Four Stages of Recovery

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Published:  February 17, 2010
Four Stages of Recovery

The GFC took some stuffing out of us all over these past 12 months. However, what the past year has allowed us to do is really take stock of our clients, our business, the creative industry and where we all fit within it.

Recruitment is of course the core business of Aquent, so I thought it would be interesting to define the ‘four stages of recovery’ model vs. what we at Aquent have experienced throughout our Australia/New Zealand region focussing on the recruitment demand. This analysis will also help us all plan ahead for the future in terms of temporary and permanent hires.

Stage 1 – Economic Downturn begins to impact, but is not an obvious as our temporary business is still buoyant while permanent hires begin to slow, quite dramatically. Clients become nervous to hire full time staff; we saw this start to happen around October 2008 and by December 2008 permanent hires had reduced by at least 50% in some markets. But it was in December, which is renowned for slow permanent turnaround that we found more freelancers were in contact looking for work, coupled with talent in permanent positions calling for advice on what was starting to happen. Some talent also started to be made redundant.

Stage 2 – Our temporary business begins react to the economic situation, slowing down and reducing over the first three to four months of 2009. After the flurry of temporary jobs in January and early February, temp declined by about 30%- 40% in Sydney, more in some other markets by May 2009. Our permanent business came to a stand still for some of this time with the occasional rehire of the odd position. Many people simply had to “cope”, worked longer hours instead of bringing in freelancers and everything became rather stagnant for about three months in the middle of the year. Many freelancers did not have any work for this period of time. Existing clients often rebooked those that they had worked with regularly before, but hours were very tight with most people being on half day or full day bookings at a time. Many who had worked with only one or two clients throughout 2008 where left hung out to dry somewhat if these clients had no freelance demand. There was very little opportunity at all for new talent to be placed with new clients unless in very niche areas such as high-end retouching or FMCG packaging or for a very specific creative brief. However, these bookings were still very short in length and we saw mass nervousness from clients when trying to promote someone new in, even for skills highly sought after.

As a result, we saw a large portion of freelance talent return to the UK and also a large portion of Australian freelance talent return home from London to just as bleak employment options here.

Stage 3 – The tide begins to turn, temporary demand increases again, spiking at times and being rather volatile until confidence in the market returns with some levels of consistency. Our temporary business gains momentum and permanent hires begin to appear again. Confidence in permanent hiring is still very premature and the permanent process takes longer or is not completed thus morphing back into temporary or contract hires. The green shoots of recovery start appearing in most sectors of the market, confirming a general attitude across the industry moving more to the positive. There are many signs currently that we are heading in to, if not just at the beginning of stage three; Since mid-September we saw a higher level of temporary demand and since mid-October we saw more committed, realistic permanent job briefs than in 2009. We stayed busy with freelance bookings up until the end of last year, with many talent being rebooked from January onwards with the same clients. Freelancers in general seemed a lot busier with their own clients as well as bookings through us and other niche recruiters. We still did not see many new business bookings, but certainly an increase in the number of freelancers being used and for the length of time they were being booked for. Our clients seem happier to commit to a few weeks at a time rather than the day-by-day hesitancy we had seen throughout the rest of 2009. Yet, these figures are still nowhere near what one would expect if we were on the brink of heading into stage four.

Stage 4 – The boom begins! Both temporary and permanent hires are very buoyant; permanent hiring at times begins to take over temporary volume. The market can become crippled by a talent shortage for permanent hires and as a result increases pressure on temporary demand. Temporary bookings become longer, often seeing individuals within studios for three months as a minimum. The temporary talent shortage potentially becomes an issue.
After just experiencing my fourth January running a freelance desk at Aquent, I must say everything seems a lot more positive than last year, and dare I say it, even the year before that.
After looking at this model and what we have seen so far over the past 12-16 months, it is hard to gauge when stage three will fully kick in and when stage four will arrive. There are also some murmurs that another downturn looms, but if the signs we have seen so far continue to be consistent, this year will see stage three take hold.

