In 2019, almost 90% of business leaders saw freelance talent platforms as “very important” to the future of their business, and 60% of them said that it was “highly” or “somewhat” likely that their full-time workforce would shrink in the future.
That’s what researchers at Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report in “Building the On-Demand Workforce.”
Flash forward a few years, and those leaders seem prescient.
In 2020, the pandemic began and the full-time workforce shrank thanks to layoffs and budget cuts. The number of freelancers rose sharply.
In 2021, the Great Resignation made it tough to rebuild full-time teams. Marketing teams were no exception; in a survey MarketerHire conducted last summer, 45% of marketers said they planned to quit their full-time jobs.
Marketing leaders started hiring freelancers to get projects over the line — and the arrangement feels sustainable.
About 80% of marketing leaders had worked with a freelancer recently, and 72% of those leaders would describe the experience as “great,” according to a recent MarketerHire report.
About 80% of marketing leaders have worked with a freelancer recently, and 72% of those leaders would describe the experience as “great.”
Running a freelance business suits freelancers, too; even before the pandemic, they increasingly saw self-employment as a long-term career path.
Now, we see a lot of tweets like this:
Today, anyone hiring marketers needs to think seriously about the trade-offs between freelancers, full-time hires and agencies.
Below, we rounded up some insights on the pros and cons of each type of talent from:
- Taha Ahmed, VP of business development at Forbes
- Brandon Rhoten, consultant and former CMO of Potbelly
- Chris Toy, CEO of MarketerHire
- Camille Trent, head of content at Dooly
- Marc Barraza, director of paid media at MarketerHire
- Tracey Wallace, director of marketing at MarketerHire
The pros of freelancers
Freelancers are having a moment right now. Here are some of the key benefits that set them apart from other types of talent.
They can start promptly.
A freelance marketer is great for an urgent project. They don’t have to give notice with their current employer; they’re available promptly. At MarketerHire, once a client requests a marketer, it can take as little as three days for a freelancer to start work.
In MarketerHire’s recent report, 94% of respondents agreed that freelancers shorten the time it takes to hire.
This nimbleness comes up in the Harvard report, “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” too — more than 40% of respondents said that “using new talent platforms helped [their] organization hasten speed to market.”
They can hit the ground running.
Many freelance marketers — especially the vetted ones in the MarketerHire community — know their preferred channels inside and out, from multiple clients’ perspectives.
They can be treated more as expert collaborators than green employees, and they rarely need extensive onboarding.
In fact, they may have more recent, relevant experience with certain marketing initiatives than their clients do. A first for a client isn’t necessarily a first for a freelance marketer — freelancers thrive on jobs repeated across organizations but not necessarily within them.
For instance: When Whole30 launched its DTC salad dressings in January 2021, the company had never launched an e-commerce shop before — but they worked with a freelancer who had.
“We definitely blew our forecast sales away,” Whole30 co-founder and CEO Melissa Urban told MarketerHire.
They’ve seen your tech stack before — especially if you’re a DTC brand.
At least on a macro level, direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands are “all doing the same thing,” Toy noted.
Many rely on the same marketing channels and software. “If you took 10 DTC companies, I can tell you within 90% accuracy what technology they use,” Toy said. “Most of them use Klaviyo, for example.”
“If you took 10 DTC companies, I can tell you within 90% accuracy what technology they use.”
Freelance marketers with DTC backgrounds have the right skillset for your tech stack — and frankly, they might know it better than you.
They’re agile hires.
You can work with freelancers for as long (or short) as you need them. "It could be six months or six weeks," Toy said.
No one knows what their business will need in the future — and working with freelancers, you don’t need to. Employers don’t have to state an endpoint, or make a long-term commitment, to start a contract.
“Freelancers have given me a tremendous amount of flexibility to move things quickly in the event something is not working,” Forbes’ VP of Corporate Development Taha Ahmed told MarketerHire.
“Freelancers have given me a tremendous amount of flexibility to move things quickly in the event something is not working.”
And ending a freelance engagement isn’t emotionally fraught the way letting a full-time employee go is; it’s expected.
They have stellar resumes.
Companies can often afford top talent on a freelance basis. Think marketers who have made major, measurable impact with recent, high-caliber clients — and can use the latest martech to boot.
“A much better marketer will freelance for you than will work for you at 99% of companies,” Toy said.
“A much better marketer will freelance for you than will work for you at 99% of companies.”
What does “better” mean, exactly? Toy usually assesses marketers based on…
- What they’ve done lately
- Who they’ve done it for
- What results they’ve achieved
Things change fast in digital marketing, so it doesn’t always make sense to focus on years of experience as a quality indicator.
They’re a flexible expense.
