In today’s brave new advertising industry world, agencies in most forms rely on freelancers significantly more than they used to. Increased revenue volatility and a need to sell an ever expanding set of services to keep up with new channels and technologies are the primary drivers of this change.

Yet for many agencies, this increased reliance on freelancers has snuck up on them (and their clients) and as a result their approach can often feel like a throwback to the ‘good old days’ when freelancing was treated as a last resort.  Quite naturally, when this happens, the odds of a successful freelance experience drop significantly.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

So, how can agencies change the way they approach freelancing to make it more reliable, robust and tailored to the current market conditions?

Using our combined agency and freelance marketplace experience, we’ve developed a playbook to help agencies become more strategic in how they approach freelancing.  We’ve broken the playbook into 3 stages:

  • Planning your freelance requirements
  • Building your freelance team
  • Managing your freelance team

We’d be surprised if agencies weren’t already doing parts of what we recommend. However we hope by providing a holistic approach to freelancing, it helps agencies create a sustainable end to end approach.

Part 1 – Planning

Step 1: Shake off the past

Not much will change without committing as an exec team to treat freelancing differently. There needs to be collective acknowledgement of the shift in attitude and behaviour required to make freelancing successful:

  • From an undesirable activity to strategic necessity
  • From an area of risk to point of potential strength (if approached right)
  • From overspending to planned investment
  • From firefighting to forward planning
  • From an ad-hoc activity to an routine activity

It’s worth noting that freelancers are the backbone of many creative and technical industries so it definitely can be achieved. For example 30% of the film and television industry is made of casual employees and this figure is growing year on year. The main difference in these industries is that freelancing is a known construct that everyone in the industry relies on and is organised around.

30% of the film and television industry is made of casual employees and this figure is growing year on year

Step 2: Build your strategic freelance requirements

When looking at freelancing from a strategic perspective, it can deliver the following broad benefits to any business:

  • Staff cost flexibility
  • Access to strategic expertise to deliver a competitive advantage
  • Ability to scale

Therefore as with any strategic imperative, freelance planning should be built into your broader business planning so that a clear set of requirements are developed that align to the direction you’re heading in as a business.

To build your freelancer requirements you will need to consider top down strategic planning and bottom up P&L planning.

Top Down planning

Based on your strategic vision for your business, map out the skills you need irrespective of whether you have them in house or not. Identify the areas that are covered by your full time team and leadership team. Then identify the areas where you will need external support from freelancers or other types of 3rd parties.

Typically and logically, the skills you have in house are the ones that support today’s revenue stream. Whereas you’re unlikely to afford or justify all the skills required to deliver on your future strategic direction. Yet having access to these skill-sets is critical for your future and therefore they can’t be ignored.

Example Skills requirements, mapped against current and future needs

Bottom Up planning

The trap many agencies find themselves in is allocating most of their staff costs to full timers and leaving little or no buffer for freelancers. Invariably the rigidity of a full capacity full time team results in freelancers being needed during the year. This in turn puts a lot of pressure on your bottom line and can lead to blowing your margin, flogging your team or poorly delivering work to your client.

To avoid this happening we recommend building a staffing model that puts aside at least 15% of your staff cost into freelancing. Freelancing Immediately goes from being a threat to your profit to being a lever you can pull to scale up when you’re busy and scale down to manage your profit margin. It also allows for investment into strategically important freelancers without smashing the bottom line.

“we recommend building a staffing model that puts aside at least 15% of your staff cost into freelancing”

“Freelancing Immediately goes from being a threat to your profit to being a lever you can pull to scale up when you’re busy and scale down to manage your profit margin.”

Once you have allocating budget to freelancing (and reduced your FTE budget), you will need to plan your freelance requirements for when there is a need to scale up your current offering during peak periods. This usually means having access to freelancers with the same or similar skill-sets as your FT team.

Step 3: Build a Freelance Pool Matrix

The next step is to combine your top down and bottom up planning and build a Freelance Pool Matrix. A Freelance Pool Matrix is a simply table that outlines the freelance skill-sets required to deliver on your business plan. It operates as a brief to your business and particularly whoever is responsible for recruitment.

Example matrix

I’ve created a working model in the following Google sheet. Feel free to copy and modify.

View Freelance Requirements Matrix 

Start by editing the disciplines you currently sell and want to sell in the future (e.g. Strategy, Growth, UI). Then in each cell add the minimum number of freelancers you expect to need during the year based on capacity relief (when we’re too busy) or supporting a strategic imperative (investing in people to support the a new initiative for the business).

You can then edit the number of freelancer relationships required to cover each freelance need. We recommend at least 2 freelancer relationships in strategic roles and between 3 and 4 relationships in roles where you will need to scale regularly. I’d even go as far to suggest that in high demand roles like UI, UX, Digital Producers and Front End Developers, you should build between 4-6 relationships in each of those disciplines.

We recommend at least 2 freelancer relationships in strategic roles and between 3 and 4 relationships in roles where you will need to scale regularly.

Then sum up all of the roles to get a full picture of the total scope of your freelance pool requirements.

With this simple matrix, your business is now armed with the information to shift from reacting to urgent freelance needs to proactively building a pool of freelancers that are mapped to your strategic vision.

Part 2 – Build your Freelance Pool

Once you’ve developed a set of freelance requirements mapped to your strategic needs. the next step is to build a pool of ‘go to’ freelancers.

