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Creative freelancer v Creative agency

You’ve got a brief and you need a creative freelancer or agency to work their magic.

You’ve dismissed your mate’s sister’s boyfriend who “has a Mac and a GCSE in art”.

And you don’t have the time, skills, objectivity or inclination to do it yourself.

Let’s assume the budget won’t cover a protracted pitching process and the deadline means you can’t spend ages meeting dozens of people for a coffee and a chat.

So now there are two basic options.

Do you hook up with a freelancer or an agency? There are pros and cons in either direction.

These are my personal opinions based on a career as an agency employee, agency owner and freelancer. I can’t guarantee total lack of bias, but I’ve done my best to be objective. So let’s get ready to rumble…

Creative freelancer v Creative agency

• Agenda
In an agency, the creatives want to do great work to show off to their contemporaries and help land the next job. The Account Directors want to impress the boss and get on the board. The MD wants the account to be as profitable as possible. These conflicting, hidden agendas can see your brief being tugged in different directions. The lone freelancer is often creative, account handler and MD all in one, so even though different motives may still be lurking beneath the surface, its easier to corale them into one cohesive force.
Creative freelancer: 10 / Creative agency: 7

• Priority
To an agency or a freelancer, your business is important. Without clients there’s no work and if there’s no work… well you get the idea. However, in agencies there is often a client priority list – big budget + trophy brand name = top of the list, then everything else on a sliding scale. With freelancers, you will usually find that every client is as important (client 1 pays the utility bills, client 2 buys the weekly shop, client 3 helps towards the growing collection of Star Wars memorabilia, client 4 pays for the Friday night curry…)
Creative freelancer: 10 / Creative agency: 8

• Cost
Agencies have overheads; great big, shiny, turbo-charged, Shoreditch-flavoured overheads. Smaller agencies have smaller overheads, but still, someone has to pay for them. A creative freelancer usually has a spare bedroom and laptop to feed at most. You know your budget and you know what you want to spend it on.
Creative freelancer: 9 / Creative agency: 3

• Capacity
No matter the size of the organisation you work with, there is a limit to how much throughput they can handle. Both freelancers and agencies can over-promise, but generally speaking, the creative freelancer’s right hand is more likely to know what their left hand is doing.
Creative freelancer: 9 / Creative agency: 8

• Transparency
Large agencies are infamous for putting their star players forward to win the business. Once the contract’s signed you’re left with junior account execs and creative teams on placement. With smaller agencies and individual freelancers, what you see is what you get. If you like working with these people day one, you should still be bobbing along quite happily a year later.
Creative freelancer: 10 / Creative agency: 6

• Availability
We all need a holiday to re-charge the creative batteries. If you’re dealing with a one man/woman/person band, then inevitably there will be two or three weeks every year when they’re not so easy to get hold of. Saying that, you’d be amazed how much work can be done pool-side, using the hotel’s WiFi. Agencies of course don’t all go on holiday at the same time.
Creative freelancer: 6 / Creative agency: 10

• Commitment
When it’s called for, agencies pull all-nighters, so do freelancers. Both camps want to impress and hit those deadlines, but the further you go down the agency employee ecosystem, the quicker resentment starts to build. If everyone’s pulling their weight, then no one feels hard done by. With the freelacer, it’s them or no one, commitment goes with the territory.
Creative freelancer: 10 / Creative agency: 9

• Turnaround
The old analogy of the oil tanker changing course couldn’t be more appropriate. If you need to hit tight deadlines, I wouldn’t recommend choosing a large agency. Smaller creative agencies (3-6 employees-ish), without unwieldy, hierarchical structures can be much more flexible. The same goes for working with a creative freelancer – if they’re on the ball, they can juggle workloads to fit.
Creative freelancer: 8 / Creative agency: 7

• Quality
Whether you go for a freelancer or an agency, you can expect to find a huge disparity in the quality of the work between the best and the worst. The portfolio cannot lie – unless it’s been nicked from someone else.
Creative freelancer: 5 / Creative agency: 5

• Consistency
Like a great restaurant, when the chef changes, everything changes.
Agencies can get better or worse as the years go by and the team you originally worked with moves on. Generally speaking, individual creatives just get better with age.
Creative freelancer: 10 / Creative agency: 8

• Resource
Even if your trusted freelancer has several strings to their bow and a load of software skills, they simply can’t do everything. Most agencies of a decent size can handle concepts, copy, art direction, design, artwork, web development… all in-house. The lone freelancer will sometimes have to bring in people from their network to work alongside them.
Creative freelancer: 8 / Creative agency: 10

• Value
Quite separate from cost, value is a more subtle thing. Add up all the scores above, divide by the hourly rate and then multiply by the return on investment. I think it would be fair to say that agencies and freelancers can equally deliver anything between stinking, rotten awful and 10 gold stars.
Creative freelancer: 6 / Creative agency: 6

By my reckoning, the scores come in at:

Creative freelancer: 102 / Creative agency: 87

If you disagree, you’re welcome to pipe up here or have a go at me on twitter

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Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can drop me a line here, or email