The freelancer's guide to in-house agency work

Aug 29, 2019

With more and more professionals turning to freelancing, it can often feel like you’re getting into a confusing new reality. It sometimes feels as though there’s a vast horizon of potential work on offer, yet also an impossible mountain to climb when it comes to getting your foot in the door.

Having consistent freelance work that pays well is often touted as something to struggle and strive for – a hard-won prize for only the most determined freelancer. Yet even top level marketing agencies offer work that’s both attainable and engaging to get into, if you know where to look and how best to tailor your approach.

Why in-house agency work works

As a freelancer, whatever your niche or specialism, you’ve likely had to spend at least half of your aggregated professional time pitching your talent to companies – and at worst, having to prove years of experience and knowledge from scratch.

Marketing and advertising agencies already have the work pitched and prepped to go – they just need it completed. And just as many of your own freelance projects might have sometimes been a mad scramble to the finish line, even the biggest of agencies sometimes brush up against steep deadlines or surges of work they need talent like yours to complete to their high standards.

Unlike brands you might work with directly, agencies are typically far less hit or miss with paying on time, too. While exceptions exist, agencies work with freelancers often enough to know how much they appreciate timely payment, delivered free of hassle.

Getting agencies to notice your skills

Bigger agencies often receive numerous approaches and emails from freelancers daily, all hungry for the kind of consistent and well paid work these companies can provide. As you can appreciate, standing out from the crowd is key here.

As always, you can let your portfolio do a lot of the talking, tweaking it the same way you might tweak a resume. Adjust what it shows to ensure it always works as a highlight reel of your greatest achievements.

How do you recognize what those big achievements are? Try to take the perspective of the agency you’re trying to befriend. Don’t just focus on how long you worked with a client, or even how big a deal that company was in its respective industry (although big brands definitely help plump up your portfolio). Instead, consider the story behind certain moments of success.

Did you develop the UX for a client who’s since gone from strength to strength in their industry? Did you write the copy that’s at the heart of a resurgent local business’s marketing campaign? Did you code the backend of a web page that’s since won business in abundance for a financial firm?

It’s about selling your story

Consider the benefits of the work you’ve accomplished so far. Communicate to the agency how this same set of skills can be put to their advantage, and – where possible – tie that to campaigns or current projects you know they’re involved in, or niche experience that you know sets you apart from the market.

New to freelancing? Not a problem. Communicate your openness to learn and gain valuable experience by aligning with the needs of the business, and even demonstrate some of your own passion projects to highlight your skills.

Don’t feel let down by an initial ‘no’, either – get back in touch a few months down the line. Much like you, agencies run in peaks and troughs of business, and some times of a given year simply won’t need external help versus others. It’s nothing personal.

That thorny money talk

Even the most seasoned freelancers often feel as though their fees and service costs are calculated almost on the fly, and it can feel impossible to know whether the price you set is one your prospective client is going to crinkle their nose at.

It’s daunting to know that other people likely want to be having the negotiations you’re having in the moment, and that can elicit panic. And of course, you can feel tempted to rock-bottom your rates to win the day — a practice rarely worth doing if you want respect and reasonable revenue.

Many agencies will have set rates and some leeway to negotiate – remember that your talent is essentially a budgetary consideration in that agency’s current campaign or project, and they have their own criteria to fill. Agencies who understand what makes freelancers tick and the value they add, of course, will have set rates that are on the generous side.

Those who seem to offer far below the mark, and seem to vaguely hint that your talent could be replaced by any number of other people, are rarely worth too much of your time. Sure, they’re right in saying there are dozens of freelancers they can turn to – but that agency is far from the only game in town themselves, and fabricating a scarcity mentality to get you along for the ride won’t do them any favors, nor you. You’re as free to consider other options as they are.

It’s good practice to establish early on the expected timeframe of payments to arrive – weekly, biweekly, monthly and so forth. The best agencies pay well and fast, but some prefer the NET 30 approach of rolling out payments after 30 days have elapsed – something to consider as you plan ahead.

Being a team player, albeit not a team member

There’s much talk in recent times of how the lines between on-site self employed individual and traditional employee are becoming ever more blurred. In the UK, for instance, this confusing gray area is being tackled ever more stringently with IR35 taxation rules, but the same fogginess seems to be the norm wherever you look

Within that gray area, some agencies and other clients will treat you as an employee in all but name, but avoid making it official simply to avoid contributing to your taxes, pension and so forth. In purely pragmatic terms, this may be because it simply makes no sense for them to take on a formal new employee for, say, a three-month project or a brief flurry of intense activity.

However, it’s also important that you ensure you know your own rights and boundaries. For example, although many agencies are happy for you to work on their premises, you aren’t beholden to do so as a freelancer. That said, there’s no reason to be a diva either. By all means offer your own insights on things you’ve learned over your career to not only enhance your client’s experience of working with you, but also increase your value in their eyes – alongside the potential of repeat business in the future.

Knowing your limits

Expected hours or availability for work are not unreasonable to ask of you, and likewise, if you work on-site you’re expected to treat the facilities and amenities well. However, keep in mind that that boundary between you and the rest of the team will be there, subconsciously, when you are on the agency’s premises – and in the worst cases this can leave you feeling isolated and shut out.

A good agency will communicate to its employees who you are and why you are on-site, as well as what is and isn’t being asked of you – and in best case scenarios, they might extend a few perks or staff gatherings your way too. At worst, you might feel as though you’re working in an information silo among teams who have all established their own cliques, with no interest in getting to know you. That said, at least you have the home office option, if this becomes an issue – but it’s better to address these concerns in open communication.

Come project’s end, evaluate your experiences

Agency work often comes thick and fast, and then all at once a project will end as rapidly as it seemed to barrel ahead just a short time ago. Agencies move fast, and it can leave you with little time or room in your mind to evaluate whether you found the experience of working with them worthwhile.

Honestly discuss what future, if any, exists between you and the agency, but remember that the future isn’t certain. Again, the best agencies will have kept you in the loop about their game plan going forward, and whether it has a place for you as campaigns unfold. This helps you plan your own forward strategy in kind, and of course, having established good workplace friendships and team bonds, will make your likelihood of being invited to contribute in the future that much more likely.

Keep an open mind, but also remember your worth, and you’ll find that the most professional marketing agencies around are engaging and courteous to work with. Don’t feel intimidated in making an approach towards them, and likewise, use these opportunities to keep building your network and portfolio — as well as that all important financial success and security. This might just be some of the most rewarding work in your freelance career.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Tony White

Tony White is a freelance writer and author currently working alongside Further, a digital marketing agency based in his hometown of Norwich, UK.