Freelancing for other agencies means working under an umbrella of another company (also known as “white label” service). The agency gets fresh talent without having to commit to having a worker on a payroll, and you get access to projects you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
I’ve been on both sides of this arrangement – as a freelancer working for an agency, and as a lead designer in an agency that outsourced design work – so I’ll share some of my experiences.
You might be wondering why would a designer, developer, illustrator, copywriter, social media marketer or other type of freelancer ever agree to a setup that’s suspiciously similar to employment?
I’ll be honest with you, because I like to keep things real.
Working for agencies has saved my butt when I was in a pickle
Many a time when I was near broke and didn’t know where my next client was going to come from, an agency contract gave me the peace of mind I needed.
While agencies are not my “right people” by any means, and there are some significant downsides (which I’ll explain in more detail), they were a reality of my freelance journey. Your journey might be smooth sailing, and you’ll never have to work for anyone else ever again. Kudos to you!
However, I don’t want you to feel like a failure should you happen to be in a situation where the easiest alternative seems to be accepting the agency’s offer to collaborate on a project. As you will see, it’s not half bad.
The benefits of working for an agency
There are significant upsides to working with an agency, and for a new freelancer, this type of work might actually provide a gentle transition between permanent employment and running your own show.
Steady stream of work
When it comes to repeat clients, nothing beats agencies. If you do a good job on your first project, you can bet they’ll come back to you with more work for months to come.
There are only so many projects you can do for a single client (unless you do ongoing maintenance). This means that most of the time, getting more work means reaching out to more people, which takes time and effort.
On the other hand, here is one client that needs exactly the type of work you do, over and over again. This is not to be underestimated, especially if you need a little more reliability in your income as you’re building and streamlining your marketing and sales process.
They take care of lead generation and client on-boarding
Similar to being an employee, your workload for every single project is lower than if you had to go out hunting for leads, emailing back and forth to insure you’re a good fit, attending meetings or Skype calls, collecting content, signing contracts…
The agency does all that, and you “only” need to show up to do your creative work. (Well that, and talking to the team.)
Reliable payment schedule
Handling money and contracts is usually the biggest stumbling block for new freelancers.
Since agencies go through the same ordeal in an effort to get paid, I find them to be more empathetic to your needs than most clients, and will agree to a payment schedule that’s fair and based on your delivery, regardless of what the clients does.
Personally, I’m way more comfortable talking about money with agency owners, than with clients. It’s easier for me to get over myself and talk straight business when I know that the person I’m talking to already knows how much work is involved and what the rates in the field are.
You have full control over how you perform your work
Unlike an employer, the agency that hires freelancers doesn’t care when you do your work, as long as you respond to all communication in a reasonable timeframe.
You can use any software you want, take a workday off and work on a Sunday, it’s all the same to them.
If you bill a per-project rate, they don’t even care how many hours you work. They just want their client to be happy, and it’s up to you to take care of that.
The downsides of working for an agency
Of course not everything is rainbows, unicorns and sparkles in the agency land. Wherever there are unicorns, there’s bound to be some unicorn poop, as well. (They don’t tell you that in fairytales, do they?)
You don’t own the work
In most cases, the contract with agencies is essentially a “work for hire” agreement, and the agency retains all rights to all the deliverables you create for them from the moment they pay you.
They also require you to sign a nondisclosure clause so you’re not allowed to say publicly you worked on a project, which means you’re not allowed to put it in your portfolio.
This is a serious drawback, and a reason why you shouldn’t work exclusively for agencies for a significant period of time, especially if you rely on your portfolio or referrals to get more clients.
Great portfolio pieces, case studies and client testimonials (along with word of mouth) are what sells your services. If you stop building your portfolio because you’re busy doing only agency work, this will diminish your chances of success in the long term.
Make sure you’re always working on a client project or your own passion project that will make a good portfolio piece.
You have no contact with the client
On most projects, the client doesn’t even know you exist. For all they know, all the work is being done in-house. Agencies are very protective of their clients and they don’t want to risk losing their business to you, in case the client realizes they might get the same service directly from you with a significantly lower price-tag.
There are cases when this can also be viewed as a positive thing, for example when a client is a total pain in the ass. But most of the time not being in direct contact with the client means you have no idea what the client’s true needs are – you get information that is filtered through a third party.
For example, there were several instances when an agency told me the client wants a “simple” design, and when I provided simple, the client realized they actually wanted something more elaborate. Had I been communicating with them directly, I would not have accepted the word “simple” as an answer – I’d ask further questions to discover what they actually mean by this.
If you’d rather not deal with clients and are happy to get instructions from a middle-man, then this may work for you. For a lot of freelances though, it’s a serious impediment.
They may require you to adopt their systems and processes
When working directly with a client, you set your rules. E-mail or Slack? Trello or Basecamp? Questionnaires or meetings? It’s up to you to set up your process, and this is what enables you to perform your work better and faster.
When working with an agency, they already have a system in place, and some of them may ask you to play along.
If you find that their system is not as streamlined as yours and they’re not married to a certain project management software, you can suggest your own preferred set up, but prepare to hear a no, and decide whether you will follow through with the project despite that.
Is agency work right for you?
I cannot tell you what is or isn’t right for you without knowing the details of your situation.
If you’re looking at the downsides and thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I don’t care, I just want to work” then obviously, you’d be quite well off working with an agency. In fact, it might be a good idea to be more proactive and reach out to agencies in your area and tell them you’re open for collaboration if they need someone with your skills.
I know it sounds totally counterintuitive, and I wouldn’t have thought it possible until I’ve experienced it myself – but sometimes your “competitors” may in fact prove to be great clients.
If money is tight and you’re out of ideas on how to attract more clients, send a few personal, thoughtful e-mails to people you know in your industry and tell them you’re open to doing white label work.
If the very thought of giving up your copyright or not being able to communicate to a client makes you squirm, then this is not an appropriate income source for you.
A note on pricing for white label work
Common sense might indicate that working for agencies is more cost-effective for you, since the agency assumes the cost of marketing and the overhead of client communication. Some agencies might outright ask you what your “wholesale” fee is. I advise people not to lower their prices for agencies – agencies are free to add markup if they wish.
There are two huge factors that in my experience make up for any savings:
- Communicating with the agency team is a significant overhead
- You’re not getting a portfolio piece, and since portfolio pieces help you sell more services, typically NDA type projects should cost more, not less than your “regular” ones
You don’t owe agencies a special discounted rate. You need to earn what you need to earn to keep your business afloat, and stand by it.
What are your thoughts?
Have you ever worked for an agency before? What are your experiences?
If you haven’t yet worked in such a capacity, are you thinking about it? Why or why not?