Speaking of affording things — freelancers are often the most affordable of the three types of marketing talent, even if their hourly rate sounds high.
They can work full-time, part-time, or hourly — and when you don’t have essential work for them, you can cut their hours (or let them go entirely).
In other words, you only pay for the freelance work you need.
The cons of freelancers
In MarketerHire’s recent report, 83% of respondents who had hired freelancers were initially hesitant to do it (though 97% of them said it paid off). Why? Here are some potential drawbacks to freelance hires.
They can be tough to integrate into existing systems.
In “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” researchers noted that C-suite executives saw major potential in hiring contractors through digital freelancing platforms — but middle managers saw “the looming challenges of implementation.”
Especially in large, complex bureaucracies that haven’t historically worked with freelancers, unlocking the power of freelancers can take some work up front. It might mean retooling existing workflows, or breaking down amorphous business objectives into clearly-defined projects.
Check out MarketerHire’s freelancer onboarding workflow here.
Freelance engagements can also require an HR reboot; typically, human resources designs onboarding and training protocols with full-time hires in mind, the Harvard and BCG researchers noted.
They can quit suddenly.
You’re not the only one who can end your collaboration with a freelance marketer. They can leave, too, for higher-paying work, personal reasons, or for no reason at all.
This can be inconvenient — though it’s worth noting that full-time employees, too, can depart at inconvenient times.
At MarketerHire, “we don’t hide from the fact that things change,” Toy said. “We embrace resourcing being something that is agile and lean… That’s why we’ll match [clients] so fast.”
“We embrace resourcing being something that is agile and lean… That’s why we’ll match [clients] so fast.”
The pros of full-time hires
Full-time hires have been the norm for decades — and that’s not just by chance. Here are some of the unique benefits of a full-time team member.
They’re in it for the long haul.
A full-time hire involves a higher “level of mutual commitment,” Toy said, than a freelancer does.
Yes, they’re likely an at-will employee, but that doesn’t mean you can really terminate them with no consequences. Firing employees hurts team morale, and has implications for your unemployment insurance.
A full-time hire has incentives to stick with you, too; it’s a “red flag to hiring managers” if full-time employees routinely jump ship before their one-year anniversary with a company, CNBC reports.
They can tackle idiosyncratic jobs...
If you’re looking for someone “scrappy” to make 100 phone calls, then write an email campaign, then tackle who knows what, ”it’s probably better as an in-house process,” Toy said.
The same applies if you have a highly unusual role and you “want someone to mold into the job.”
Full-time hires make sense for recurring internal tasks that are highly specific to one company — so much so that even experienced marketers won’t have seen them before.
...and fluid projects.
Unlike freelancers or agencies, you are your full-time employees’ only client. That means they’re easier to tap for spontaneous brainstorms and clarifying conversations about ambiguous projects, the Harvard and BCG researchers reported.
Full-time employees can reprioritize to accommodate changes, even abrupt ones, almost immediately.
They know your brand inside and out.
Independent contractors and agencies can help you see where your business fits into the larger market, but neither will get to know the granular inner workings of your business, and the nuances of its values and voice, quite like a full-time employee.
Brandon Rhoten, former CMO of Potbelly, has often worked with agencies and full-time employees simultaneously.
“There's a lot of value in having an agency partner,” he told MarketerHire, but “the agency can never know the brand as well as the in-house team.”
“[An] agency can never know the brand as well as the in-house team.”
The cons of full-time hires
Sure, full-time hiring takes more commitment from both sides — but that doesn’t always make life easier. Here are some of the potential downsides to a full-time hire.
It’s a heavy lift to hire them...
It’s much more labor-intensive to hire a full-time employee than a contractor. You don’t want to make a long-term commitment to just anyone — and neither do your candidates.
“More commitment is harder to get in any context,” Toy said. “Just like it's easier to date someone than it is to get them to marry you, that [full-time employee] commitment requires you to put more effort into recruiting.”
“Just like it's easier to date someone than it is to get them to marry you, that [full-time employee] commitment requires you to put more effort into recruiting.”
That means more manpower, more money, and most importantly, more time.
It takes an average of 42 days to make a full-time hire, the Society of Human Resource Management reports, and for early-stage startups, hiring a first marketer can take even longer — think three to six months, long-time marketer Arielle Jackson told the First Round Review.
...or let them go.
Letting full time employees go is awkward, and can turn into a PR catastrophe if mishandled.
When Better.com’s CEO Vishal Garg laid of 900 workers in one mass Zoom call (right before the 2021 holidays!), citing “underperformance,” video of the call went viral on social.
To save time and keep spirits up, a lot of companies stick with talent they only half-like, Toy said.
