Ad agency vs. freelancers: When to hire freelance creatives direct?

when to hire freelance creativesWhy hire a whole advertising agency rather than just the key individuals for a project? What extras do you get when you work with an agency? Is it worth the extra cost? Are the cost savings worth the potential problems? How and when should you hire freelancers direct? These are questions a marketing person now needs to consider when a new project looms. Simon Carbery says the answer can depend on your type of company.
Ad agencies or bespoke teams?
If you’re a marketing manager and have an assignment, you now have two realistic options: you can decide whether to hire an advertising agency, or you can use key people direct.
It partly depends on your experience, your own expertise, and your company culture. Many would say that if you’ve always worked with agencies, why rock the boat? Unquestionably, the best communications agencies offer fantastic expertise in one or more media comms skills, and if you’re a mega-brand the sheer hassle of trying to do it all yourself can make the cost of an agency seem worthwhile.
But the key word here is ‘cost’. Not everyone wants to pay for an agency’s overheads as well as an agency’s expertise. Because in an online, globally-connected, communication-savvy, post credit-crunch world, that expertise is now available worldwide in freelance form. In abundance. A new world, in other words, has opened up for brands who want to go direct to the talent.
Ad agency or direct to the talent? Looking at both of these options and helping you weigh up the pros and cons is what this article is about.
Option 1 The advantages of working exclusively with a comms agency
1. Complete service
An ad agency offers a start to finish solution. You go to them with your problem and if they’re good they’ll understand your business, provide the right strategy, the right idea, in the right medium, and create the work. Then they place the advertising, send out the viral ad, do whatever else is required, and all you have to do is pay the bill.
2. Less risk, more dependability
You have more security when you work with an agency. Like an accountant or a trusted supplier, they become like another department of your company. You know
They’re there for you. With an appointed agency there’s always someone to answer the phone and be accountable for your work.
3. Continuity
Permanent staff in an agency are what the name suggests: permanent. In theory at least, the team working on your business will be made up of the same people over a period of time. Continuity means they can develop an understanding of you and your business, and a feel for your brand. And you can develop a dialogue with them.
4. Coordination
If it’s a large communications campaign with multimedia strands, coordinating all the elements can be challenging. One of the strengths of comms agencies is their ability to get to grips with these complex elements.
Option 2 The advantages of hiring creatives directly
1. Cost
It’s cheaper. That’s the No.1 reason in the current economic client that people hire creatives directly. You can make big savings while still getting equally good results
2. Control
With fewer people in the chain you can see exactly what’s happening and have direct input, so the end-result should be closer to what you want.
3. Speed
Thing happen faster. That’s the other benefit of improved communication – things take less time. Fewer people need to free their schedule for a meeting. You can simply call your freelance individual or team, ask when they can deliver, and get it directly.
4. When you know what you want
If you know exactly what you want, whether it’s a press release written for a new product or a label designed for a bottle, then it makes sense to hire an individual with specialist expertise without paying his employer’s overheads.
5. You’ll know who you’re getting
You get to choose the creatives you want to work with. They’re not assigned to you by the agency. You’ve seen their CVs, their portfolios and their personalities. You know if they’re right for your brand. And you can talk directly to them – you’re dealing with the people who are actually doing your project.
6. Experience and expertise
With agencies cutting their budgets due to declining margins, permanent staff are becoming more junior and less experienced. Carefully chosen freelance people can
often provide a level of expertise no longer easy to access through an ad agency.
7. Free with a freelancer
When you hire an agency, often you sign a contract for a year or more. With a freelancer you can stop working together at any time if the results aren’t what you’re
looking for.
8. Concentration
An ad agency has many clients and only so many resources and your project can be ‘de-prioritised’. A freelance individual or team is likely to be focused entirely
on your project.
8. Agencies hire freelancers. Why shouldn’t you?
If you work with ad agencies, you’ve already got freelancers working for you – ad agencies use freelance people all the time. Why pay advertising agency costs and a commission for their freelancers?
9. Fun
It’s more rewarding when you are a partner in the creative process. You work directly with the creative team and can bounce ideas off each other. More productive, more fun.
How can you maintain control when working with freelance people?
I’ve already touched on some potential downsides when it comes to working directly with freelancers directly. But these can be negated when you work with them via a specialist freelance agent. Good agents only work with tried and trusted freelancers and can co-ordinate multiple freelancers to form a team to work on your brand. You might need planners to create a brand strategy, creatives to hatch the concept, designers to make the website … perhaps local to you or the country you’re targeting. Obviously there is a fee for this extra guarantee and service, which is included in the freelancer’s rate, but this is significantly lower than agency commission and you only pay for the hours worked.
Smart brands go direct
I work with communications agencies of all types: advertising, design, branding, direct marketing and so on. But working solo or alongside carefully chosen team partners, I also work direct for brands. Because more and more brands are looking for small teams of people at the very top end to fill in for a comms agency. Often they have an in-house brand director who came from an agency background. They know how the business operates and want to run the show themselves. They cherry-pick the top creatives and form a small and elite team to create concepts they know will work for their brand. This is how it works for me. I specialise in top-end creative concepts. We don’t work for the brand – we work inside the brand. Between us, my team partners and I,have worked directly for Apple, Nike, Education First, Diesel, Paul Smith, Caterpillar and others.
How to access top freelance consultants through an agent
I’m represented by The Collective, an international agent that provides freelancers to Nike, Apple, Philips, Tommy Hilfiger and many more. As well as the above-the-line campaigns I work on, where they team me up with an art director to form a creative team, they also provide a regular supply of designers and copywriters for below-the-line or direct to consumer marketing, who create printed or online communications materials. Copywriters also provide transcreation (translation by a copywriter into their native language) and it’s for jobs like this, where you need a large network of external freelancers – potentially problematic and time-consuming to source – that an agent like The Collective is useful.
In conclusion
Freelancing works for me then and the companies I work for, but for others it’s up to them to decide. It depends on the company and how good the agency or freelancer is. My recommendation is to try a small project with each before you commit to a big spend and see which works best… agency, freelancer or agent.
About the author: 
Simon Carbery trained at Saatchi’s, was Head of Copy at Lowe, and CD on Barclays at Leo Burnett London in 2009. He has won more than 20 major awards, been a D&AD; judge on 3 occasions, a Member of the D&AD; Executive Committee 2006-09, and had his own column in the advertising press while in Australia. He freelances all over the world as both a creative director and brand planner, and has unusually wide experience in all media, from TV advertising to digital.
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