As the CEO of WONGDOODY, a three-time Ad Age winner for “Small Agency of the Year,” Ben Wiener has seen a lot in his advertising career. After all, he started at the agency as an intern 20 years ago, roughly the same time he outsmarted opponents on the game show ‘Jeopardy!’, where he got to experience his “60 minutes of fame” and the honor of being a returning champion.
But that’s not what this piece is about. As times change in the American workforce (advertising and otherwise), staying lean, mean and versatile has become an evolutionary force in what’s been coined the “gig economy.” One filled with independent contractors and freelance workers fulfilling short-term gigs and working on an “as-needed” basis, versus full-time, to help companies achieve a measure of success before getting released back into the wild. This flexible workforce is a new way of life for companies who relish the freedom of avoiding full-time hires and the escalating costs of the benefits associated with them, to stay nimble.
I first met Wiener back in 2007 when I was brought into WONGDOODY as a freelance copywriter on a big project for Autodesk. In a telling prequel for what the gig economy would hold, the agency brought me back two years in a row to handle the same project to cement our successful on-again-off-again relationship. This was smack dab in the heart of the Great Recession, when agencies had to be more responsible to their bottom lines.
Flash forward to 2018. Ten years later. A nice round number and a good time to revisit the state of all freelance things from the perspective of a CEO with a front-row seat for it all. To get a snapshot, Wiener and I circled up for a conversation dedicated to the new realities of the changing workplace. In his frank and refreshingly non-PC way, he tackled every topic – from how to tell if a freelancer fits your company model, to the importance of culture, to cost control as a key to a company’s longevity.
Here’s what the man simply known as Ben to most, had to say:
Thanks for taking the time to do this… So, tell me, how is WONGDOODY using freelancers these days as opposed to when I was there? Is it part of an ongoing hiring strategy? Or still happening on an as-needed basis?
Ben: We’re using freelancers more and more nowadays. Over the past three years, our trend has been to shrink our full-time work force and expand the number of freelancers we use in a number of different capacities.
Any breakdown you can offer in terms of your workforce: freelance vs. full-time?
Ben: I can say we’ve shrunk our full-time workforce by 25-percent while growing our revenues. That gap is made up with freelancers.
Is that only going to get more so or have you hit a plateau? I ask realizing that the agency was just acquired by Infosys.
Ben: We’re in a fairly high growth mode both here and in terms of geographic expansion, so we’re going to be growing our workforce. But I think the model of having core full-time people and expanding beyond that with freelance – to limit how big that core will be – is philosophically where we’re going to stay.
Are you using a staffing firm for your freelance resources or just going off personal relationships?
Ben: We try to use firms as little as possible (no offense to the firms), but we’d rather put more money into the pockets of the freelancers themselves and less in the direction of finding them. At this point, we’ve been around long enough where we have a fairly decent pool of freelance talent to draw from. That said, sometimes we need very, very specific skills – one of the reasons we use freelancers – whether there is a technology skill or some other kind of [specialty area]. That’s where staffing services can help. They have access to more obscure pools of talent.
From the CEO standpoint, what’s the biggest win for you when it comes to hiring freelancers vs. full-timers?
Ben: Obviously the business has moved away from highly predictable, stable retainer-driven revenue so when you can have variable revenue it’s much better to have variable costs. There’s this sort of typical agency lifecycle that goes like: Get new client, hire people. Lose a client, fire people. Get a new client, hire people… which is demoralizing and exhausting for everyone involved. It’s a crappy way to treat people; it’s a crappy way to run your business. The instability is bad for clients overall. That boom/bust cycle of agency staffing. So, to the degree that we can avoid that with freelancers… that is a good thing.
When you’re bringing someone in from the outside, is there a certain freshness that adds value to the team?
Ben: Absolutely. Typically, when you have clients for a long time and a team that’s in their business on a day-to-day perspective… their vision gets narrowed. They have assumptions about what the client should be doing. Assumptions about what the client will or won’t buy. So having someone come at it with a fresh perspective and fresh energy is really good.
What do freelancers allow you to do as an agency that you might not be able to do otherwise?
