“It’s complicated.”

Remember when this used to be a frequently used relationship status on Facebook? Well, it’s making a comeback. But now, it’s being used to characterize the relationship between agencies and freelancers.

Where do I begin? On the one hand, freelancers and agencies often compete for the same clients. On the other hand, many agencies partner with freelancers to help them deliver for clients. On the other, other hand, these agencies are sometimes deeply afraid of losing clients to said freelance associates. 

It's both complicated and a common problem: According to ClickZ's The State of Creative Agency Land, 80% of respondents work in agencies that are partially staffed by freelancers, and 15% said that freelancers make up half of their workforce or more.

This is a relationships status that agencies will want to “un-complicate” as soon as possible. Sooner or later, you’ll need to decide whether freelancers should be shunned or embraced.

My position is that you should embrace freelancers as a valuable ally. I’ll elaborate on this in a moment, but first, here’s why many others (perhaps even you) feel the opposite.

Why You See Freelancers as a Foe

“We found a freelancer for this.”

Every marketing agency has probably heard that phrase at some point. It happens a lot when you run a small operation (speaking from firsthand experience), but as you grow and mature, it should happen with much less regularity. That’s the nice way of saying it. To put it bluntly: If you continue to lose business to freelancers, then it’s probably your own fault due to one of two factors:

  1. You’re targeting the wrong types of clients.
  2. Your value proposition isn’t clear.

First, what do I mean by the “wrong” types of clients? In short, the ones who focus on price versus value.

When it comes to price, freelancers are almost always cheaper, and it’s in your best interest to avoid a race to the bottom with sole proprietors. But when it comes to value, your agency may wind up being the better deal. Scratch that, your agency has to be the better deal.

Take my agency for example: We help brands with written content creation, and I talk to prospects every day who want help in this area. Some of them are looking for short-term relief with a few blogs or whitepapers -- spec work, basically. Almost without exception, they tend to fixate on the cost of each deliverable. They are generally the wrong types of clients for us. Not because they are poorly run businesses with shortsighted managers, but because their pain points have not progressed to the stage where value trumps price. And because they are the wrong types of clients for us -- because they focus on price over value -- we often lose their business to lower cost freelancers. Que the violin music.

Other prospects, while they will certainly ask about price, are far more concerned with the team they will be getting, i.e, our respective experience in their industry, average turnaround time per assignment, our editing and ideation processes, and so forth. Whether they realize it or not, their primary concern is value. They are seeking long-term help in an area that’s causing them acute pain, and price is a secondary concern, albeit an important one. These are the types of clients we never lose to freelancers.

The point here isn’t to make a shameless plug or to brag, but rather to prompt you to realize the differences between your agency and the freelance competition. With that in mind, here are a few more distinctions that every agency should highlight:

1) Paradox

The better the freelancer, the more clients they have and the slower they will be to deliver -- maybe not right away, but eventually. As a one-person shop, there’s only so much work they can handle on their own. As an agency, be sure to play up the fact that you have an expanded and dedicated team, one that’s able to take on any amount of additional work.

2) Responsiveness

According to a recent poll, the reason 82% of freelancers got started was so they could “work wherever and whenever they want.” Unfortunately, sometimes the “whenever” isn’t when a client needs it the most. Your agency, on the other hand, is always available during business hours and probably after hours, too. Right?

3) Continuity

If you’ve worked with freelancers long enough, you know that sometimes they eventually get full-time jobs (the nerve of these people!). Or they find another client willing to pay them more money. Or they drop off the face of the earth entirely. Your agency is here for the long haul, so your client’s investment of time and money will be returned.

These are just a few examples, but if your value proposition hits on these points, either subtly or overtly, you’ll be in a much better spot to find the right clients, but also to make friends with freelancers.

Why Freelancers Are Your Friends

Okay, things got a little tense just now. This would probably be a good time to mention that I used to be a freelancer, and that freelancers play a pivotal role at my agency. I’m very much pro-freelancer, and here’s why you should be, too.

1) Expertise

When a company looks for a freelancer, they typically look for one who’s an expert in a particular field. Marketing agencies are traditionally much less specialized. If your agency lacks a specific expertise in-house (and your client requires it), then partnering up with such a freelancer is a no-brainer. You add talent and expertise without having to make a full-time hire. To use my own agency as an example again: If NASA wanted us to help with content creation, we’d probably go out and find a few freelance rocket scientists to put on the team (they should be easy to find).

2) Focus

Another benefit to working with freelancers is their focus on a specific service offering. Unlike a digital marketing agency, very few freelancers are going to sell you on content creation, graphic design, and app development all in one package. They tend to stick to a single area of focus. This makes them a valuable resource to supplement your services -- though it also serves as a lesson to agencies offering too many marketing services.

3) Capacity

Although one freelancer can only handle so much (as I noted above), a network of freelancers can help your agency scale to great heights and handle almost any workload. Not only will this benefit your more demanding clients, it will help prevent your in-house talent from burning out. I weep for agencies who have to turn down business because of capacity issues. It should never happen, and with a great team of freelancers, it won’t.

Basically, while competition necessitates you make the downsides of working with freelancers very clear to certain clients during the sales process, the fact is they can supplement your in-house agency talent and help you grow at a rate that would have otherwise been impossible. Although they sometimes compete, freelancers are ironically a marketing agency’s greatest resource and competitive advantage.

Let's Learn to Work Together

I’m of the belief that the “gig economy” is still very much in its infancy. And I suspect that the 34% of the workforce that is currently doing freelance work will double in the next 10 years. The future is freelance, and agencies must be ready to make friends with this growing pool of talent if they hope to survive.

What’s your take on the agency-freelancer relationship? Friend or foe? Or is it still too complicated?

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Originally published Feb 24, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017