Pros and Cons of Freelancing with Agencies
Since I started freelancing, I've always made sure to have at least one agency on my client roster at all times. Why?
Agencies offer a lot of benefits to freelance marketing writers.
This includes the potential for a lot of projects, a built-in familiarity working with (and paying) external vendors, and a great way to build a professional referral network.
But there are also a few drawbacks to be aware of. So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of agency clients.
- Good way to get work. Agencies are in the business of getting business. This means you could potentially get a lot of projects sent your way once you’ve established yourself as reliable, timely, and great at what you do.
- Good way to get paid. Agencies work with external vendors all the time, including photographers, models, printers, and more. That means they're generally comfortable working with external resources and have a way to pay you (unlike clients who’ve never worked with a freelancer before and have to navigate their Accounts Payable department to figure out how to set you up as a vendor). Remember, this isn’t true of all agencies, but I found it to be true of 80-95% of the agencies I worked with.
- Gives you exposure to other people who could use your services internally. In bigger agencies, if you get a reputation for being a good freelancer, your name could get passed around to other creative teams seeking copywriting help.
- Builds your referral network externally. While having agency experience isn’t a requirement for someone to start freelancing, I found having an agency-based professional network to be incredibly helpful for referrals and word-of-mouth. Agency folks move around a lot, so if you build good working relationships, they may take you with them when they go to another employer.
- Diversifies your client list. Having a client list that includes both business clients and agencies tacitly gives your skills and value a boost. Why? Agency work is creative and competitive. If they bring you on a project, it’s almost like getting their stamp of approval.
- Gives you access to higher profile projects. Really big clients are unlikely to hire freelancers directly. With bigger budgets, it makes more sense for them to work with an agency, and they usually have several agencies on hand to delegate their creative work. While it's nearly impossible to land high profile projects with big-name clients as a freelancer, working with an agency can get you on those big projects, adding real punch to your portfolio.
Sounds good? It is—mostly. But here are the drawbacks you should consider before deciding if taking on agency clients is for you.
- You’re a cog in the machine. My favorite part of agency life was working with a creative team. Unfortunately, as a freelancer that went by the wayside. Agencies need you to plug into the project, do your thang, and exit gracefully. It’s unlikely they’ll include you in a conference call to spitball ad ideas or send you the first round of design with your copy in place. That means you need to spend time up front getting as much context as you need to go off and work in a vacuum. And don’t expect creative feedback, either. Agency clients aren’t there to nurture and develop your skills—they’re looking for a cameo performance from an expert.
- Expect limited creative freedom. Because you’re not on the ground floor of the creative process, don’t expect a lot of latitude from agencies about the work itself. Instead, expect agency clients to be prescriptive about what they need from you and embrace it. They want you to be creative, but you still need to color within the lines they've drawn for you. (As the relationship matures, you might get a little more creative freedom, but if you don’t expect it you won’t be disappointed.) Also, don’t expect direct access to their client (especially if you’re working with bigger agencies). Chances are you may never learn the client’s name—not because agencies are hiding you from their clients (or hiding their clients from you), but simply because you’re a temporary part of the team. So, don’t be offended—it’s just how things work.
- You’ll deal with more red tape. Agencies can have a lot of bureaucracy in the name of checks and balances. If you’re working with a creative director, their focus will be on the creative work. But there could also be input from project managers (deadlines), traffic mangers (project priority), or account execs (client requirements) that can create bureaucratic obstacles you’re not used to dealing with. It’s likely you’ll only have a single source of contact on the project team, but that person may end up relaying new information or feedback on your first round of work from other team members with a different focus. Roll with it (unless it's fundamentally changing the original scope of work).
- You may field long payment terms. Cash flow is just as vital to agencies as it is for freelancers. Consequently, some agencies have longer payment terms (the time they promise to pay you after you’ve submitted your invoice). I’ve worked with agencies that have a 10-day payment term, and I’ve worked with agencies that have a 60-day payment term (which means you have to wait up to two months for the check). Longer terms can be painful for freelancers, so ask your agency contact to find out their typical payment term. Reasonable terms fall between 10 and 30 days. If it’s longer than that, ask if they could get Accounts Payable to shorten those terms for you since you’re a freelancer (sometimes they can alter terms for specific individuals on request). Another way to mitigate long payment terms is to require a deposit up front, such as 50% of the total fee.
- Agencies need to make a profit. The great thing is agencies know what good creative costs. But they still need to make money, and agency margins can be notoriously slim. In my experience, agencies hover around a 20 to 25 percent markup on creative team hours. This means you should expect to discount your hourly rate accordingly.
- It can be hard to get in the door. Agencies build their reputation on delivering great creative. So, they can be guarded until you prove your abilities and build their trust. One of the best ways to get in the door is to get someone on the inside to recommend your services. If you don’t know anyone, find out the right person to contact and send a quick email introducing yourself. Show you’ve done your homework—congratulate them on a recent project or win, and ask if they ever need freelance copywriting help.
In my experience, the pros of working with agency clients generally outweigh the cons. If the biggest con is the discounted rate, the volume of work and the access to higher profile projects usually makes up for it. The secret to success is building a relationship with your agency clients so they’ll feel confident you’ll deliver for them.