Ben: It’s good to break up existing patterns. And sometimes to break up existing creative teams and to give people new people to work with as well. You have people who have been working with each other for weeks, months, years… It’s helpful to give them some new people to bounce ideas off. To give a different perspective.
I remember when I was there, there was a refreshing desire to hear the freelancer’s perspective. Where do freelancers fit into what you call your CREATIVE DEMOCRACYTM , which I noticed that you officially trademarked, by the way.
Ben: Freelancers are just a part of the team. They don’t get treated any differently. No better, no worse. They’re sharing their ideas with the group the same way full-time people are. When you embrace the idea that the best idea wins, and that ideas can come from anywhere and all ideas get better through collaboration, our expectation is that freelancers throw their ideas in and give other people feedback on ideas. And that they take feedback on their ideas. Ideally, all ideas should be honored.
Can you share a case study for a time when a freelancer came in and they were supposed to be there for a week and it blossomed into something else?
Ben: We’ve hired freelancers [full-time] on numerous occasions. It’s a great way to test drive people from a full-time perspective. They like us and we like them. I think a lot of freelancers have been burned by the workforce before. They’ve worked in sh*tty places and don’t want to go back to an agency because agencies can suck. So they have some experience with that and go:
This isn’t so bad, I might actually contemplate a full-time job again with these kinds of people in this culture.
Is there a process of determining a successful culture fit or is it something that just happens?
Ben: You sort of get back to the Creative Democracy and our internals, and you sort of see who’s open… and who bristles at feedback. By working with people, you discover how open-minded they are, how collaborative they are and how much they contribute to making other people’s ideas better.
Seven years ago, you wrote the following in an Ad Age piece called “Five People Not to Hire”: “Talent attracts talent. Culture retains talent. And bad hires repel talent and damage your culture.” What’s your litmus for whether a freelancer is working out?
Ben: If people aren’t working out, they’re not working out because they’re a bad personality fit. And that’s pretty obvious when you hear, “Wow, we don’t want to work with that guy!” Obviously some people do better work than others, but the focus we have again and again is on, obviously, who can prove themselves culturally and from a work/product perspective… It all depends.
From your CEO seat, can you tell me the most compelling reason NOT to hire a full-timer these days?
Ben: You want to be able to build a custom team for what a client needs. Not give clients what you happen to have sitting around. If your agency’s got people sitting around and you hire the agency, guess what, those are the people that are going on your account. They’re not the best people; they’re not the right people; they’re the people who have the time. Freelancers allow us to custom assemble a team that’s completely right for what a client needs, to focus on what a client needs, deliver and go away. Then, we can reconstitute a different team for the next client and next assignment.
Are freelancers more ready to go on day one than ever before? I know there can be a learning curve at times…
Ben: Our full-time people have gotten a lot better at briefing and integrating freelancers. They know what they need to tell people on day one to get them grounded on what the client and assignment is. We’ve become better at getting the most out of the freelancers and not having that situation where we’re like: Oh they’re here, I didn’t know they were coming today… Oh, yeah, we should probably brief them, where’s the backgrounder… Oh, wait, the person who’s supposed to be managing them isn’t actually here today…
Cleaning up that sloppy sh*t, pardon my French.
A California Supreme Court ruling recently occurred that may change how employers classify “independent contractors” when it comes to employment status. Anything about that scare you?
Ben: That’s not keeping me up at night… If there’s anything that keeps us up at night, it’s what’s to keep our clients from hiring the same freelancers? As an agency, it’s how you make sure that you’re adding value to what your freelancers are doing and not just dumping work off on them.
If you’re sitting in a room across from a freelancer who wants a job, what do you need to know from them to make sure they’re qualified to handle the work?
Ben: The nice thing about freelancers is you’re getting people who have done it before. Ostensibly you’re shortening – or eliminating – the learning curve. So it’s really: What can you tell me about a similar gig where you’ve solved a similar problem or been in a similar situation and how did you deal with it successfully?
Finally, before we go, I have to ask: What does one learn as a returning ‘Jeopardy!’ champion that lends well to being a CEO of an ad agency?
Ben: Much like ‘Jeopardy!’, advertising favors broad superficial knowledge. And the ability to think on your feet. Those things are universal.