Agency vs. Freelancer: How to Choose the Right Web Designer

by | Comparison

So you’re searching for a person to help level up your website, and you’re not sure whether you should work with a freelancer, agency, or something in between.

It’s a big decision! Either way, you’re likely going to part with thousands of dollars in the process, so you want to make sure your investment is sound.

I’d like to spend a few moments helping you work through that decision.

First, though, I should state a couple of biases up front:

  1. For the comparison to work, it needs to consider top performers. For example, by “freelancer” I don’t mean “cheapest option.”
  2. I have been both a freelancer and the leader of a “small but mighty” team, so my understanding of the large stereotypical “Ad Agency” is based solely on the experience of others.

With those in mind, let’s consider whether your product might be right for a freelancer, agency, or something in between.

The Cost Factor

While it’s true that by freelancer I don’t mean “the cheapest option,” it’s also true that in many cases, the freelancer will be the cheapest option.

Freelancers who are true experts and understand the value they bring to the table might be extremely expensive. These are few and far between, though.

The fact is: Freelancers tend to have way less overhead, so an advantage they bring to the table is the ability to do much of the same work an agency would do at a fraction of the cost.

The Freelancer’s Focus

Having been a freelancer and known scores of them, there is a downside to working with freelancers that only a select few have overcome.

When a freelancer works with you, they tend to have strengths in one area over many others. This is a human thing, right? It’s the rare individual who is a high achiever across multiple domains of expertise.

This leads to a number of issues:

  1. Freelancers tend not to approach work with a results-focused mindset. It’s more about the work itself than the results it produces.
  2. If they do have a results-focused mindset, it tends to bias heavily toward their area of expertise. If a freelancer is a SOLID designer, for example, you will have an incredible design… but the functionality on your site might be lacking and it may not accomplish real results for your business.
  3. Keeping with the “design specialist” example, they may have to bring in development and/or marketing specialists, which will increase costs anyway, and that combination will not have been designed with team efficiency in mind.

Working with a freelancer is not a bad idea.

If you:

  1. Love the idea of a single point of contact
  2. Would like to potentially save money
  3. Only have a need for a specialist in one area
  4. Want to negotiate compensation, such as performance-based pay
  5. Or generally want less headache from dealing with multiple people

…then working with a freelancer might be for you.

Communication Caveats

Before we transition into considering an agency, there is one huge consideration you should consider: Communication.

Ghosting is a huge problem in the world of web design for some reason.

And unfortunately (though it must be said), you are the most likely to be ghosted by a freelancer than a team of any size.

Ghosting can come in a number of forms. I’ve seen cases where the designer literally takes the money and runs, never to be heard from again.

More often, I see web designers completing a job (though never quite to the client’s satisfaction), and then becoming totally unresponsive after that.

But freelancers are not the only ones to blame.

Agencies do this too, albeit in more subtle ways. They will start taking weeks to get back to you instead of hours or days, they will demand upfront payment for a number of hours before they’ll even touch your site again, etc.

In my view, these are deceptive and—frankly—evil business practices.

I will not pretend that we have perfect communication, but we’ve seen this problem enough to declare communication as a fundamental driver of our business.

All that to say, when considering a web design or marketing team, keep communication in mind and ask what, if any, standards of communication the individual or company maintains.

Big Agency Life

Ever watched the show “Mad Men?”

I haven’t, I confess, but I want to.

Regardless, the stereotype is not hard to imagine. And even though I think we should try to avoid stereotypes, like cliches, they materialize for a reason.

Working with a big marketing firm or agency has numerous advantages.

They don’t get where they are without results. Most of the time, they have been in business for a while. They have structure. There are processes, standards, and a “way” of doing business.

It’s not hard to imagine, though, the ways in which these can go off the rails:

  1. They are factories. In other words, you lose some of the personal care and attention. They are used to churning and burning through clients who can’t keep up or don’t contribute to their profits.
  2. You’re a number. With a freelancer you have direct, personal connection to the person who is making the money and performing the work. In a large agency, you could be hundreds of people removed from that person. The stakes aren’t as high.
  3. The will of the people will always be traded for “what’s working now.” I agree that marketing is about getting results for people. But as we’ve seen in the music industry, the more corporate and boilerplate the music gets, the more awful it is. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen in your business.
  4. They move way slower. They have to, it’s simple physics. It’s a lot harder to turn around a cruise ship than a chevy. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, in this case, the biggest prohibiting factor might be cost.

Oftentimes, large agencies will use a multi-faceted compensation structure. Of course, this depends on what you are selling as well. They may ask for a larger retainer in addition to a portion of your sales through the campaigns they create.

This is fine, of course—it works well for some people and some actually prefer it. Just know that with a larger agency, because people have to get paid, you are either going to pay large sums of money, give up large percentages of sales, or both.

The 3rd Alternative

I’ve a large unread book on my shelf called The 3rd Alternative by Stephen R. Covey.

The book is about many things; most of all, though, about the simple fact that we often try to make A or B choices when a C choice is not only acceptable, but preferable.

As it relates to the topic at hand, there is a 3rd alternative: The Small But Mighty Team.

I really need to come up with a better name, but that’s what I’ve got for now 🙂

In his book Company of One, Paul Jarvis describes a mindset that is refreshing. The book’s point, which is seemingly in conflict with the title, is not to decide to stay a “one man show” company.

Instead, it’s to embrace “staying small and lean” as a goal. Growth is not always optimal. In fact, it might be rarely optimal.

This outlook changes everything about the way a business behaves. For example…

  1. It will not price unfairly in order to achieve arbitrary standards of size.
  2. It will keep a focus on personalized attention.
  3. It will keep a line of communication from ownership to the client or customer.
  4. It will place and enforce standards without creating unnecessary roadblocks and bureaucracy.
  5. It will maintain a team that grows when it needs to.
  6. It will onboard new clients at a sustainable rate.

When you have hundreds of people working in an agency, this thinking is almost impossible to embody.

When you’re a freelancer, you don’t have the resources to zoom out and develop processes or a team of specialists to execute them.

Thus, “small but mighty teams” have an edge.

They can create specific results in a number of areas without passing unnecessary overhead costs to the client.

They can develop repeatable processes and provide consistent results without business goals or ideas getting lost in translation.

They can work in a manner that is affordable and yet provides a nice income for everyone working on the team.

They can be more flexible in the way they communicate without completely overwhelming clients or losing stuff.

The Best of Both Worlds

In short, the small but mighty team approach allows clients to take advantage of agency results, resources, and communication, while keeping the costs, attention, and flexibility reminiscent of working with a freelancer.

Which is Right for You?

On an emotional intelligence level, only you can make that decision. I do hope, though, that this guide has provoked some thinking to do when it comes to making it.

In terms of revenue, it might speed up your decision-making process a bit.

Now—I personally have clients that are the exception to this rule, so I know there are exceptions. But generally speaking, from a revenue standpoint, here’s where you can start:

  1. If you make $100,000 or less per year in revenue, start by looking for skilled freelancers. They will be able to get you started online and should start seeing the kind of results that can move you into the next tier.
  2. If you make from $100,000—$5,000,000 per year (I know, it’s a big range), the small but mighty team is probably for you. In order to achieve those levels of income, you often need specialists across multiple domains.
  3. If you make $5,000,000 per year and above, you might start your search with a large agency and adjust from there. We have customers who do far more than this, and find that working with our small but mighty team is more than satisfactory! So your mileage may vary.

Drop us a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions!


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