Like much of the lexicon in our industry, the word freelance is rooted in the martial dictionary. The term itself refers to mercenaries (ouch!) whose lance, as it were, is not as much free of charge as it is independent from any allegiance.
At face value, this doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture. Indeed, it gets worse if you dig a little further: men operating in what were called ‘free companies’ as sidekicks to regular troops regularly spent their free time merrily plundering and pillaging villages that happened to be in the vicinity.
In other words, that freelancer you have just employed to cover for an art director that’s gone AWOL, doesn’t exactly carry the greatest of historical references. And yet, when looking at him or her, you may well be looking at the future of the creative department – and probably beyond. For one thing, the financial pressure on agencies often manifests itself in the need to keep the headcount down, a phenomenon which, in times of tight client budgets, contributes to overworked staff.
But beyond finance, there is a more important factor at play today – a factor that is causing agencies to employ a fast-increasing number of freelancers, and that’s specialisation.
You see, the best freelancers are not jacks-of-all-trades. The rise of the internet, but also job instability and, most importantly, the collaboration imperative, has opened a multitude of narrow windows that are best accessed by people who make them their bread and butter. This is already changing not just agencies’ staffing, but also the way they deal with those erstwhile mercenaries. From a necessary evil, they have become a necessity and, accordingly, should be looked at from a new perspective.
Freelance personnel, already carrying anxieties associated with the precariousness their job implies, are often left with their task as their only companion and suffer from exclusion. What is needed, beyond the usual temp contract – itself a protection against any residual pillaging instincts – is an unwritten freelancers’ charter, one that ensures that those would-be soldiers of fortune do make an allegiance, albeit temporary, but based on symbiosis rather than mere logistics.