Freelancers: Agencies are NOT your enemy and here's why
Freelancers often make the mistake of looking at agencies as direct competitors when in reality it can be another fantastic source of revenue.
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In a perfect world, freelancers cherry-pick the perfect clients that are flexible on deliverables, are easy to work with, and pay top rates for our services. Unfortunately, this is not a reality for most freelancers.
Most companies are in a position to make one type of hire. This may build an in-house team, hire an individual contractor/freelancer, or contract with an agency.
This situation may give freelancers the illusion that agencies are the competition. Truth be told, they're not wrong. There is a grey area and this is working as an independent contractor/freelancer FOR an agency. Hear me out.
Agencies: Sworn Enemy or Secret Honey Pot?
Ready for another dose of reality? Many freelancers don’t have access to the treasure trove of clients who are able and willing to pay top dollar. Sometimes it’s due to lack of experience, lack of network/referral sources and at other times it’s due to political factors you can’t control such as various forms of discrimination. Enter agency partnerships.
Many established agencies have the experience and the network/referral sources to bring in new clients regularly. Their biggest problem (and I’ve lived this working agency side for 10 years) is simply being able to hire enough talent to scale operations. Do you see a potential relationship brewing?
The Freelance / Agency Relationship
By now you see where I’m going. Freelancers often struggle to land consistent high paying work — especially when they first start out. Agencies have the work but often struggle with team burnout as hiring is difficult. Enter the Freelance / Agency romance.
Agencies are at times open to outsourcing some of their work. They may have to pay a higher rate for a contractor vs in-house staff but it is a short-term drawback to ensure quality work and a good client relationship isn’t tarnished.
Freelancers will be able to fill their plate with work while billing a higher hourly rate than they would otherwise make if they were in a 9-5 position.
Let’s cover a few more benefits and drawbacks from the freelancer’s perspective.
The Drawbacks of Working With Agencies
In this article, I’ve glorified the win/win proposition of agencies and freelancers partnering. Like everything in life, all positives have a negative. In fact, in a recent Twitter thread I published regarding my 1st year freelancing experience, I received a pointed response that is worth highlighting.
Note, I am NOT picking on Steve. He brings up a VERY good point. I want to elaborate (from my own experience) why he may recommend NOT working with agencies.
Let’s cover some of the issues freelancers may run into partnering with agencies.
Lower Project/Hourly Rates
Agencies are in business to make money. Outside of a short-term pinch, all agencies (understandably) will want to profit off your work. Freelancers may very well find themselves in a position to accept a lower hourly/project rate vs working directly with a client.
When freelancers support agencies on their clients, this is typically done as a “white label” service. This means that you won’t always have relationships with the clients. This makes it extremely difficult to add successful projects to your own portfolio. In many instances, this is the “catch 22” for partnering with agencies. Freelancers often still take this work because they don’t have the experience/portfolio to land their own projects. However, as you can see, this partnership doesn’t always fix this issue - but it does pay the bills.
An Unofficial Employee
One of the biggest benefits of freelancing is the freedom and complete control of your calendar. Depending on the level of involvement or scope you have with an agency, you may find yourself unofficially working in the 9-5 that you actively chose to leave.
When working with agencies it’s very important to establish boundaries. Ensure that scopes are clear and that you agree on communication standards and availability. As a freelancer, you shouldn’t be expected to respond to texts/slack messages within minutes nor should you be expected to join last-minute calls.
The Benefits of Working With Agencies
With all the above stated, who can’t blame Steve for his tweet. I actually agree with him. However, we all need to start somewhere, and completely writing off agencies is a big miss in my opinion.
With that said, I also want to share some of the positive experiences I’ve personally experienced working with agencies.
No. Not hustle culture. I’m talking about building relationships and the small talk that most freelancers miss out on making the decision to go solo.
When you support agencies it gives you an opportunity to engage with the team. In many instances, it can fill some of the social/culture gaps that can occur from working by yourself day after day.
In fact, last week I flew out to an agency partner who I advise to take part in their holiday party. It was fun to meet people in person and even partake in their festivities. Talk about a best of both worlds situation, right?
The ONLY thing I miss from my agency career is helping develop young and hungry up-and-comers. When I decided to go freelance full-time I knew that I would lose this aspect of team management and teaching. I was wrong.
I quickly found there are two opportunities with agencies. the first is your typical white label work where they ask you to support the team and you crank out deliverables. Admittedly (like Steve) this isn’t my favorite work.
The second opportunity is to take an advisor position. This is where you focus on helping level up their internal teams — using their clients/projects as learning opportunities. This is work that I really enjoy.
Earlier we discussed agencies being a solution for those who don’t have client lead sources. Guess what? Not all leads are a good fit for agencies and guess who they may be willing to refer - you!
Some of the best projects and ongoing retainers I’ve taken on have come from agencies not having the capacity or skill set to take them on.
Remember, Decisions Can Be Short Lived
One of the best parts of being freelance is the ability to make your own decisions. If you work with an agency and it’s not a good fit - cut ties. Similar to client work, some will be awesome and others horrible.
The point of this post is not to tell you that you should/shoudn’t work with agencies. It’s simply an option that can help earn income and give you additional work experience. This is especially true for those who are just starting out in the freelance world.
Whatever decision you make - make sure that you CRUSH IT!
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