There might be a hiring freeze, resulting in lucrative freelance work for the old pros, but that will soon come to an end and then they need to find those young superstars to join the industry.
For some time now, most multi- national media agencies in South Africa have been wrestling with strict network instructions to freeze all new hires and have introduced arduous replacement processes. The intention has been good, but as we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In order to continue servicing clients and meeting company growth objectives, the only route open has been to employ freelance or contract professionals. While this addresses the immediate need it has an unfortunate and inflationary consequence – in fact several.
Before we come to these, perhaps it’s opportune to say that the tide is changing as networks are realising that expedient solutions are probably not the best. Headcount control does not ensure a healthy balance sheet.
So what are the consequences?
Firstly, contract support costs more… and rightly so. There’s no guarantee of employment, sick leave or holiday pay. Also pension and medical aid costs have to be covered somehow. When these factors are considered, it’s clear in fact that unless you’re very good, you’re probably going to have more free time than your full-time working colleagues.
But the impact goes way beyond costs.
Client relationships are compromised as freelance resources are only on hand to deliver on expectations and not really to build relationships. We know that chemistry is key to these relationships as we all weather the uncertainty of poor media currencies and increasing unpredictability from our state broadcaster.
With skills in short supply generally, many permanent staff members are looking at freelance rates and increasingly demanding similar remuneration. Frankly this is insane. Clients won’t pay these rates and agencies cannot run all their clients at a loss, no matter how blue chip or internationally aligned they are.
As freelance or contract resources are constantly on the move, agency proprietary tools are rarely used. This weakens the media offering and drives brand parity.
Control over the process is weakened as much of the work is developed off premises.
Mentorship has suffered, which is affecting – and will continue to affect – the transfer of skills to the next generation of media professionals. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed the experienced and productive levels within our industry are increasingly reliant on either freelance resources or individuals reaching their sell-by dates. The natural development of a succession level has all but disappeared. Those who have been looking for new staff will attest to this reality.
This situation is not sustainable in the long term as freelance prices will eventually become too much. The Monopoly board is changing and I believe that freelancers are starting to price themselves out of the market. When their demand starts waning they’ll realise that suddenly you’re in a position where you’re no longer the flavour of the month. As an industry and as individuals, we should realise that we’re not superstars.
But like everything in life there is a cycle and balance will be restored.
There’s nothing free about freelance!
The current path is simply not sustainable and once the tide turns we’ll either see freelance resources returning to full-time employment or disappearing into the clients’ or media owners’ structures. Age, I believe, will be a major factor here. Those who continue to follow a freelance career path will quickly realise that their previous popularity and celebrity status were only there because of their client assignments. Personality, intellect and wit have very little to do with media owner popularity in the media business.
So, that said, what about the next generation? I do believe that the next generation of media stars are there, they’re just not necessarily in our industry at the moment. We, the industry thought leaders, should go out and find them by broadening the boundaries of our search. And once we find them, we need to stimulate, retain and invest in them if we are to meet the growing global media expectations.
It’s time to give and share. We should be providing jobs, bringing people in from the bottom and training them. We need to develop them, create protégés, people who aspire to be the next generation. Create legacies.
We should not be surprised at the shortage of talent nor the fact that (in my opinion) the average age of media professionals has never been higher. As an industry we’re confused by the ‘shortage’ and ‘challenged’ by the need to transform.
Each year the various industry training centres churn out young people with the promise of long and stimulating careers… sadly most are disillusioned. As an industry, we require talent – talented people are not average, nor should they be. As a young man entering the advertising industry, I was made acutely aware that it was a privilege to be part of this select group. You earned the opportunity – it was not sold to you. The industry attraction was fuelled by word-of-mouth and the almost superhero status with which society viewed the advertising professional.
Perhaps we’re trying too hard to entice students into our industry? Maybe we should rather make our industry discerning about whom we recruit.
Make no mistake: our industry is not for everyone. I am, however, still proud when I see consumer insights exploited, that specially negotiated television activation come to fruition, or the ideal position in the newspaper that’s never been done before and knowing that what I do has a direct impact on my client’s objectives. n
Gordon Patterson is group managing director of The Starcom MediaVest Group and chairman of VivaKi South Africa.
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