Use Marketplaces to shortcut finding candidates

In the past, building a pool was incredibly hard unless you were a large agency, with a talent team and lots of connections into the industry. Now it’s easy for any sized agency or company to build a pool using marketplaces like Cavalry.  Key features of a marketplaces typically include:

  • A shortlist can be created quickly via targeted gig alerts to freelancers
  • Search algorithm that matches based on specialism, skills, availability & reputation
  • Shortlist & rich profiles can be shared across teams
  • Freelancers can be messaged and booked
  • Company feedback & freelancer endorsements
  • A roster of ‘go to’ freelancers can be created and managed holistically

Put time aside to meet and vet

As with any strategic initiative, you need to put the time in early guarantee results in the long term. WIth freelancing it’s no different. We recommend you or your team putting aside time weekly to meet and vet new freelancers:

  • Prioritise business critical roles that are in high demand
  • Source & share a Shortlist via agreed sources
  • Make 3 interviews a weekly routine
  • Put freelancers into your Roster

Build a central sharable Roster

The freelance pool needs to live somewhere useful and practical. To ensure the freelance pool is an agency wide document that can transcend any one person, we recommend building an online Roster which has the following benefits:

  • Easily maintainable & shareable
  • Contact freelancers directly & quickly
  • Keep notes (rates, performance)
  • View availability
  • Freelancers manage their details

Our Cavalry Roster has all of these features plus you can book freelancers directly from it.

Cavalry Freelance Roster

Part 3 – Monitor and manage

The final part of the Freelance playbook for agencies is to build a practice of monitoring and managing your freelance requirements and team.  We dive into detail about how to build loyalty with freelancers and ensure you create an environment for success. We also touch on how best to resource plan to ensure that you’re getting early warning signs of up and coming freelance needs.

Treat freelancers like life-time customers

Most companies treat freelance relationships as transactional. In market where the demand for certain freelance discipline outstrips supply, companies need to acknowledge that they need to attract and retain the freelancers they work with.  A simple approach is to treat freelancers like a life-time customer?

  1. Establish relationship & emotional connection – “We get on and agree what great looks like. They know the work I’m looking for”
  2. Established formal preference on both sides – “I know that I’ll be first or second choice for the work I like. Plus the rates are good. So I’ll let them know first when I’m becoming free. “
  3. Maintain regular contact – “We check in once a month and I know when there are projects coming up. I occasionally meet the team at the pub”
  4. Interesting Project Opportunities – “I’m the first to see opportunities when they hit”
  5. Repeat Gigs – “I enjoyed the gig because of …The work, Team, Clear leadership”

Monthly Resource forecasting

With 17 years of ad industry experience, I know how unrealistic it is to challenge agencies to avoid urgent last minute requirements for freelancers.  However there are definitely ways to improve visibility of your resource needs so that the urgent freelance briefs become the exception rather than the norm.

The key is to continually build resource forecasts as early as possible and identify where there may be future resource pinches with your current team.

A bottom up way of doing that is via resource booking that occurs off the back of project planning. Tools like Resource Guru and 10,000ft are great tools to support this. However this approach typically only gives you a month or two worth of visibility and usually only relates to projects that are scoped. Therefore it’s usually only half the picture.

While imperfect, the most comprehensive ‘top down’ view of the future workload is an agencies revenue forecast / pipeline. This generally has the most up to date view on the potential projects and revenue from every client and new business opportunity. It will also show at a macro level, whether your forecasted revenue from a billability standpoint puts your FTE team into a unsustainably high level of utilisation that would require a ‘superhuman’ effort to deliver upon.

From here you will need to translate revenue forecasts into a rough resource forecast that can then be mapped against your current team structure and by doing so highlight where there are future areas where you will need to scale up with freelancers.  This should give you confidence to start sourcing and meeting with freelancers so that once the project comes around, you’re ready to pull the trigger.

Approval of freelancers

Crudely speaking, the approval of freelancers should be split into “church and state” so to speak. The lead of the department should absolutely decide on the freelancer that best matches the skill-set required, team dynamics and budget allocated.

However, the final go ahead needs to be made with consideration to the impact it will have on the broader business. Therefore the decision should sit with the MD or CFO who has the commercial context and is ultimately responsible for hitting business targets.

The prerequisites for a decision should be :

  1. The work being signed off by the client or by senior management (as a business decision)
  2. The rates and duration of the proposed freelance contract correspond to the approved client Statement of Work if the freelancer is directly being paid for by a project fee
  3. There is evidence that all FTE’s with the same capability are at full capacity
  4. That there is an understanding and acceptance of the impact of bringing in a freelancer to the margin targets of that month.

Create an environment for success

A good working environment and team can make a huge amount of difference to the success a freelancer has within your organisation.  Below are some suggestions:

  • Good briefing, QA and background info
  • Realistic timelines based on scope discussions
  • An agreed scope vs decreed scope
  • Good oversight
  • A sense of team
  • A technology stack that is conducive to fluid communications and working. E.g.
    • Slack – for team comms
    • Asana, Trello – for program management
    • Google Docs – for collaborative working
  • Credit freelancers on projects – The work is critical to their career growth
  • Pay them on reasonable terms – 14 days is reasonable

In summary

Our Freelance playbook for agencies covers the planning, implementation and management of a strategically focused freelance program. The goal is to help companies who want to change the way they approach freelancing to make it more reliable, robust and tailored to the current market conditions?

A summary of the key steps are:

  1. Incorporate freelancing into business planning and build a strategic set of freelance requirements
  2. Building an always on Freelance Management program
  3. Treat freelancers like loyal customers and create an environment for success

We hope its useful. Any suggestions or feedback welcome.


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