get started, let’s lay out the assumptions. The laws of wave mechanics are the same everywhere. They function in exactly the same manner in the ocean where you swim in as in the quantum fields that make your mobile phone work. When waves are in phase with each other, they reinforce each other to generate a mega-wave. Right now, a similar confluence is happening in the world of business culture. Freelancers are riding the crest of a triple wave, particularly the field of advertising/marketing.

Wave 1: Businesses are more confident than ever before about working with freelancers.

The same trends are happening everywhere, but here are the facts on freelancing in the UK. Researchers at the Contractor Calculator Group reported that:

  • There are about 1.4 million freelancers working in the UK this year, adding £21 billion to the national economy.
  • 78 percent of British citizens said freelancing and flexible work hours promote a better work/life balance.
  • 97 percent of UK contractors rate themselves as much happier than employees.

I suspect that last number comes from liking their boss a bit better.

Meanwhile, on the continent, the European Forum of Independent Professionals (EFIP) reported that one in four Europeans who labour in professional, technical and scientific fields are freelancers.

Over the past few years, international enterprises have carefully watched this wave of entrepreneurship sweep across the working world. Many of them have already moved on to the post-employee marketplace.

Brad Jakeman, global exec at PepsiCo, said he expects the term ‘agency’ will fade away in the very near future — to be replaced by the more freelancer-friendly title ‘partner.’ Jakeman said, “The agency of the future will need to enthusiastically pull in creative from the worlds of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and other distribution platforms, whether they own them or not.” Both the enterprises themselves and their partners, formerly known as agencies, will increasingly depend on freelancers as the engines of creativity.

Wave 2: Cost reduction pressures tend to spotlight agency extras.

Businesses trusted agencies for their marketing in the past because they had all the bells and whistles. Now every business everywhere is reeling from global competition and a roiling economy. Agency perks like pinball tables and lavish lunches are more likely to be seen for what they truly are: not employee appreciation but showing off for the clients.

Freelancers haven’t found the need to prove themselves by massive displays of wasted cash. Instead, freelancers prove their value by working nights and weekends, putting the client’s interests first. It’s just a fact that some people simply do better work outside the confines of the group. The revenues flowing out of agencies and into freelancers is all the proof you need.

A good indicator of where advertising/marketing is headed is the San Francisco-based startup Collectively, which orchestrates an online marketplace connecting brands with freelancers. New business models like this have popped up all over in response to reports that seven out of 10 brands planned to increase social media spending in the year ahead and seven out of 10 online consumers prefer to hear about their next crush from content instead of ads.

Wave 3: Audiences prefer reality

Advertising professionals have expressed a wide range of reactions to the word authenticity, from ‘De rigueur’ to ‘Makes my skin crawl.’ The principle behind it, though, absolutely dominates contemporary content strategy. People want to believe in something, and it’s getting harder by the hour. Examples of what kinds of balmy ideas they’re willing to believe in is a testament to how strongly people want something to be true.

Agencies are at a disadvantage here. Agencies, due to the nature of business continuity itself, have had to develop a certain slickness as their quirks get filed down by changing leadership. In sharp contrast, freelancers are full on authentic. A freelancer speaks with a singular voice, and freelancers live immersed in contemporary culture up to their eyebrows. That’s why freelance talent has grown more attractive to major brands, such as BBC Worldwide, IBM, the Royal Bank of Canada and VMWare.

Collapsing the Wave Forms

The combination of all three waves adds up to one huge trend. There’s the clearing away of hurdles, a clear cost advantage for freelancers over agencies and the global shift in what kinds of content consumers want to see. There are a host of other smaller ripples spreading across the surface of the business world as well, which are collectively making life easier for freelancers. Those include the proliferation of co-working spaces, low-cost SaaS for handling accounting/finance/back office and new collaboration platforms that have virtually eliminated the need for travel.

Although it’s still early in 2017, the evidence is straight-forward and the conclusion inescapable: It’s your year, freelancers. Enjoy yourselves, but keep your heads about you. There’s a fair chance your client will be calling on Saturday night.