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Freelance Designer/Developer or Agency?

Apr 25 2014

A while back, I posted about The Advantages of Small Web Design Shops vs Agencies and thought it was time for a refresher on the topic. Being the former, I’m definitely biased, though I’m realistic about the limitations and advantages of both scenarios. Having worked at and done contract work for advertising, marketing and web design agencies of all sizes, I’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes and have some thoughts on both using freelancers or small agencies vs larger agencies.

The Budget

The first factor is usually budget. Freelance web designers have almost no overhead to drive prices up while agencies have numerous employees, offices, insurance, servers, computers, etc. that have to be taken into account when bidding projects. A freelance designer or developer usually works from home or a small shared office and only needs his or her computer and a good-sized coffee mug which means that they can pass those savings on to the client! Score one for the little guys on budget.

Capabilities and Quality of Work

Another major factor is the capabilities of each entity. This will be crucial when deciding on the best service provider for your project. Understanding the scope of your project and having a good idea of what will be involved technically is going to help you make a final decision. If you have a logo design, branding or graphic design project both agencies and freelancers should be able to handle this easily so your selection should come down to whether or not you like their design portfolio work and your budget.

If your project involves website development, capabilities become a bit more important. First off, you should review previous work from the potential company or freelancer to see if they have work similar in scope to what your website project will entail. If you don’t see any similar work, that doesn’t mean that they’re not capable, it may just mean that they haven’t presented that work in their portfolio for any number of reasons. The best route is to ask if they’re comfortable with something of that scope and if they have any similar project examples.

If you have a huge enterprise level site with hundreds of pages, a mid to large sized agency is probably going to be your best bet. The advantage of having a larger team of people will no doubt be a huge asset to your huge project.

Keep in mind that agencies, especially smaller and mid-sized ones, will often use freelancers themselves to handle your project so even if you go with an agency, you may have a freelancer working on your website. There’s not a thing wrong with that as it helps to keep their day-to-day costs down but you may be able to cut out the middle man and save some money by first looking for talented web designer or front-end developer to handle your project. Freelance designers or developers may also utilize a network of their cohorts to help out with certain portions of projects that fall outside the realm of their capabilities. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that as it keeps everyone’s costs down, which saves you money.

So the capabilities factor is really a toss-up between agencies and freelancers that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Both will often use outside help to accomplish the goals and fill in the missing pieces. Just do your homework and the cream will float to the top!

Interaction and Project Management

How well the business interacts with clients is an often overlooked factor in the decision-making process. Agencies will no doubt have an account manager or representative that will act as a go-between for clients and the people producing the goods. This can be good and bad. It can be good in that quite a few designers and developers aren’t what we’d call “client facing”. By that I mean, they don’t have the best skills when it comes to dealing with feedback and criticism or they don’t present well either physically or emotionally to clients. They may be talented at their particular trade but when it comes to client interaction, they fall short. This is where account reps can come in handy. They provide a buffer between the two parties. This sounds good in theory and is a proven model but isn’t always a good thing. Often times newer or inexperienced account reps are a hinderence to a project and can just muddy the waters. A lack of understanding when it comes to technologies or the desire to be the “good guy” to the client at any cost can spell disaster for a project. Account reps often make promises that are difficult to keep from a technical or budgetary perspective which results in disgruntled web developers and in turn results in lack-luster end product.

A lack of communication skills isn’t always the case for freelancers though. If a person has been freelancing for a significant period of time, you can most likely assume that they’re a good account rep as well as being a good website designer/developer. Some people can wear many different hats and look good doing it. The winner of this particular factor in the decision making process is really dependent on the feeling you get from the person you’ll be dealing with the most. Be cautious of yes men who don’t push back on things and likewise those who don’t provide good reasons for recommending against or not being able to accomplish something you’re looking for.

So while, clients will have to assume a little bit more of the project management role when using freelancers, some people will prefer that scenario as it puts them closer to the end product. Experienced freelancers will have an advantage over agencies in the interaction department here as they have all the people skills but minimize the process using fewer steps than agencies.

Red Tape and Timelines

Speaking from personal experience, agencies have a lot of red tape and bureaucracy that can cause delays in projects. There’s a hierarchy of approvals that a project must go through and even the tiniest of details may require a change order and have to go through an approval process. With freelancers, you’re dealing directly with the person doing the work so miscommunication and red tape are at a minimum. This will often result in quicker turn around times with freelancers especially if you’re a long-time, loyal client.

Conclusion

The final decision on whether to use an agency or a freelancer for your project needs to be well thought through. While large-scale projects like websites with hundreds of pages and extremely complex backend integrations are usually better suited to an agency scenario, those projects are in the minority. The vast majority of projects that I’ve worked on while at agencies could have easily been handled by freelancers or a small team of 2-3 people at the most. Using independent contractors allows you to find a person or small self-assembled team that suits your tastes and needs specifically while also allowing you to choose the people who are responsible for the end product. With larger agencies, your project may be handed off to the “B team” which you have little or no control over. The bottom line is, do the homework and research the options thoroughly and you’ll be much better off in the end.