This entry comes from many years of practical experience of working with agencies and freelancers, but also a bit of an insiders view having been a director at a digital marketing agency for 4 years.
First of all here’s the main differences between working with an agency and a freelancer:
Freelancers are generally the cheapest option (although some very experienced high quality freelancers may be the same price as an agency). With a freelancer you are dealing with an individual – this in itself can have pros and cons. You are talking directly to the person doing the work so there is no incorrect channeling of communications or messages getting lost between people. It also means that if you’re freelancer is on holiday, off sick, or down the pub, there is nobody to speak to. They also wont generally have a finance or admin team and they probably wont have an office. This means meeting will happen at your premises or in a public place such as a cafe. This is a nice idea in theory but being surrounded by other people when you are discussing you top secret plan for launching the next Facebook or Twitter isn’t ideal (although the coffee is often good). It’s also unlikely you’ll be their only client, so you need assurances in regard to how much of their time you are getting and their availability for discussing and feeding back on a particular project. All this aside, working with a freelancer can be very cost effective, and if you pick your freelancer well, the work can be excellent.
Agencies will tend to have better facilities, including a range of staff for different tasks. This means there will generally be somebody to speak to when you need to – but don’t make any assumptions about this and see if you will get a SLA (Service Level Agreement) that guarantees availability, turnaround time,etc). One of the great joys of working with an agency (or pitfalls when its not working properly) is your account manager. An account manager will be your first point of contact within a mid-large size agency (many agencies don’t have account managers, particularly the smaller ones) and is generally responsible for channeling your requests to the right member of the team, getting feedback and reports for you, and generally fighting your side within the agency. This is great if you have a good account manager that you get on with. If you don’t, it’s a recipe for disaster as you main point of contact and communications channel will essentially be broken. Make sure you meet your account manager before signing a contract, and ask to speak to another client that has worked with the agency and has used the same account manager.
Agencies can be anything from a couple of freelancers working together to multi-national companies with dozens of offices worldwide and teams of staff in the hundreds/thousands. Correspondingly, they can offer very different levels of service. Some key things to check before you commit:
Some Question to Ask (all points should apply to freelancers as well):
Have they worked on exactly this kind of project before? A lot of us like challenges and interesting work, but do you really want to pay for your suppliers’ learning curve? Although if you doing something truly original there will be some learning to do.
Who specifically will be working on the project and what is their experience? Very often you meet the top consultant but they won’t actually be doing the work. I always struggled with this when I worked in the agency environment as I would be pitching the work but somebody else would be delivering it. This meant a project that was signed on the basis of my communication and relationship with someone delivering on the promises I made – all fine when it works but can be difficult when it doesn’t. The key solution to this is clear and structured briefings and clarity early on about who is doing what.
Are they just pushing the work out to a freelancer themselves and marking up the cost? Although this can also work if they are adding value in terms of project management, communication and quality control.
Will they need to interact with other suppliers and are they experienced in doing this? Ask to see examples of whom they have worked with on what work. This most often happens when design and development is done by different companies/individuals. My best advice on this is to assign a lead agency/freelancer who is responsible for the overall project. This means they must make sure all parties have the correct communications, adhere to deadlines and attend the relevant meetings. This will save you a lot of administrative work as well making someone responsible for the fact everyone knows what is going on.
How much are they willing to do to pitch for your work? An individual or company that goes the extra mile in the pitch is hungry for the work and will generally pay you more attention when you are a client. By the extra mile, I mean the pitch you receive should not be generic. An SEO/PPC pitch should highlight some key issues that are particular to you and your industry, a design pitch should at least have some wireframes or ideally some initial very high level concepts* and a development pitch should have some sort of structure or process included.
*I caveat this with the fact that many design agencies wont do initial concepts before you sign on the dotted line. This is because they quite often loose work if the client doesn’t like the initial concept, even if it is just that, an initial concept.
What happens if you can’t agree on design? The problem with design work is that it can be subjective in part, so discuss what will happen if after you have signed up they can’t come up with a design that you like. Generally the agreement you sign will offer you a number of design concepts to choose from. Make sure this is clear, and then see how much the design of choice can be tweaked and changed. Is this limited in the contract? You can find yourself in an endless loop of design tweaks that lead to a very average design. Choose a designer that has produced work you like, has studied design professionally and thoroughly understands usability – then let them do their job. Unfortunately most designs are ruined by one of two things, they were no good in the first place, or they started off well and then one or more people on the client side made changes until there was nothing interesting left. If you or somebody in your organisation doesn’t have a professional understanding of design then don’t act as if you do! Its amazing how many MD’s and CEO’s are experts in web design!
How detailed will the specification be? In my experience, the more time spent on this stage of a project the more likely the project is to succeed. This is because you’ve spent the time thrashing out what you as a client expect and what the agency or freelancer is expecting to deliver. The specification work is such a big topic we’ll come back to this in a later blog post.
What are the timescales? What happens if the agency/freelancer miss their deadlines? What are your responsibilities and when do they need to be delivered? What happens if you miss your deadlines? I generally look to add a discount clause to any contract that gives you a discount if the supplier misses the deadline by more than an agreed amount. This will depend on you signing things off and providing content at the appropriate time but it serves to make sure the supplier sets a realistic schedule in the first place.
Can you pay based on results? More and more search campaigns can be paid for on a results basis. You generally pay a small retainer, or nothing at all, and pay an agreed amount when the agreed results are achieved. Be aware of two things in these scenarios; firstly, you need to make sure you are setting qualitative and quantitative targets. It’s all very well getting lots of traffic but its needs to be the right sort of traffic. Secondly, you can be sure if the agency/freelancer is swilling to offer payment on results, that they believe they can achieve these and that they will make more money this way than if you paid a straight retainer. This is fair however as they are sharing the risk.
I hope this gives you some initial insight into some of the pitfalls and some of the questions to ask when kicking off a new web project. I have worked as both a freelancer and within an agency as well as using both as suppliers, so I have tried to be reasonable from both sides. Essentially you need to strike this balance to achieve a good working relationship. I know many people working client side that pride themselves in squeezing every last drop out of their suppliers. The problem is, if you become the difficult client, people will loose all enthusiasm for working with you and the relationship will stagnate. Set detailed expectations, agree a fair price and stick to what has been agreed to keep everyone productive and happy.