Should You Hire a Freelancer or an Agency?

Nov 13th, 2012


Image by N. C. Winters

So you hired a freelancer to create your most important online assetyour business website — because you wanted to save a couple of bucks?
And now you’re out the money, have an unfinished website you cannot access, the current state of your business’s online presence is a disaster and its future is questionable. Oops.

We hear the same stories over and over again:

Our web designer has vanished. We cannot reach him anymore. We have no access to the website.

He took our money and now doesn’t answer his phone.

He is so busy with his other job, he doesn’t have the time to work on our website anymore.

We are facing a lawsuit because our web designer used images on our website he wasn’t allowed to use.

Our web designer says that cannot be done.

But at least you have a contract allowing you to enforce the terms (one you track him down), right? No? Oh.

We already outlined the things you need to watch out for before trusting someone with your project in Things To Ask A Web Design Company Before You Hire Them and in How To Choose a Web Design Company (that doesn’t suck).

Freelancers: Jacks Of All Trades

Besides advertising bottom-level pricing (some even particularly quoting “no agency fees” in their blurbs), most freelancers blatantly state that they all can do everything, no matter what it is. Of course for next to nothing. And better than any agency.

Every freelance ad I see contains every single industry buzz word, from SEO to database programming, from logo design to social media, from advertising to high-end online marketing, plus every programming language ever invented and every single software package available.

I’ve been in the industry since 1996. And I am YET to meet a programmer who can design. I also never met a designer who can write code (I mean real code, not HTML).
I’m not saying that these skills are mutually exclusive, but I am saying this:
If you are a star at one thing, chances are you are not that good at something else. And never, ever good at everything.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Skills / Services

A freelancer can say anything he wants, can claim any (or all) skill(s) he desires, without having to prove any of it. If someone buys it, great, if not, no loss.

To get hired (and survive!) at an agency, a candidate actually has to prove he has the skill he’s advertising. With a detailed resume, an extensive portfolio, references and maybe even a little test. And he has to prove it again and again, day after day.

TIP: A reputable company/agency will always state their range of services very clearly.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Rules

A freelancer has no supervision. His word is the law, there is no higher authority to guide, correct or QC his statements or his work. There’s is no one telling him how to do his work, when to do his work, or whether to work at all.
Nobody tells a freelancer to get up in the morning, to sit at his desk until at least 5pm or to work overtime because there’s a deadline.

Most freelancers claim all of the above as the major reasons why they are not working at an agency.
I agree. These are exactly the reasons WHY  they are not working at an agency.

No business can survive without rules. If all employees do as they please, come and go when they want, the business would not be in business for a very long time.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Resources / Equipment

Mhhmmm… Abobe CS6. The premium version or subscription to this online tool. A dedicated server and a production server. A no-limit account to iStockPhoto. That conference in Miami.
Professional tools of the trade, continuing education, access to premium resources are all components absolutely necessary to stay on top of the digital game.

Most freelancers work with a very limited budget and simply cannot afford the newest version of Photoshop or that premium all-access plan to this invaluable online resource.

It’s in an agency’s best interest to provide its employees with everything they need to produce professional results, and to keep them happy and educated. Equipment like servers, subscriptions to premium content, software, training and education are a big part of an agency’s expense account. But they are also responsible for happy clients.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Resources / Staff

An agency only employs people who are on the cutting edge of their particular skill set and industry trend — and as a client you can take advantage of all their combined brain power to ensure your project gets done in time, gets done right, and the way you want it.

They all offer their experience, their input and their unique talent to you and your project. In the end – they all work for you, they become your resources.

Time and resource allocation as well as task assignment – the project management – is only possible if there ARE resources available for allocation and distribution, and if somebody is there to manage these resources, to prioritize and assign tasks and to oversee the progress.

The designer creates the logo and the layout, the coder creates and implements the logic, the copy writer creates the content, and the marketers implement their strategies.

This makes it very easy to understand that an agency can complete a project a lot faster than a one-man-show, where tasks have to be completed consecutively instead of all the tasks being able to be completed concurrently.

So next time, when you think a freelancer can complete your project faster than an agency – Think Again.

NOTE: The “But an agency won’t hire me because I don’t have a degree” excuse doesn’t hold up either:
I’ve hired people who had no degree – because they were good.
I also fired (or not hired) people who have degrees – because they didn’t deliver.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Responsibilities

So your freelancer missed a deadline. So what?
Most likely it was a verbal agreement, you have nothing in writing and there are no penalties attached. He said he will have it done tomorrow. Unless the babysitter cannot make it and he has to take care of the kids. Or his goldfish catches a cold.
No big deal, right? He is cheap.

I understand that things DO happen. Unforeseeable things like accidents or emergencies. Things that turn a well-planned schedule or timeline upside down. Even at an agency.
But at an agency there’s usually someone there to cover for it.
Somebody else can take over and work on or finish the project if someone calls in sick or is attending a conference. An agency can allocate additional resources to support a department that’s temporarily short-staffed or overwhelmed or to quickly replace failing equipment.

If your e-commerce site is down and you cannot process orders because that shared hosting plan your freelancer set you up with cannot handle the traffic, that’s too bad. It was cheap, remember?

Timelines, deliverables and deadlines play a big role in everyday agency life. First proof on Monday at 10am means Monday at 10am. Not 2pm or 5pm. Or Tuesday.
Taking on a project means taking on a big responsibility. Somebody’s business and livelihood might depend on it.

“Contracts are made to keep honest people honest” (Quote from a friend) – and it’s not only true, but essential. In case of a dispute, and without a contract your only other option might be Judge Judy. It’s not rude to ask for stipulations that cover missed deadlines. It shows that you mean business.
TIP: Read the actual contract. It’s meant to protect your interests as well. If it doesn’t, renegotiate the terms.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Client Acquisition

Typically, freelancers are always hunting for more work. They don’t have the presence and sales force of an agency, so part of their time inevitably has to be spent on client acquisition.
Time a freelancer cannot spend working on your project.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Workload Or “The Other Job”

So your freelancer is doing what he’s doing for you “on the side”? He has a “real job”?
What this means is that he’s only working on your project part-time (He has another job, remember?).
It also means that he can never give your project full attention or dedication. His other job is already taking up the majority of his time (otherwise he wouldn’t be doing your project “on the side”).
And soon, your project goes from “part-time” to “no time“.

Agency/Freelance Difference: Price

The Bottom Line: You Always Get What You Pay For.

Disclaimer:
I am in no way implying that all freelancers are unreliable people who cannot deliver. Only the ones I met so far.

About the author:

Nina Khoury is a computer scientist, software engineer, data and information junkie and online marketer. She taught at various universities for more than six years and worked on projects for Fortune 500 companies including cisco, Intel and HP.

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