As a War Ends, A New Nation Begins

In 1998, McKinsey published The War for Talent, a landmark study that predicted a white-collar talent shortage as large numbers of Baby Boomers marched off into retirement between the years 2000 and 2015.  What McKinsey didn’t forecast was today’s economic crisis that diminishes these jobs, while simultaneously adding to the ranks tens of thousands of Boomers who suddenly cannot afford to retire. 

But as The War for Talent fades, a new Free Agent Nation is emerging. 

 This new nation, first chronicled by former White House speechwriter, Daniel Pink, in his 2001 book of the same name, is now expanding due to a perfect storm of technology, social media, and a surge of recently unemployed white-collar workers. 

In an age where the Internet and social media websites allow people to connect with hundreds, if not thousands, of their closest “friends” on a constant and instantaneous basis, it’s become easy to hang a free electronic shingle on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter — or even build a dedicated website.  The Internet also provides a leveling effect where a smart website and marketing campaign can puff up an individual or small consultancy to look as impressive as a firm with fancy offices.  And demand for these services are growing as many companies are looking for lower-cost alternatives. 

So for a growing number of professionals, joining the ranks of this Free Agent Nation has become a way to not only pay the mortgage, but to be the boss, escape the daily commute, work in bunny slippers, spend more time with the family, and build a brand based on personal and professional passions. 

Inherently creative and marketing savvy, PR professionals have found it easier than most to make this transition.  Fueled by the recession, cream of the crop agency talent are pouring into Free Agent Nation and, are not only being hired as media relations gurus and news writing pros, but as social media experts, green PR specialists, blogging strategists, and C-suite counselors.  And, to make it even easier to find these professionals, PR talent “brokers” have emerged and built deep talent pools where top-notch freelancers can be quickly tapped by area of expertise and geography. 

The impact of today’s rapidly growing Free Agent Nation on PR agencies is still to be determined, but it may actually be a resource that firms can exploit as they go with a smaller, less expensive core staff and then flex to add freelancers for spikes in work or special projects.  Clients will also likely turn to The Nation as they prop up their suddenly lean in-house staffs, utilizing freelancers for projects, or special services, in place of ongoing agency involvement.

So at a time when many PR professionals have opted for free agency, where brokers have emerged to offer deep talent pools of freelancers, and where many clients and agencies are looking for specific specialties or project support, we may be at a moment in time where the Free Agent Nation flag is fully unfurled… leading to a significant shift in the way PR services are offered and consumed. 

[This is an Op-Ed piece I wrote for PR Week for publication May 2009.]