|Selling Yourself Market
Advantages of a Freelancer
by Kevin Potts
|A Quick Story
I used to work at the in-house design group for a company that
manufactured women's hosiery and undergarments. As so often
happens, upper management decided to outsource some of the creative
work, so they commissioned a direct mail agency to produce a
tri-fold brochure introducing a new product line, and as a separate
project, a freelance designer to develop a new catalog.
The two endeavors launched simultaneously. We received the first
comps in about a week, and the first version from the freelancer
was rough but usable. The first comp from the agency, however,
was a disaster. The firm had obviously put no thought into the
design, and a piece that was supposed to introduce a series
of therapeutic undergarments looked more like a power drill
brochure for Home Depot. Marketing was anything but pleased,
and our Creative Director sent the agency back to the drawing
Another week or so went by. The freelancer handed in her revision,
which was exponentially improved, and marketing was happy. The
agency delivered their revision. Except for a few font changes
and some half-hearted starbursts, the design was exactly the
same. Everyone was in a roar we were spending thousands
on a brochure that was, so far, completely unusable.
After another week, the freelancer turned in her piece; marketing
made a few changes and it was off to the printer. The agency
delivered another version of the therapeutic brochure. Unbelievably,
hardly anything was changed the harsh orange and blue
still generated comments about power tools and they demanded
more money for "all the time" they spent on the piece. After
an emergency conference call that included our VP of Marketing,
the agency was fired. (Also true to management, that company
continues to contract work out to other agencies.)
The Freelancer Stigma
The above example is only an anecdote of a theme I continue
to witness on a regular basis. Independent freelancers often
outperform agencies in quality, price and timeliness, yet they
continue to lose their bread and butter work like small businesses,
new start-ups and lower-budget assignments to the large, "do
everything" advertising companies.
This is a result of several factors. In the mind of some clients
inexperienced in contracting creative work, the word "freelancer"
can carry a certain stigma, like the designer is some sort of
rogue graphic artist that bucks authority, ignores specs and
misses deadlines. Clients make assumptions like "agencies have
more experienced designers" or "agencies will give my project
the time it deserves." In addition, the average freelancer often
sells their skills and advantages poorly; they focus too much
on past work instead of what they can bring to the table today.
By nature, freelancers are independent and often busy, and they
simply do not have the time to combat biases.
The goal of this article is to help educate both freelancers
and their potential clients on the qualitative and quantitative
benefits of hiring a "rogue" designer. Since each client and
project is a case-by-case study, it would be impossible to compile
a perfect list, but I've grouped a few key advantages into categories
broad enough that any marketable freelancer will easily be able
to fill in the blanks, compile them, and spin the ideas into
a killer sales pitch.
A client considering a contract with a one-person design shop
might suspect they would be at a disadvantage if a project goes
sour. This is true from a certain perspective, but when a freelancer
takes on a project, they put their career, reputation and livelihood
on the line, and will do everything in their power not to let
a project fall apart.
If the worst ever comes to bear, the client knows there is only
one person responsible, and they know exactly who to call. The
designer cannot defer fault to a project manager, print buyer,
traffic coordinator, creative director or some other person
associated with the project.
Freelancers understand they are singularly in charge of seeing
a project through to the end, and that creates a valuable sense
of ownership and personal responsibility.
When a client assigns a project to a freelancer, they are creating
a personal, one-on-one partnership. There is no middleman for
the clients to go through; the individual doing the design is
the same that answers the phone. Without the wall of receptionists,
assistants, project managers, consultants, account execs, marketing
specialists and coffee makers, ideas are more clearly and effectively
communicated, work is completed faster and there are less people
on the design end mucking about a project with revisions and
Most freelancers directly handle other aspects of their business
as well. If a client has a question about an invoice, they call
the freelancer not an accounting department and
they can usually get a straight answer quickly.
The personal experience is very important to a small business
owner. They like knowing exactly who their vendors are, and
that includes graphic designers as much as it does accountants
and legal advisors, even if a designer's skills are called upon
just once. These are situations where meeting in person goes
a long way toward building a professional relationship.
