Blog revives agency vs freelancer debate

An easy to miss yet hard to forget entry in the blogosphere has breathed fresh life into the age-old debate about who best executes creative briefs: agencies or freelancers.

Although aimed squarely at PowerPoint and Word providers, the posting by an agency boss in the space makes a stinging criticism about how all freelancers typically operate.

Unlike one-person, freelance suppliers, “companies don’t tend to don a pair of flip flops and travel the world for a year,” Dale Smith, co-founder of Article10, said in his post.

Out of all of his attacks it is this charge, implying freelancers leave clients in the lurch to holiday on a whim, that creative industry captains said was the most unfounded.

One said Mr Smith was just “dissing” freelancers, as not only does his claim negate freelancers’ professionalism, but it also belies their commitment, which is often legally binding.

Another creative leader, who sources freelancers, hinted the ‘flip-flop’ remark misunderstood the realties that freelancers faced, assuming they want to work more than once.

“Freelancers live or die by their reputations - annoy a client by swanning off for a sabbatical and you may never work again,” said Gill Hunt, founder of Skillfair, addressing freelancers.

Steven Bonner, a freelance designer, illustrator and typographer, argued that, for almost all freelancers, it was simply not economically viable to take a jaunt over paid work.

He told FreelanceUK: “I'd be surprised - if not a touch insulted - if a client thought I was likely to drop everything at a moment's notice for 'personal development.'

“Freelancers [as] self-employed businesspeople…rely on freelancing to pay mortgages, raise families and the like, [so] dropping out just isn't an option.”

Today’s smaller supply of freelance work makes junkets even more unfeasible for freelancers, while its direct cause also means agencies are no longer the permanent concerns they once were.

“In the current climate an agency is just as likely to disappear as a freelancer,” pointed out Sam Michel, managing director of Chinwag, a digital media organisation.

“If anything, those with little or no overhead with regular clients are likely to be in a stronger position than an agency with glitzy offices and fixed overheads that need paying every month.”

This is among the classic arguments against using agencies, Ms Hunt said, as the agent’s staff, offices and administration costs will each be factored into the client’s bill.

Citing the other downsides of an agency, she said that the need to ensure staff on the payroll are actually working exerts pressure to use them even if they are not up to the job.

And no matter how big an agency, or how robust its resources, a sudden crisis or a more important project might require the business to ‘pull staff off the client’s job to deal with it.’

The classic perks of agencies, in contrast, include a dedicated project management team, back up developers for unexpected sick days and organised accounting, Mr Smith wrote.

Despite the objections to his suggestion that freelancers are prone to abandoning their projects, the charges his post makes of Word and PowerPoint freelancers found some backing among his creative counterparts.

For example, he said creating quality results with the Microsoft programs was something “very few” freelancers specialised in, which both the Skillfair and Freelance Alliance databases bear testament to.

More controversially, he added: “When faced with a project in this area, they'll [freelancers] happily take it and muddle through.

“This however is where problems start. It's kind of like asking a general builder to replace a thatched roof, or asking a painter/decorator to paint a mural.

“It kind of fits under their umbrella of services but frankly they're going to make a pigs ear of it”.

Mr Smith’s posting is based on an answer he gave the production manager at a creative firm, which asked after Article 10’s pitch: ‘Why should I use you guys rather than get a freelancer in for half the price?’

Part of his response, on behalf of the agency, which subsequently won the brief it was pitching for, was that freelancers’ Word/PowerPoint projects “tend to be very difficult to manage”.

Their projects, he added, “never produce good results and often take twice the amount of time and budget as originally thought.”

In spite of its clear reservations about such individual workers, Article10 said it uses a “large base of freelancers” so clients “will always be working with different people – which is a great opportunity to learn.”

At the time of writing, a client list on the agency’s website included leading players like Nestle, BP, Virgin, Barclays, Disney and Ralph Lauren.

Yet regardless of whether clients opt for freelancer or agency, or both, Chinwag said they should ‘road-test’ any external help first, to ensure the work to be done is to the “required standard and to the relevant budget.”

Skillfair agreed, recommending: “What clients need to do is assess the level of skill and experience they need and then go with the people and/or organisation they feel comfortable with.”


Editorial image courtesy of The Consumerist


19th August 2009

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