Anybody with experience of agencies and suppliers will know how on the day of a client’s visit, the office suddenly becomes a hive of activity. Previously unseen workers are lined up at desks, toiling away as the visitor passes. When asked, the company will declare that yes, all these people really do work there.
They don’t of course, and maybe nobody really believes in the charade, including the client. But it is an example of the subtle exaggerations which fuel the marketing services sector. Clients expect their suppliers to have the staff required to fulfil a brief, at the same time as they seek to depress costs. For their part, suppliers rely extensively on freelances to meet those demands, sometimes claiming that these people are really on the staff.
In the conferences and events sector, the use of self-employed workers is widespread. “The business relies on freelances for staging and video production, and increasingly for multi-media,” says Nick Lamb, managing director of Crown Communications. “There is a great new breed of producers, technicians and creatives with specific skills who enhance our offering, but who we couldn’t keep on the staff because of cost.”
It is this combination of economics and content which has led to the large-scale casualisation of this sector. By working for a wide range of employers, individuals are assumed to improve their skills and so have more to offer. No one production company could hope to have enough jobs to keep high-calibre individuals busy. At the extreme, this has led to the formation of “virtual companies” like MWA, which only retains 12 full-time staff, drawing on a freelance pool for its main output.
But does this expose freelances to undue pressures or temptations? The nature of the events business is such that skills are usually focused around industry sectors – lighting designers and scriptwriters will specialise in automotive or pharmaceutical, rarely crossing over into other fields. By definition, this means the same set of creatives will work for nearly all the major clients in that sector at some time or other.
Problems may arise if a production company seeks to draw on more than the freelance’s generic knowledge. “We had one incident where another company asked freelances who had worked for us to fill out forms about Crown – key people, clients, etc. That is a potential threat to the integrity of freelances which the business must rely on,” says Lamb.
Just how widespread such interrogations are in this industry is difficult to assess. The reaction of most production companies suggests that they would prefer not to think about the possibility. While most will ask outworkers to sign confidentiality agreements, there is a recognition that these are virtually unenforceable in law. The industry relies on trust and personal integrity.
MWA business development manager Nicky Curran notes “clients don’t tend to specify that staff can’t have worked for their rivals”. A recent questionnaire she sent to clients, which drew 150 responses, revealed that proper use of the brief and attention to the brief were the most important qualities sought from suppliers. Maintaining confidentiality was not mentioned.
This might be because it is tacitly assumed that any information revealed will remain in-house. “A lot of clients need us to get in there at a strategic level. For example, with CitroÃ« we talk through their strategic plans – we need to know them inside out. That is one area where product knowledge is confidential,” says Curran. It is also one client which has insisted the company should not work for another car client.
But according to Jerry Starling, managing director of Kit Peters Extraordinary Events, “very few clients ask us to sign confidentiality agreements. If we have worked on directly competing businesses, we discuss it with the client before it is an issue. We always make sure they are aware of that right up front. So far, nobody has ever said it was a problem”.
Although advertising agencies sometimes find themselves squeezed between two conflicting accounts, across the marketing services industry there is a general acceptance that working for two clients in the same category can be acceptable. A production company with a luxury saloon car client might well also work on a family run-around launch.
Iain Liddiard, presentations director at The Page and Moy Marketing Group, says the industry has to treat its talent as professionals. “Freelances are highly-skilled and should be treated as such. The very nature of freelance working involves rampant job insecurity, therefore trust is vital,” he says.
He believes suppliers should take reasonable precautions against letting valuable information get into the wrong hands. This includes keeping knowledge on a “need-to-know” basis. “We don’t sit around in the bar discussing clients, id eas, potential pitches or profits. The only information freelances pick up is relevant to the client we are currently working with.”
If there is any regulatory body which might impose a code of conduct, it is the International Visual Communications Association. With a growing freelance division of 250, it has a code of ethics that members agree to stick to. IVCA chief executive Martin Walter acknowledges that the code is voluntary, but adds “confidentiality has not come up as a problem area, although I have heard it discussed. Generally speaking, it is a well-understood situation. If you are working for a company, you don’t tell them about anyone else you’re working for at the same time”.
He notes that the IVCA has had some effect in improving conditions for freelances. When concern among self-employed members arose last year over payment periods, the IVCA formulated a checklist for contracts. Since launching it, there have been fewer complaints over delays in giving freelances their money.
Miles Johnson, managing director of The Presentation Company, accepts that money can be an important motivating factor in building loyalty. His company pays up within seven days, although he adds that only four or five freelances are currently employed at the agency. Given that one of its main activities is “inplants” – providing in-house presentation teams for long-term contracts to clients like British American Tobacco – he sees this as a competitive advantage.
“Never would an inplant be a freelance. It is right to raise the question, though. You have to be very, very careful, not just for confidentiality reasons, but for quality, commitment, working to the same agenda. This is a people business – the equipment is easy. If you aren’t working in a unified way, you get problems. It takes a subtle blend to get the mix right,” he says.
What is far less clear cut than confidentiality is the question of intellectual copyright. In this, the events business shares the same difficulty as advertising and marketing. When a new idea emerges, it tends to be picked up on quickly by a whole range of clients.
“It is my personal insecurity,” confesses Starling. “Our usp is that we produce very unusual events, leading the field in ideas. So I am always paranoid about plagiarism.” This is where the role of freelances can become more difficult to police.
If a technician comes up with a new way of pulling off an effect and is commissioned by a client to use it, who does that effect belong to? Since almost any event relies on considerable team work – scriptwriter, producer, director, technicians – no one person is likely to have full knowledge of how to do the job.
While companies fear their best ideas may be leaked to their rivals, freelances fear that their ideas will be simply stolen for the benefit of former employers. “Production companies tend to be fairly liberal with materials produced on behalf of others which they then use as part of their own pitches,” says Jonathan Priest, a long-term freelance scriptwriter and author of the IVCA ethical code.
“You may even be doing it as part of your own credentials. I don’t direct, so if I show a production company something I have written, but I don’t credit the director or producer, they may be losing out,” he says. Although the IVCA requires members to represent themselves fairly, Priest says it is commonplace for freelances’ work to be included on agency showreels.
This may be legitimate, if they are seeking to prove the credentials of a creative who might work on an account. But often, the purpose is to claim a wider field of knowledge and expertise than actually exists. Priest notes that some clients report having seen the same set of work on two different showreels during pitches. “Freelances are very vulnerable and they can’t afford to get litigious,” he says. “It is a very grey area.”