Through pure logistics, a freelancer will almost always be more
cost effective than a large agency. Unless the individual specializes
in a true niche market (high-end character animation, for instance),
their invoices will be substantially lower. This is a real,
tangible advantage, especially over the long run when a client
uses the same freelancer for multiple projects.
If a client requests a series of magazine ads from an agency,
the project will run through a project manager, a designer,
art director, creative director and an outside photographer,
and the client will pay the hourly fee of each. Those ads have
to cover the salaries of everyone involved, plus administrative
time, materials and business overhead (like the building lease,
equipment costs, etc).
With a freelancer, the project brings in two people: the designer
and the photographer. Since freelancers often work from home
and don't use huge amounts of equipment, there is no bloated
overhead to pad the invoice. This translates to tremendous savings
easily thousands of dollars for most projects.
Time and Effort
For a big company that constantly requires design work (a chain
of restaurants for instance), an agency is the natural destination
they can deliver huge quantities of great creative in
small amounts of time, and they are very good at catering to
large accounts. A project manager colleague said she regularly
handles about thirty simultaneous projects for just one of her
three highest volume accounts.
Unfortunately, the time of most agency graphic artists is stretched
very thin, and smaller clients can get "back-burnered" because
they might not have priority.
Freelancers typically work for smaller businesses or on smaller
segments of larger projects, so they are able to devote much
more time into a piece. When an agency employee is juggling
thirty open items for Chatchkee's nationwide restaurant franchise,
the brochure for Bill's Ocean Side Bed and Breakfast might barely
get an hour or two of creative attention before being shipped
to the printer. Predictably, the results can be just a little
In what seems almost contradictory, freelancers are able to
turn creative around faster, even though they may spend more
time on a piece. Rush projects can be delivered in two days
and still win awards. A client calls a freelancer directly for
last minute changes and they can be made in less than an hour.
A client who tries to get the same results from an agency will
quickly discover even the smallest alteration can go through
four or more people before actually getting to the designer.
(And often goes through the same four again before being returned
to the client for approval.)
Experience and Specialization
Almost no designer enters their profession freelancing. In fact,
most begin years into their design career, often after working
for several different agencies or in-house design groups. Many
come from high level art director or creative director positions,
and others retain full-time design jobs. This practical, real-world
experience they bring to the table is irreplaceable; designers
who have been around the block a few times can communicate directly
with printers, bring in copywriters, or consult with clients
about designing a website.
In most cases, freelancers are very niche-oriented, and their
expertise comes through years of specialization. Some designers
focus regionally, choosing to work with local companies for
provincial campaigns, or by market, such as healthcare, real
estate or education, and often by medium, like print, packaging
or web. It is not uncommon to find a freelance designer that
focuses on websites for real estate agents, or one that concentrates
on print catalogs for private universities, or one that produces
advertising for pharmaceutical companies. One of the most flourishing
designers I know only does labels for winemakers in Australia,
and he is often engaged to the point of turning away business.
This army of uniquely trained and specialized professionals
provides a healthy buying market. Clients have their choice
of designers, and if their work requires a particular niche
market specialist, chances are there is a graphic artist dedicated
to that exact medium. This not only results in better creative,
but ample opportunities for the client to consult with the designer
for recommendations, market analysis and branding strategies.
Although this article focuses on the positive, business-impacting
benefits of freelancers, it must be clearly pointed out that
not all freelancers are created equal. There are too many people
who label themselves "freelancers," who in reality are frighteningly
uneducated and sorely inexperienced individuals who can do a
lot of damage to the creative industry. A company running into
one of these designers can easily be burned, either through
mediocre creative work, inappropriate and uneducated charging,
or just plain bad business practices.
The professional freelancer must market himself as he wants
to be perceived. Targeted and well-groomed portfolios are a
must. Prepared case studies that focus on past successes also
work well larger companies employ this tactic constantly
because it works. But the most important angle of marketing
is to focus on the client at hand what you can do for
them today, and how your services and your talent will help
their business grow.
The best tactic is to create value beyond a monetary figure.
If the client is confident in your skills and professionalism,
he will choose you over the next person in line, even if they
offer a better price, every time.
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