With the decline of annual retainers, could it be time to trim the fat?

Nicholas Cox, founder and director at creative recruitment agency, the People Place, examines the trends of project-based work rather than retainers, the growing reliance on creative freelancers, and the consequences on the creative industry.

As the founder of the People Place, a recruitment agency servicing the creative industry, I chat to different people and places every day about what they need and want. These conversations are always enlightening, but over the past couple of months they’ve become even more so. You see, I’ve started to notice a common theme emerging from both sides of the fence.

Australia-wide, workplaces and the creative workforce are undergoing a transformative shift. It’s an evolution shaped by economic pressures, tech advancements, and changing client needs.

Gone are the days of large annual retainers. We’ve now reached a point where project-based work is the norm, and so agencies are leaning on freelancers and contractors more and more. This strategy enables them to adapt their business model, assembling the ideal team for each specific brief. Horses for courses, as they say.

While this shift is apparent all around the world, in many ways, the trends are intensified in the Australian market. Here are some of the most obvious and interesting.

The rise of freelance and contract work

One notable trend is the industry’s growing reliance on freelancers and contractors. This way of working allows agencies to remain agile, scaling their workforce up or down depending on project demands. It offers the flexibility to curate teams with the precise skill sets required for particular client briefs, optimising creative output and budget efficiency. Lean, mean idea machines always at the ready.

This operational model aligns with the growing number of professionals seeking freelance opportunities, too. And it’s not just creatives. From strategists to producers and everyone in between, a growing number of our peers are contemplating a transition to freelance work within the next 12–18 months. They’re drawn by the promise of variety, autonomy, and the potential for better work-life balance. But, interestingly, they also see project-based work as providing a greater opportunity to be involved from idea inception to campaign completion.

The emergence of independent agencies and in-house studios

The past decade has seen a real explosion of independent agencies and in-house teams all across the country. Their fresh new ways of working have not only resulted in the movement of many large accounts but, ultimately, they’ve shaken up the entire industry.

It’s now common for brands to work with a number of specialist suppliers – creative agencies, design agencies, content studios and the like, all forming a collaborative agency village.

There’s also a real appetite from brands, both big and small, to bolster their in-house teams. This isn’t born of a desire to replace their creative agencies. Rather, they’re looking to enhance their own creative capabilities to cover a lot of day-to-day work internally, bringing costs down and efficiencies up.

It’s easy to see why large annual retainers are nowhere near as prevalent these days. Instead, many agencies are working with their core clients on a project basis.

The impact of AI on the creative industry

By now, we’ve all heard that the machines are coming for our jobs. While AI is unlikely to destroy the creative industry, it has certainly disrupted the way we work, and will continue to do so.

AI tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, offering the potential to automate routine tasks, enhance creative workflows, and provide data-driven insights that can inform strategy and content creation. For agencies and brands alike, the integration of AI into creative processes presents an opportunity to reallocate human talent to more strategic, innovative tasks.

Over the coming months and years, this will again shift what clients brief out to their agencies versus what they’re ultimately able to cover with their in-house team.

So, where to from here?

It’s clear that the Australian creative industry is at a crossroads, shaped by changing client demands, rapid advancements in tech, and a marked shift towards more flexible, project-based work.

Agencies must continue to adapt, embracing flexible business models and exploring new technologies to stay competitive. The increasing importance of strategic partnerships, both with freelancers and independent agencies, will likely lead to a more interconnected ecosystem of creative services.

I have a feeling that the people and places that will thrive in this new landscape are those that embrace change, foster innovation, and prioritise agility and collaboration. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the next few years play out.

Nicholas Cox is the founder and director of the People Place.


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