January 10, 2020

Agency-grade freelancer

The dedicated branding industry has become a fierce mix of factors, often at odds with delivering the soft power of brands. Direct exposure to these factors isn't conducive to high calibre brand identity outputs and less experienced hands-on creatives, in particular, need to be shielded from them. The traditional dedicated brand agency tends to rely on a hierarchy of roles to provide a safe haven for creatives at the Mac

Externally, this 'shielding of creatives' includes new business, front of house and client service roles, alongside director level creatives. Internally, this is usually a Design or Creative Director who's job exists, in part, to fend off less experienced client services people. Misplaced demands from unchecked client services can be damaging. And hence, the historical – often testy – divide between creatives and 'suits'. One of the counter-intuitive and meta ironies, in my experience, is that it's often the 'suits' who are responsible for delivering the most important creative work and creatives at the Mac merely execute on-trend

The soft power of brands result from those 'aha moments' that makes branding so worthwhile. Think FedEx, Honda, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Ikea. These 'aha moments' require nested sets of branded elements and related media experiences that enable people to 'join the dots' in rich and meaningful ways. In today's dedicated branding industry, client-side expectations becoming commonplace are ‘less expensive', 'faster' and ‘more’. The complex set of interrelated skills often aren't given the time, attention and resource necessary to build in that elusive soft power, which has become so evidently problematic for traditional hierarchies

While the dedicated branding industry buckles under new market forces, the opportunity to consistently deliver those 'aha moments' is becoming a luxury. Particularly when it comes to digital only brands, many agencies appear to take a pragmatic approach and good enough is good enough, despite long-held mantras to the contrary. Larger agencies churn through staff, accelerating juniors through to senior roles long before they're ready. In today's marketplace it doesn't take more than five years before it's acceptable to call yourself a Senior Designer

In this scenario educational institutions must surely carry some blame. They don't appear to be in touch with the soft power requirements of the dedicated branding industry. Instead, producing design generalists, wannabe design superstars and over-compensating with digital skills that are valuable but complementary. When graduates manage to land jobs in this highly specialised marketplace, often after a brutal time job-hunting, and other than the unusually hungry and most resilient, they quickly realise the long-term limits of the role, often moving swiftly into related aspects of the business. In part, it seems that this is because high calibre brand agencies are no longer able to sustain long-term, career-building harbours for creatives at the Mac. The result is an industry that moves faster, burns through human capital and, besides becoming more digitally adept, isn't advancing the discipline

Enter those once committed designers now fully-fledged, hands-on senior brand identity creatives who've earned their stripes. By this, I don't only mean brand identity design. Branding is now all about brand identity experience (BIX) across all three experience types: visual, verbal and behavioural. Those specialists who've thought a lot about the limitations of the dedicated branding industry and also, in particular, the role of design within it. Those specialists who've been taken up by the digital media vortex and built digital experience into the process but remain faithful to the discipline. Those specialists who've faced career setbacks but enjoyed just as many successes, sometimes from within unexpected agencies and outside of the traditional career ladder. Those specialists who've seen career-peers move up through the ranks, beyond Senior Designer and into director level roles, move client-side, start their own agencies and dive into the scrumming, sprinting, ever-agile digital product development world

So where does this leave the dedicated branding business? Is it no longer able to scale? Is it a dying model and in a race to the bottom? As was practised yesteryear by design agencies in the same way for print, are brand agencies now reliant on digital outputs to remain viable?

One significant outcome in the evolution of the dedicated branding industry is a new class of brand identity creative, the 'agency-grade freelancer'. Not yet fully appreciated in the marketplace but available to early adopters and creative leaders determined to get more value from fewer people. A specialist who operates at the standard required for top tier dedicated brand agencies and also operates as an individual that delivers the equivalent quality of service as an agency

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