A New Workforce Reality for Media Buying

By Brian Dolan

The threat of recession and a downturn in ad spend hasn't done much to ease the burden on employers sourcing talent in the media buying world.

With post-pandemic attitudes toward work and a rising gap in salary expectations piling on to longstanding employee turnover and talent availability issues, the hiring environment remains challenging.

A growing number of companies – and to increasing degrees – have turned toward flexible and contingent labor to address the challenges of hiring, and a range of related issues.

Looking across the U.S. economy, flex and contingent labor have become entrenched, making up 30 to 50 percent of some organizations according to MIT's Sloan Management Review. The Wall Street Journal attributes much of the ongoing productivity and profitability growth of the Fortune 100 to flex labor, noting that the world's largest employers are now staffing firms.

While media buying has historically lagged other sectors in the use of flex talent, it's growing in popularity. Agency giant WPP highlighted its increased use of contingent workers as a way to protect clients from inflationary pressure from full-time wages in its Q3 2022 trading update, and other holding companies are likely not far behind.

The Changing – and Challenging – Environment

The outlook for ad spend is uncertain at best, and the overall talent market remains challenging.

MAGNA recently trimmed its 2023 U.S. ad spend forecasts to account for continued uncertainty in the economy. And while spend is down 2 percent in the first two months of Q1 2023, it's widely known that the amount of work required to manage these budgets doesn't vary much with spend.

And even with lower ad spend leading to layoffs at some agencies, the demand for skilled marketers continues to lag supply. When polled by MediaSense, 56 percent of senior marketers believed a skills shortage is holding the media industry back.

Worse, there's a growing gap between employee and employer pay expectations.

At WorkReduce, we evaluate thousands of job applicants annually, and we've seen an increase in salary expectations across the board. Meanwhile, employers are lowering salaries for media roles, reflecting a perceived decrease in competition from deep-pocketed tech providers.

The net result? Only a marginal easing of the challenges faced by hiring managers.

A Shift Toward Flexible Talent

Against that challenging background, flex, and contingent labor have become an important weapon in the hiring arsenal.

But surprisingly, flex talent options are unfamiliar to some – particularly large media agency finance teams. We've seen multiple examples where reconcilable seats have been left empty by finance teams unwilling to approve flex options, resulting in checks written back to clients.

So why consider flex?

Overall costs

Flexible talent can seem expensive at first glance, but teasing apart the true costs of FTEs reveals a rosier picture. Not only are benefits overhead included in the flex talent price (typically 29 percent of compensation), much of the average cost per hire of $4,683 is baked in as well. For some flex hires, equipment, and real estate costs are lower as well.


Shifting the employment burden to a third party eliminates many of the complexities and expense compliance for your HR department. When tapping into a multi-state or international workforce, your HR team is burdened with new challenges that are covered by a flex provider.

In many cases, your flex talent partner will be a specialist in a particular area of expertise, whereas your talent acquisition partners will be required to source across a wide range of disciplines. That means faster response times, deeper vetting of candidates, and a broader pool of active talent.

Scalability and Capacity

The ability to expand and contract your workforce has endless benefits. With a steady-state team, you're either overpaying as work ebbs or overworking your team as it flows. Whether this cycle is driven by seasonality, changes in your client roster, or other factors, right-sizing the workforce to the workload improves financial efficiency – and limits secondary effects like burnout of your FTE workforce.

De-risking the hiring process

Flex talent is a low-risk path to full-time employees. While some flex and contingent workers are committed to long-term, freelance work, many view it as a path to their forever job. The opportunity for flex employees and hiring companies alike to "try before you buy" gives you both a low-risk chance to evaluate fit.
And when things don't work out with a flex resource, there's no drawn-out process of performance improvement plans and a far lower risk of wrongful termination lawsuits.


Your business doesn't need (or can't afford) all of the skills, all of the time. Additional capacity for more specialized skills is common to nearly every business. By tapping into flexible options, your business can either add a skill set that it lacks or avoid burning out your most sophisticated and valuable employees.

Types of Flex and Contingent Labor

Let's take a look at the options available when selecting talent:

Full-Service versus Marketplaces: Providers fall into two main categories: full-service, operating somewhat like consulting firms, and marketplaces, such as Fiverr or Upwork. Full-service providers charge a premium to handle key aspects of the selection process such as skills vetting and background checks, acting as employers of record for the resource. Marketplaces are a far cheaper alternative, but shift the entire burden from selection to payment (and all the associated risks) onto the employer.

Dedicated versus On-Demand: Dedicated contingent labor works full time on your business, acting like a team member, and in most cases can be fully white labeled and billed easily to your clients. On-demand labor operates on more of a managed service basis, with a rotating team fulfilling task-based work. This approach can be extremely cost-effective, but requires operational maturity to integrate, and is generally not billable to downstream clients in an agency model.

Onshore versus Offshore or Near-shore: The tradeoffs between on-, off-, and near-shore work are well-known, with high-context, high-communication work best suited for nearby time zones.

Full-Time versus Fractional: Depending on your needs, you may or may not need a resource 40 hours a week. Part-time employees represent a growing segment of the market and are readily available for high-end roles, such as fractional CMOs or brand strategists. At the lower end of the spectrum, marketplaces can allow access to more junior talent seeking fractional work as a side hustle, or something suitable for a stay-at-home parent.

If we've learned anything about the past few years, it's that we can't predict the future. But if certain trends hold, flex talent will certainly prove its value in the coming months – and years. The cost savings are measurable and obvious. Increased efficiencies and scalability are proven. Organizations that embrace this trend can count on reaping the benefits of cost savings, scalability, and quick access to skilled talent.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Brian Dolan is CEO of WorkReduce.