For a freelancer, being a contractor at an agency can feel like the golden goose. Many successful freelancers use agency sub-contracting in some way shape or form to help steady their workload and income while maintaining a level of autonomy. I’ve been contracting to multiple agencies for close to 14 years now, and it’s usually about 75% of my yearly income.
As an agency contractor, you can work with top clients, collaborate with very experienced people and feel in many ways like you are part of an awesome team. The hours are usually steady with a fair market rate which means you can concentrate more on the work, and less on the peaks and valleys of constantly selling yourself to multiple clients.
You may be wondering how you go about landing this kind of agency work – especially if you don’t have a super strong network of agency contacts. Isn’t it super competitive? Don’t they just hire all of their friends and ex-colleagues?
Not necessarily, it’s all about how you approach it! Here are 6 tips that have worked for me over the years to maintain a healthy level of agency work:
1. Build A Brand
The most important aspect of pitching yourself to agencies is to build a brand for yourself.
Your first thought is probably, “that’s a bit easier said than done.” But it’s really not.
Branding is all about creating a certain feeling for people. It’s about establishing yourself as one thing and not something else. You don’t need Nike’s marketing budget to do this. But you do need to be willing to draw a line in the sand and say that you are known for one thing and not something else. Highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. And connect it to something that is valuable to someone who would hire you.
Avoid positioning yourself in a generic way like “Designer or “Developer”. Instead, try to own a certain place in the market or appeal in a way that will resonate with the agency looking to fill exactly that position. If the agency is looking for a UI Designer and you want that position, don’t lead with “I’m an Art Director,” even if you are. They want to know you can get down and dirty and design the UI, not just Art Direct from the sidelines. If the agency is looking for an Angular Developer, and you are a full-stack developer that knows Angular, then tell them “I’m an Angular Developer that works with the full-stack.”
If I’m building that kind of app, I know right away that you’re the person to hire. It’s important to both narrow in on your specific strengths, and to also give yourself a title that an agency would normally hire (no marketing rockstars or full-stack ninjas, please).
Also, agencies want to know about you, not your company of 1. If you want to go after agency work, then your brand should be about you personally. The website or portfolio you send them should clearly start with your full name, not some abstract company name they might think is just a competitor.
2. Expand Your Skills
Okay, if you own a niche in your market, then why does it matter if you expand your skills?
This boils down to the basic reason why agencies generally hire outside help. It’s because they don’t have the time or resources to take care of the project internally. They need someone to solve their problem, not just write code or make pretty designs.
This is why you want to add more skills to your repertoire. If you’re a designer, learn how to build the sites that you design. If you’re a developer, learn how to project manage a team of developers. Learn to manage budgets. Learn to handle social media.
Then, sell those skills. Slot yourself into an role on an agency project you are comfortable with, and you’ll have much more roles you can fill. This equals many more opportunities.
If you can pick up a project and carry it all the way to completion without a lot of hand holding, agencies will love to hire you, you’ll be able to command a higher rate, and they’ll come running back to you when they have a similar project in the future.
3. Target Your Type Of Agency
Not all agencies are created equal, and not all agencies are looking to hire someone like you.
Aside from the obvious divisions like digital agencies, media agencies, advertising agencies, technology firms, and all of the other flavors, there are also firms that specialize in strategy while others emphasize execution. There are also different sizes of agencies. Different shapes, colors, and textures.
The point is that you need to hone in on the kinds of agency that are the best fit for your skill set. Either you’re able to easily complement the skills that they have internally, or you’re able to tack onto their existing team to pick up overflow work.
Check out a site like VendorDB.com for a list of over 5,000 agencies worldwide.
4. Get To Know People
Once you’ve got an idea for what you’re selling about yourself and you know what kind of agencies are the best fit for what you’ve got to sell, then it’s time to start selling it.
There’s no better way to do this than to do good-old-fashioned networking.
This can take a lot of forms, from local MeetUps to industry events or conferences. You can also use social media like LinkedIn to make connections. Hell, you can even just give someone a call or send them an email and ask them to have coffee.
The point is that you want to rub shoulders with these people. You want to become a staple in their world. Especially look for Creative Directors, Engineering Directors or Project Managers, who are often the ones to make the hiring choices when it comes to outside talent. Give them compliments on their work or share your new work with them. And be subtle about it, not in your face.
You might even want to consider doing a direct-mail campaign to agencies, introducing yourself and opening the door to a conversation about working together. Ask to be forwarded to the HR department, or the specific person at that agency you’ve identified as the lead in your area of expertise.
Do what you feel most comfortable with. But, do something. Get out there and meet the people who might be willing to hire you.
Also, don’t restrict yourself to just local agencies. Increasingly, agencies are becoming distributed teams or remote-friendly. Find these shops all over the world and bring them into the fold. Get to know them, their work and their people.
5. Add Value Beyond Just Great Work
Last, but not least, you should be looking for opportunities to provide even more value to your agency contacts.
One easy way to do this is to build a network of other freelancers and have them on hand if one of your agency clients is looking for extra help. LocalSolo is a great network for this. Your freelancer friends may even return the favor and hook you up with extra work that they can’t take.
This shows them that you’re not just doing the work to earn a buck, but that you’re actually willing to help them as a company. It will earn you some extra points and all but guarantee that they keep work flowing your way into the future.
6. Agency Etiquette
Here are some extra things to keep in mind when working with agencies I’ve learned over the years:
- Always make the agency feel like they are your top priority. Don’t talk to them about your other clients.
- Always be positive, don’t bring your problems to work.
- Provide a fair market hourly rate or flat bid for the work. They will usually know if you try and overprice yourself for the position.
- Accept their 30-day net payment terms. Agencies don’t usually pay up front.
- Be plug & play! Onboard to the project like you’ve been working there for a year already. This means asking for all the project material and reading it, rather than asking a ton of questions right off the bat. Figure out all the company tools yourself, and fast!
- Be Switzerland, don’t get involved in company gossip or take sides.
- Make friends and have fun. Go for lunch with the team as often as you can.
- Most importantly, DO GREAT WORK!!!
I hope this guide to freelance agency contracting has been helpful! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly or leave a comment on the post if you have an opinion to share!