Differences between agency and freelance work

I’ve spent most of my career working in agencies and in-house creative groups. For the last couple of years, I’ve worked exclusively as an independent designer.

I’ve noticed a huge difference in the clients and the type of work I get.

As an independent designer, my clients will say, “We need a brochure designed,” “We need a billboard,” or “I need social media graphics.” My role, in their eyes, is limited to designing nice versions of what they want. When I make suggestions outside their specific requests, I get awkward blank stares that sit somewhere between bafflement and irritation.

The creative teams at the various companies where I’ve worked rarely got these kinds of requests. Instead, clients asked us to help them with their communication and marketing problems. No one ever said, “I need a brochure or an infographic.” Instead, they would say, we have a product to promote or a message to communicate. We need your help figuring out how best to do it.

I’ve always maintained a small freelance business outside my day jobs, so none of this surprises me. However, I don’t particularly like doing one-off handyman design projects for clients, and it’s getting more difficult by the day to hold my interest.

Someone once said, educate your customers.

I sometimes can convince customers that come to me with such a “brochure” request to go for a more thoughtful approach to reach goals by talking about efficacy/efficiency/getting the most for his or her money also in the long run.

But that is way easier when talking to the CEO or owner than when talking to middle management, which already sold a “brochure” to its boss.

And sometimes I am surprised that a “brochure” is the best way to go.

I guess it all depends on whether your customers consider you a designer or an agency.

Do you call yourself a designer or agency when communicating to customers?

Yeah, that’s probably true. Calling a one-person operation an agency is a stretch, so, no, I don’t use that term. Perhaps I should. :wink:

More than just the semantic difference, though, is the clientele. Organizations using an ad agency are usually prepared to spend money and understand what an agency does.

Organizations hiring independent contract designers are typically smaller, operate with some naive assumptions, and mostly need one-off things done. I think crowdsourcing has contributed to this change in perception that didn’t exist 30–40 years ago at the beginning of my career.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is to bring value to the table and become an integrated part of my client’s marketing team. I want them to see me as a partner more than someone that can just come up with one-off designs. I have been successful with this approach with some clients. With other clients, not so much.

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You know, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ve spent more than a few years representing the creative side of things on marketing teams. Most of my clients have some communication or marketing expertise, but nearly all of them lack the perspective of an art or creative director.

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Same here. All this is among the reasons I kept the word “Design” out of my business name. I bill myself as a strategist.


It kinda blows my mind that someone with as broad experience in this industry as yourself would be only thought of as only a “hands-person” that’s there to move pixels around the screen. :exploding_head:

Do you think it could be the result of how you’re positioning yourself?

I think this is the nature of being a one person operation. Difficult to get A-list and B-list clients when you’re solo, so we’re left with the clients who are hyper focused on budget, and trying to fill the gaps by doing some of the work themselves. I think of it in baseball terms. I’m not a starter, or an every day player. I’m a utility player that gets put in the game when they need a pinch hit.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.” — Hellen Keller

Some called me an Agency, a Designer, or better yet, a Communicator & Creative Boutique. It matters not. But the way I have always described myself is, a Storyteller — Everything I do for my clients tells a story that touches the heart of the people you want to reach.

I have attached an example of what I am talking about. It is an ad I wrote and created for a sporting goods client of mine several years ago. (It is copyrighted by the way, so don’t get any ideas about using it yourself.) This ad ran in local high school and college football programs (the kind they pass out to parents and other spectators at every game in the school’s season.)