• Advice

Should freelancers work with a staffing or temp agency?

As an independent worker, you understand how great it is to be your own boss, stay flexible, and achieve a better work/life balance. But there are some not-so-easy things about freelancing: constantly marketing yourself, following up on late payments, no benefits, etc.

This is why many freelancers find a happy medium by getting freelance gigs through a staffing agency, which allows them to maintain their freedom and freelance status while giving them a measure of security. But it’s not all cupcakes and daisy-chains.

Here are some benefits and drawbacks to getting gigs through agencies:

The benefits of working with a staffing agency

1. No more marketing. For many freelancers, marketing can take up to 25% of their day. That’s a lot of time spent finding money and not making it. Agencies find the work for you.

2. No fees. When I first heard of staffing agencies, I assumed that I would have to pay a fee or membership. You don’t. The staffing agency gets paid by your clients (on top of what they pay you).

3. You get paid on time, every time. What a blessing. You never have to follow after clients, send angry emails, or negotiate late fees. You often also get paid faster, so no more 90-day pay cycles.

4. You may get access to benefits. Some staffing agencies offer access to 401(k)s and other benefits.

5. Clients tend to be high quality. Clients who work with staffing agencies normally are larger and have larger budgets. That doesn’t, however, mean that your rates will be great.

6. You can always turn down clients and projects. Just because you sign up with them doesn’t mean you have to take everything that comes your way.

The downsides of working with an agency

1. You can’t set your own rates. What you get is what you get. No negotiations, and no re-negotiations based on performance or extra work.

2. The agency is profiting off your work. One of the reasons you went freelance in the first place was to control the product of your labor and benefit directly from it. There’s nothing worse than the feeling that some higher up is benefiting from your hard work and you aren’t.

Some freelancers may find that an agency gives them a similar feeling, especially knowing that the staffing agency is making an extra 30% off what you’re earning -- just for referring you. You may feel that this is justified, or you may feel like it would have been better for you to market harder and find another client willing to pay your fee + 30% to you directly.

**3. You may not have the same creative license, **depending on the project and agency. Some agencies have a certain “brand” or vision that they promote to their clients, and they may expect you to stay in line. Even if you have more creative liberties, the agency may take the role of the creative “planner,” outlining to you their vision of the project, rather that you meeting directly with the client to work out a vision together. If this sounds too 9-5 to you, do your homework and really question each agency about their process while applying.

4. Years of experience are more important than your portfolio. Staffing agencies are normally pretty traditional because they have to interface with stodgy corporate HR departments. Even if you have a great portfolio, if you’re a new freelancer or have worked in your field for less than 5 years, staffing agencies will probably turn you away.

How to find a freelance-friendly staffing agency

Most agencies require that you stay local, so the best bet for finding an agency near you is a simple Google search. But as I discussed above, not all agencies are created equal.

Here’s what you should listen for:

  • Who set up the agency? Was it someone who was previously a freelancer and therefore understands what it’s like for you? Or was it a multinational agency that’s only out to increase its bottom line?
  • Stay away from agencies that look like they specialize in providing administrative support. You may find yourself in temp jobs that are beneath you.
  • Do they understand the value of creative talent, or are they just looking to plug you into an empty slot?
  • Is the staffing agency providing the creative direction for the project, or are you? Are you merely asked to be a technician here, or are you really being asked to bring your full creative brain to a project?
  • Do they make the payment scheme clear up-front? Are they forthright about how much the client is paying them?
  • Did the recruiter leave you hanging as to your status after the interview? They clearly think of you as a cog and not as a professional. Go elsewhere.

Do you work for agencies? I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. Any particular agencies you’d recommend?