New data from several sources show that digital shops are outpacing larger, traditional companies when it comes to attracting talent. But the rise of the freelance economy is creating more of a headache for agency execs trying to hire across the board.

Digital agencies increased their rate of hiring by 290 percent over the last year, while traditional agencies shrunk hiring by an average of 70 percent in the same period, according to data from recruiting site Jobvite. Digital agencies also can pick talent at their leisure: those shops are getting 300 percent more applications than traditional agencies.

The data, collected in a Jobvite survey of 150 traditional and digital agencies, also highlight a trend among digital shops toward hiring applicants with graduate degrees.

A separate survey, conducted by Robert Half’s The Creative Group in June and based on 400 interviews with advertising execs and employees, showed that executives in advertising and marketing plan to lift hiring freezes. Only 12 percent expected to freeze hiring, down 10 points from the beginning of the year.

Midsize agencies expected to see the most hiring activity. Interestingly, traditional roles like account services, media services and brand management are still in need of talent.

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Angela Vitzthum, assistant vice president at The Creative Group, said that one of the challenges to bringing on employees that speak digital is that it requires a new kind of mindset among those doing the hiring. “To get those people, companies have to move quickly,” she said. “They also tend to be a little bit more expensive than those in the traditional space. And the best people are either full-time freelancers or already have jobs.”

Larger and midsize agencies often have trouble moving quickly enough to hire the best digital talent, which is why hiring is more of a challenge for them, she said.

Agencies are also grappling with a new reality: the rise of the “freelance economy.” Higher demand for talent, plus more projects and fewer retainer contracts means that organizations are bringing in more freelancers.

A TCG survey of 500 advertising execs in the U.S. found that 49 percent of them said it was likely that they would work as independent professionals at some point. As a result, freelancers are now also better at their jobs. “Freelancers are more coveted now because they have worked on a variety of brands and projects and so have wider experience,” said Vitzthum.

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