There are a couple of major things I have noticed so far this year that are different to 2009. Firstly the general “attitude” and “feeling” out in the market seems rather up beat and positive with most planning a good year ahead. I remember discussing with clients and talent alike last year the reasons for everything grinding to a halt and rarely was I given an answer that related to not having any money to spend on design. The money was there, but many agencies’ clients just wanted to hold fire on projects to wait and see what happens, due to media reports of the downturn. There was nothing they could do to change their mind and there was nothing their direct freelancers and we could do to change theirs and make work appear again. We just had to ride it out and sadly some of the downturn perhaps was caused by the media negativity.  So this newly upbeat feeling is welcomed with open arms and seems to be trickling down from agencies’ clients through to the freelance demand we are seeing.
Jobs are back on, new jobs are coming in and clients are utilising freelancers again for overflow finished artwork and for specific creative briefs. I do still feel we are not where we were in 2006  or 2007, but we are certainly seeing signs of more positivity than we have in a long time.

Another development we have noticed is the benchmark has been raised somewhat in the presentation of many CV’s and samples. This has been helped along with the revolution of online profile presentation, but it is so refreshing to see more choice and variety out there and the interesting ways people are presenting themselves. During the boom, when good talent were like gold dust, there seemed very little need at times for a CV, let alone a sampler. Many freelance finished artists relied successfully on word of mouth to find jobs. It seemed only creatives required a sampler and often there was no requirement to view the whole portfolio. (I remember many moons ago trying to help designers get into some agencies and they were expected to leave their portfolio at reception, or with the CD’s PA for them to view at their discretion, 1-3 weeks was an acceptable turn around time… and saw myself and the talent often running all over London picking up and dropping off a bulging A2 folder of creativity… Oh how times have changed!)
We often comment that every cloud has a silver lining, and I think there was one thanks to the 2009 depression (or should I say “blip” as I think we all managed to avoid rationed canned food). It forced many freelancers to check themselves. We encouraged as many people as possible to identify and focus on what they did and liked best – that’s a challenge in itself – and promote themselves as best they could in that field. It started with print designers thinking of more engaging ways to present their samples and even meant many of our finished artists now have a rather impressive portfolio. We said to many at the time and I say to you now, don’t be afraid to put it in, as long as you’re honest about what part you did. It all tells a story of you and your best bits and that’s after all the whole point.

The final thing for now—I have noticed the additional raised benchmark in freelance attitude, flexibility and dedication. During the boom all that really mattered was their technical capability and/or the level of conceptual creative that could be produced in a tight time frame. Dare I say it, if the freelancer was rude, disgruntled, precious, smelly, scruffy or regularly late there was this strange acceptance at times, as long as the job was done well. I can relate it back to recruitment industry somewhat. Until last year many recruiters could get away with being rude, unknowledgeable and quite frankly, complete cowboys at times. Thankfully, that’s all out the window now and won’t wash with even your most easy-going client. I do feel we have a very high standard of freelance talent in Australia that often goes unrecognised and thankfully these people were the minority. I think those that did take a good look at themselves and bravely identified what they had become, used the reality check to re-present themselves in 2010 in a much more positive way. Freelancers now know that the key to being successful in a downturn as well as an upturn is to make sure you leave every place wanting to rebook you. Coupled with better quality creative being produced by many as a result of the extra effort, I think this year we’ll see some of the best freelancers on the market than we have seen in a long time.

It is also equally as important for companies to ensure they make their favourites feel welcome and keen to return, because as the freelance demand increases, this is critical to maintaining consistency with the bodies in the studio. In my next blog I look forward to talking more about things to look out for and to take into consideration when hiring both temporary and permanent talent throughout the next two stages of recovery.

Catherine Wiggett joined Aquent in November 2005, after over two years experience recruiting creatives in London. She has a total of eight years recruitment experience, six of which have been spent in the creative industry. Catherine prides herself on focusing on the importance of relationship building to be successful rather than forcing unhappy people into unsuitable jobs. She now manages a busy freelance desk, working to consistently keep her clients and the Aquent talent happily working together…ahh Zen. She can be contacted via www.aquent.com.au/go/CatherineWiggett

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