6 Ways Agencies Can Get the Most out of Freelancers

If you’re spending the money to bring in outside help, preparation and communication will help you get more bang for your buck

I recently wrote up some tips for advertising freelancers. But how about the agencies that employ them?

Pulling in specialized talent when needed has long been a hallmark of agency life. But the trend seems to be on the rise with more and more project work (versus Agency-of-Record assignments) and a new breed of “lean by design” agencies.

There are nearly 54 million freelancers in the U.S. That number is growing. A recent study put the number of freelancers at 34% of the current workforce and predicted that it will be 50% by 2020.

Here are six ways agencies can get the most out of its freelance talent:

1. Be crystal clear about what you want.

This may seem obvious, but you need to ask yourself, “Why are we bringing in a freelancer?”

Usually it’s because there’s something your full-time staff can’t handle, due to bandwidth, experience or skill level.

But you don’t have to use freelancers as one-to-one replacements for staff; you can be more focused and strategic with your temporary help. What is the task at hand that needs to be completed?

For example, you may need a couple of days of “big idea” help for the early part of a pitch. Or you may need digital execution chops for an assignment that’s going to roll right into production. Or maybe the idea is set and you need a designer to give you a week or two of design exploration.

Once you’re clear about what you need, spell it out for the freelancer, ideally when you reach out to him/her about their availability.

Working in a lot of different shops, I’ve found that there’s a wide range in what agencies expect. You may be booking an “art director,” but the roles and responsibilities of an “art director” may be different from shop to shop.

Need them to comp and build decks? Be clear about that up front. That way you avoid that awkward night-before-the-pitch “Well, I’m more of a concepts/big picture art director, I don’t really lay out decks.” (Sounds insane, I know. But it happens more than you’d think.)

I’ll use myself as an example. I work as a copywriter and I work as a creative director. When I get booked, I clarify what the place wants me to do. Come up with platform ideas? Write scripts? Or do you want me to provide direction to teams? Give feedback? Narrow the ideas. Do all the things a good creative director is supposed to do?

Do you want me to be client-facing or am I just there to generate work and hide in the back room? Both are fine, but it’s nice to know in advance.

And you should be clear about the schedule and logistical details, too. Need the freelancer in the office every day or is working remote OK? Are we in up-all-night pitch mode? Is weekend work in the cards? If you set expectations, you avoid surprises.

2. Get your shit together before the meter starts.

Listen, it’s your money. So if you want to burn through a bunch of it while your freelancers sit around waiting, it’s totally up to you.

But if you take the time to get your act together ahead of time, you can use your freelance dollars more efficiently.

Get the brief written and approved before your creative freelancers are on the clock. Map out the schedule in advance and understand what you need and when.

We all know that this business is, uh, fluid. And when you’re at the mercy of clients, things can change at the last minute. But the elements that ARE under your control, you should control.

Most freelancers that I know aren’t looking for free money — they want to be busy, they want to contribute and they want to help solve your problem. Set it up so they can get to work, right away.

Also, be clear about to whom your freelancers should answer to. Are they working for the chief creative officer? Taking direction from the ACD? What’s their interaction with account and strategy? Clarifying the reporting relationships for all involved will save headaches, time and money.

3. Over communicate.

It’s a cliché that agencies, which are in the business of creating communication for clients, are often terrible at internal communication with their own people.

But it’s a cliché for a reason; it’s true at lots of shops.

Of course, it would be great if agencies fixed the root problem and were better at communication, in general. But I’m a realist, so let’s take baby steps and focus on improving communication with your freelancers.

Over communicate. Keep them in the loop. Introduce them to everybody on the team and let them know who does what. And give them a heads-up when the inevitable zig-zags present themselves.

I’m a big advocate of a good, old-fashioned contact sheet at the start of any project. Let everybody — both staff and freelance — know who’s working on what and how they can be reached. Make sure they’re included on relevant emails. Give everybody the schedule in advance, put check-in meetings on their calendar and include them on distribution of post-meeting notes.

It’s amazing how many times this doesn’t happen. Sure, if a freelancer is working off site, it may be less obvious that they’re still toiling away on a brief that got thrown out three hours ago. But it happens with on-site freelancers too.

That time is wasted dollars. And it’s completely avoidable if somebody simply picks up the phone or sends and email and says, “Full stop. We’re not doing that any more, can you work on this instead?”

4. Use them wisely.

Some agencies see freelancers as “rentable staff” and have them do the exact same stuff that full-time staff members do.

But do you really want to pay freelancers to sit in meetings they don’t really need to sit in? Do you need freelancers to stick around after the ideas are baked so they can pixel-push comps or finesse a presentation deck? Or can stuff be handed off to a production designer in your studio?

It goes back to being clear about what you want from the freelancer. Some places say, “I really just need you for a week or two during the idea and script phase and then we can take the ideas and run with them.” Other agencies want a freelancer to take charge of the whole process, from briefing to client presentation to production.

It helps to know what a freelancer is good at. If you need great design from somebody, let him/her design stuff for you. If you’ve got a great comedy writer and that’s what the brief calls for, let him/her write comedy. If you have a team that understands social better than anybody you have on staff, let them focus on innovative social ideas.

You may want your freelancers to think more broadly, and that’s great, too. But getting short-term help from a specialist is one of the smart ways to use outside talent.

5. Treat them well.

It’s a people business and your agency’s output and reputation are only as good as the people you work with, both staff and freelance.

If you find a great freelancer, it pays to learn a little bit about why he or she prefers the freelance lifestyle. You may be able to craft his/her assignments to make them more attractive. Maybe he/she she would like a shot to work on a particular type of project or is really looking to get something produced to keep his/her book fresh.

And little things go a long way. Put ’em in the credits if were instrumental to an idea. Invite ’em out to drinks with the rest of the team. Pay ’em on time.

The best ones are usually more selective about their assignments; make sure your assignment is one that he/she wants.

Which brings me to my final tip, which is less about freelancers and more about how freelancers affect the others at your agency…

6. Treat your full-time staff as well as you treat your freelancers. Maybe even better.

More than one freelancer has told me, “I’m treated so much better as a freelancer than I ever was as a full-timer.”

Don’t think your full-timers don’t notice.

For example, agencies are often more conscientious about making a freelancer work on the weekends since the day-rate (or weekend-rate) adds up. But it’s rare that agencies exercise the same level of concern about a full-timer’s weekend plans.

You see it with assignments, too. As a freelancer, I’m usually brought in with a more focused workload. When I was full-time, my plate was much fuller, and I was always juggling too many assignments.

And the meetings! Many full-timers LIVE in meetings. To the point where many have to stay late at the end of the day to get to the real work. If you’re not paying freelancers to sit around in meetings, maybe you don’t need your full-timers in them either? (Note to self: “Kill All The Meetings” as topic for next article.)

Finally, the points about clear expectations and communication apply to your regular staff, as well. They, too, want clarity about their role and their schedule. They want to get credit for their good work. They want a chance to showcase their best skills. And if you let a freelancer work from home, why wouldn’t you do the same for your regular staff, at least occasionally?

Ultimately, most shops need both to be successful: happy full-timers and a stable of reliable freelancers.

THE OTHER SIDE: 7 Tips for the Advertising Freelancer

MORE: 15 Lessons From My Two Years as an “Agency of One”


About the Author

John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco.

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