Hiring them requires compromise, especially on quality.
As the old saw goes, you can pick two: good, cheap, or fast.
That definitely applies to hiring full-time employees, Toy said. Often, to speed things up, he’s seen companies spend more than they’d like, or compromise on quality and hire someone “meh.”
Not that you want the best marketer in the world — that rarely makes financial sense. But even a solid marketer might be out of your price range if you demand full-time fealty.
They’re a fixed cost.
You can’t scale a full-time employee’s hours up and down as your business needs (and revenue) evolve.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many companies have implemented salary cuts, but that’s a rarity – usually, even during a lean month, you still have to pay your salaried employees.
The pros of agencies
A typical Fortune 500 company probably works with one or more agencies — and it’s not just because Mad Men made them cool. Here are some of the reasons agencies stand out.
They’re a hivemind.
...or a team, as normal people call it. A marketing agency can offer you something most individual marketers can’t: a trifecta of broad, deep, and current marketing expertise.
That’s truer now than ever. Agencies are increasingly merging into one-stop marketing shops with excellent creative and data teams, perhaps anticipating — or responding to? — major corporations’ shift to a single-agency approach.
Obviously, agency owners welcome (or at least take) client feedback — but unlike individual hires, agencies rarely require high-touch management. They have their own internal project management processes that ensure things hum along smoothly.
(And unlike an individual hire, agencies don’t get sick or go on vacation.)
“With an agency, you pay extra for that reliability,” said Camille Trent, head of content at Dooly and an agency alumna.
“With an agency, you pay extra for that reliability.”
They can help you figure out what you want.
If you don’t have the first clue about marketing, an agency can turn that into a success story more easily than a freelancer or an employee.
Agencies can excavate new clients’ needs and meet them — though so can MarketerHire’s consultative sales team. We combine the breadth of expertise of an agency with the lower price point of freelancers.
The cons of agencies
Why doesn’t everyone work with agencies, all the time? Well, like every type of marketing talent, they have their downsides.
Agencies often have higher minimum retainers and hourly prices than individual marketers, which makes sense — you’re hiring a team, after all.
So it’s worth asking yourself if you need a full team.
Especially for early-stage companies strapped for cash, the answer might be no, Toy said.
Agency pricing can also balloon over time, said Tracey Wallace, MarketerHire’s director of marketing.
Many ad agencies charge in proportion to your ad spend, so as you grow, so does their price tag — even if they aren’t the ones driving your growth.
Luckily, agencies don’t have a monopoly on marketers with agency experience. Many freelance marketers started their careers at agencies.
Luckily, agencies don’t have a monopoly on marketers with agency experience. Many freelance marketers started their careers at agencies.
Their orgs can be siloed in confusing ways.
When you’re a business owner hiring a freelancer or employee, the person you negotiate the contract with is the same person who executes the work.
There’s not always a single source of truth at an agency, though.
Many agencies have separate sales and execution teams, and they don’t always communicate well about client projects, noted Marc Barraza, director of paid media at MarketerHire and an agency alumnus.
Sales can sometimes create unrealistic expectations, and set clients up for disappointment.
They struggle with employee turnover.
If you hire Wieden + Kennedy, you’re not necessarily hiring the same team that made Old Spice’s viral “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad.
At ad agencies, employee turnover has long been higher than it is in related sectors, due to issues with career progression, agency leadership and more.
“Most agency folks stick around for one or two years,” Barraza said.
“Most agency folks stick around for one or two years.”
That means when you pay for an agency, you’re paying for brand name, in-house processes, and institutional knowledge.
But you’re not necessarily paying for work from the same videographers, copywriters and graphic designers whose work you know and love.
What type of talent is right for you?
That's up to you — and remember, you don't have to pick just one type of talent!
As the Harvard and BCG researchers note in “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” many major companies layer together all three types of marketing talent — freelancers, full-time employees and remote workers — to build a hybrid workforce.
One thing’s for sure, though: If you don’t at least consider outsourcing work to freelancers, your competitors will.
In MarketerHire’s recent report, 95% of respondents’ employers were more interested in hiring freelance marketers due to pandemic uncertainty and a tight labor market.
And the majority of respondents — 58% — planned to increase their freelance budgets in 2022.
58% of marketing leaders plan to increase their freelance budgets in 2022.
If you’re in the middle of a recruiting push and you...
- Want marketing talent fast
- Want the expertise of a long-time marketer, without the expense of a full agency team
- Want to keep your recurring marketing expenses flexible
…then hiring expert freelancers might be a fit for you.
Still not sure what type of talent is right for you? Take our one-minute quiz:
This story was originally published on January 6, 2021 and updated on January 20, 2022.