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“We really need some design help on this! Should we get an agency, or does anyone know a good freelancer?”
This phrase has been uttered one way or another in practically every startup’s office within their first year of business, and it leads to the common dilemma, agency vs. freelancer?
In my career – which spans running an agency, working as a freelancer, and helping startups as an advisor and consultant – I’ve heard this question countless times. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, there is a framework that I use to help startups decide what kind of design help is right for them.
All too often, companies start by evaluating different freelancer and agency options without really understanding their needs. Just like starting a marketing plan, you need to know where you want to go and have defined goals before you can know which content outsourcing option is right for you.
The first thing you need to do is understand the difference between the two:
A freelancer is an individual who is self-employed. They are selling a specific service to you and are usually the only person working on your project.
An agency is a full-service team. They will provide you with an account manager to manage your business. They then have a team of designers, art directors, copywriters, media buyers and strategic planners at their disposal.
What Does Your Business Need?
The next step is to ask yourself (or your team) some questions about the project and consider the following:
  1. What kind of work do you need executed?
  2. What is the size of the project?
  3. What is the complexity of the job? Does it need an efficient team or can it be achieved by a skilled individual?
  4. What is the budget?
  5. What is the timeline? 
From these 10,000 foot questions, you can dive into the deeper questions that are applicable to your specific situation. These don’t necessarily cover all the questions but are a good start for branding, marketing and product development.
  1. Do you need a logo? Are you looking to establish your brand? Do you need a complete visual identity to reinforce what the brand means?
  2. Do you expect an informal deliverable (e.g. a logo with rough brand guidelines) or a comprehensive package including brand vision, voice, and use guidelines?
  3. Do you need help with the content, messaging, and structure of your marketing website?
  4. Do you need help with your social media strategy? Do you need support over time to execute that strategy?
  5. What about advertising, email campaigns, product videos, analytics, or marketing insights?
  6. Do you plan to build a marketing department internally, or are you focused on product design and engineering?
  7. Do you know what problem your product is solving, and for whom?
  8. Do you need help designing and testing your product?
  9. Have you figured out how all the pieces are going to fit together — stories, content, screens, UI/UX,  video, animation?
  10. Do you need a polished, sophisticated product at this stage? Or just a basic functional interface that will capture the attention of users and the imagination of investors?
With answers to these questions, you can limit your search to the agencies and freelancers who specialize in the kind of work you need. Listen to what kind of work they say they do, but don’t forget to look at their portfolio for concrete examples of the kind of deliverables you expect.
Where Are You As A Business?
Once you’ve figured out what you need, you’ll want to consider the state of your business — size, stage, culture, etc — so you can look for help that will be a great fit.
Traditionally, creative teams evaluate potential clients along three main verticals, which you can also use to evaluate your business as well:
How fast is your business growing? Is your primary focus to continue feeding and accelerating growth? Or do you plan to evolve more slowly, refining the technology and product while looking for the right application along the way?
Where is your company headed? Are you offering a specialized product that’s aiming for a specific result? Or are you defining a new business, paving the way as you go? Or maybe your business is so disruptive that it will affect an entire culture.
How easy would it be to shift your focus if you identified a more attractive business goal? Would you be slowed by infrastructure, investors, team, or culture? Or would you be able to react nimbly to the new opportunity you identified?
Finding Your Solution
Let’s use your answers to find a good starting point for your search. Here are a few examples that should help you decide where to look for your company’s design needs.
Big Agency
Our company is focused on a clear target market (direction) and we need to move quickly (agility). We can’t afford to make mistakes. We’ve passed our Series A and are well funded. We need an experienced team that offers a range of top-level services. 
In this example, your team probably needs a big agency.
Small Agency 
Our company is growing rapidly due to unexpected demand, but we’re not quite sure where we’ll level out, or how our focus may change along the way (pivot anyone?). We’ve received our seed financing, and have had a couple of bridge loans to help us along to our Series A. We need a team that can run with us, adapting as needed and growing with us. 
In this example, your team probably needs a small agency.
Our company is just got our seed funding. We have a really great idea, but the target market isn’t entirely clear. There’s not a major sense of urgency or competitive pressure to go-to-market, we need to make sure our product-market fit is right first. We need a partner who can help us explore and experiment with limited cost and uncertain expectations.
In this example, your company probably needs a freelancer. 
Big Agency
A big agency has over 100 staff, usually around 250 – 500 in each office and are frequently (but not always) multi-national corporations with offices around the world that can pull from a massive network of talent and media connections. They tend to service Fortune 500 type brands and mostly produce consumer-facing traditional advertising and branding solutions.
Small Agency
A small agency is usually fewer than 50 people – lead by a team of experienced senior specialists who in turn lead smaller teams of junior and intermediate account managers, art directors, copywriters and media planners. They frequently call in support for photography, animation, video production, audio production and other specialist skills from trusted freelancers with whom they have long established relationships.
A freelancer is usually a highly skilled senior specialist (design, copywriting, front-end development, photography, video production, animation, etc) who has established their career in big and small agencies over a 15-20 year period. They know their craft and can help guide you along acting not only as a hired gun, but as a mentor to educate you and your team on their specific discipline. 

However, not all freelancers are senior specialists. More and more frequently freelancers are bidding on jobs with only a couple of years experience in the industry. These are the ones to watch out for, their lower cost might fit your budget now, but the long-term cost in foresight planning, revisions and mistakes can end up costing your company multiples of the initial project fee. This is a much larger topic, which I’ll be discussing in a couple of weeks in a blog focusing on the tradeoffs of spending less on writing/creative (and is it worth it).

Want to learn more about how your company can benefit from an experienced creative professional? Click below to set up your 30-minute consultation. We’ll sit down and work through your branding, marketing, or creative materials to find where you need some work, and offer our suggestions.