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Guest Blog: Freelance vs agency – what a client needs to know
When it comes to marketing and creative services, clients have to make a few basic decisions. Firstly, do they have the skills in-house to achieve their objectives? If not, what size of agency do they choose to work with? I’ll answer the first question in another blog, but for now I’ll concentrate on picking the right size of agency for your needs, and in particular the pros and cons of choosing a freelance rather than a larger agency.
Before I start I’ll hold my hand up – I’m essentially a freelance, running my own agency. However before that I worked in medium sized agencies for 15 years, so I’ve got experience of both models and their respective advantages/disadvantages.
Obviously marketing agencies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be independent or part of bigger entities, and be based locally, nationally or internationally. The key advantage of an agency is that you get access to a wide range of skills, already integrated into a cohesive team. This gives security to clients as they have one point of contact to manage, with the agency account manager or account director responsible for ensuring things get done.
However this comes at a cost. By their very nature agencies have overheads. They need offices to house their skilled teams, and have to pay for support staff to run the business. To make an agency business model work, each fee earning employee needs to be kept busy. And because simple economics means that more junior staff cost less to employ, more work will be passed down to them, rather than the senior account director you met at the beginning of the contract. That may not be an issue for day-to-day work, but when it comes to creating and implementing marketing strategy there is no substitute for accessible experience. Agencies can also be slow to react to market changes – they may not have the understanding of multiple marketing disciplines (such as PR, SEO and digital) in-house and have to bring them in from outside suppliers, either openly or not.
For bigger clients, agencies give security. Your account manager is run over by a bus (or more likely goes and gets another job)? They have a replacement. You want to increase your investment? They have more people that can work on the account.
However security comes at a cost. You are paying an agency overhead for offices and multiple people, which means that agencies are normally more expensive than a freelance.
Like agencies, freelances come in a variety of forms. Anyone can set themselves up as a freelance, and in fact some people can fit it around full-time jobs. Sites like elance allow companies to outsource design or copywriting jobs via the internet. However this can be a false economy if the service you receive is poor and has to be revamped by either yourself or an external agency. In extreme cases you could be provided with a design that has simply been ripped off from an agency or brand, leaving you liable for copyright infringement.
Looking at what I’d call proper freelances (i.e. those with relevant experience) the economic and strategic arguments are compelling, particularly for growing companies. You get knowledgeable, experienced, skilled people without paying for the overheads of a large agency. It stands to reason that someone with 20 years experience can complete a job faster than someone fresh out of college, as well as to a higher standard.
But as I say, there are a lot of freelances out there. So here are five things I believe you should look for:
- Experience. Lots of agency staff (myself included) get to a certain point in their careers and then set up on their own. So they have experience and can work on both a strategic and tactical level. You aren’t paying for juniors to learn at your expense. Look for relevant qualifications, and in the case of designers ask to see a portfolio of their work.
- Market knowledge. They need to know your industry sector and understand your business. Again, look for relevant experience of working with similar companies to yours.
- Close match to your needs. Clients often complain that they are a small fish in a big pond when working with medium or large agencies, and don’t get the attention they feel they deserve. With the same budget you are likely to be a bigger part of a freelance business, and consequently receive greater focus from them. The financial impact of losing a client is much more personal than in an agency where you are just an employee, so freelances have a vested interest in keeping clients satisfied.
- Range of skills. There’s a balance to be struck here as you can’t expect a freelance to be able to work across every marketing discipline. However, check they have got the right skills that you are looking for, and the contacts to introduce you to others who can fill the gaps.
- Ability to scale. What happens when your needs get bigger? Smart freelances have a network of similarly experienced partners that they can bring onto your account. This not only gives another viewpoint, but means that more work can be carried out if the job expands.
When it comes to buying marketing services, agencies will suit some companies. But the undoubted cost and quality advantages of the freelance model mean that it makes sense for many companies, particularly small and medium sized ones, to investigate this option when looking for a marketing partner.
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