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Dealing with a flooded talent market, the decline in salaries and an explosion of new roles

When Leighton Howl and Sue Worthington founded The Pond in 2006, it was a creative collective of six freelancers which slowly grew to 20, all in niche advertising professions.

Fast-forward 10 years and it represents more than 400 professionals live in the market.

And given The Pond prides itself in representing premium people, that’s only a segment of creatives looking for either freelance/contract or full-time employment in New Zealand.

But the huge jump in numbers isn’t the only change The Pond’s seen, as the type of creative professions that walk through its doors is evolving every year.

Ten years ago, it represented 10 creative professions, now it represents over 40. From creative and art directors to UX designers/architects, technologists/tech leads, graphic directors, journalists to special designers, Howl calls it “a bit of a fruit salad”.

Leighton Howl.

And it’s no surprise when the digital changes that have happened across the industry are taken into consideration. Howl says the increasing number of apps, mobile advertising and web infrastructure tripled the professions in the industry and made those with the knowledge and know-how in hot demand.

Right now, digital designers, digital producers, UI designers, back and front-end developers and graphic designers are the ones being scooped up quickly.

It’s a far cry from the situation in The Pond’s early days, when copywriters and art directors were the most in demand—now they’re the least.

However, that’s not entirely down to the increase in digital work. There are also fewer jobs for those with traditional creative professions in general.

Crunch time

When the GFC hit, the advertising industry was crushed, shrinking agencies and forcing many out of their jobs. The talent market flooded and agencies became leaner.

“The days of 200 plus people working at the big globals has gone,” Howl says. “I don’t think the New Zealand market is big enough to have big agencies like back in the day.”

Instead, many agencies now have smaller internal teams of top dogs and freelance out projects to what Howl refers to as “bums on seats”—or those who can come in and get the job done without charging a premium.

“The idea of using independent talent that’s flexible is almost the preferred option now. Why hire someone when you can get people in to work on this project for two weeks.”

This is particularly relevant when considering the more than 40 creative professions that exist and the fact that many agencies at some time try to be across it all. However, there’s no need for an agency to employ 40 seats of full-timers when they can hire the perfect person for a project and only pay them for its duration.

These structures can benefit freelancers because they can play the field and make more money working with all the agencies rather than locking into one.

However, with The Pond’s books still show more professionals looking for full-time work, freelancing has yet to become the ideal.

Alongside its group of 100 pro freelancers who are independent by choice, The Pond represents 300 professionals who are looking for the ideal full-time role and would prefer to be part of something. While 100 of those looking for full-time do work as freelancers, he says that’s only to make ends meet and is not by choice.

But no matter which way the creatives make their money, it’s not as much as it used to be.

“Whether it’s a salary, or a freelance hourly rate, the bling around the money side for what you do as a creative in the commercial world is less. It’s fallen by 25 percent, almost 40 percent, across the board,” Howl says.

The flooded market has lowered salaries, making it hard for professionals to market themselves at a premium.

This is particularly evident in the top-end salaries, because when it started, The Pond was able to place a few people in a $200,000 salary every year, whereas today that’s unlikely.

“There’s no two in front of a new creative salary anymore and I don’t think there’d be a recruiter in Auckland in our industry that would say they’ve placed them in the last three to four years.”

Further down the salary ladder, Howl says those who used to earn $180,000 now earn $140,000 and those previously on $120,000 are now on $100,000.

Getting to the $55,000 to $65,000 mark remains easy he says, but for those with a mortgage and kids looking to move up, there’s nothing there. Instead, there’s a bigger middle market.

While Howl says the struggle has seen some seniors jump ship and move to the corporates in the hunt for the same top end—or similar—salaries, he also says some will take the pay cut in order to keep doing what they love.

“Creatives come through the door, their world’s just fallen down around them and they just want work to do their creative thing and they’ll do what they need to do to do that,” Howl says.

“At the end of the day, they just want to get the pottery machine out and get their hands in the clay and make creative stuff happen.”

New blood

As well as the talent market flooding from agencies, Howl says tertiary providers are pushing out more and more 22-30-year-old creatives who are so desperate for work, they’ll freelance themselves at low wages.

“Grads freelancing on $25 an hour for doing graphic design 20-30 hours a week is a lot better than pumping gas,” he says, but unfortunately for the wider industry, it’s lowering the quality as well as the pay.

Also happy with a lower pay is the immigrant creatives, who are so desperate to get out of their home countries and get a job that salary is their last priority.

Howl says in its last talent presentation, three Americans, a Pole, a Swede and a South American were featured alongside one Kiwi.

Currently, The Pond’s agents review over 10 new people a week and interview the best of them, a strategy it wants to continue into its future.

Howl says it’s trimming down and creating a focus on quality, with a goal of representing the right number for the market, which it thinks is about 300 professionals at a time.

Coinciding with the ten-year anniversary, the Pond recently unveiled a new logo and brand signature, which is built on the simple, central motif of the blue dot. Comparing it to the “sticky blue dots a child might have put on their best work at school”, The Pond sees it as highlighting the best creative talent, marking something great and drawing attention to real merit.

This story first appeared at StopPress.
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