How to Compete with the Agencies
I’m going to start this article by showing you a couple of my bruises. (Okay, fellas, I know what you’re thinking. But calm down. These are ego bruises.)
The first happened about a month ago. A longtime friend asked me to write a website redesign proposal for the non-profit organization she directs. I distinctly recall her saying that she wanted me to do this redesign project. So, I went into proposal-writing mode, submitted it, and the silence was deafening.
Oh, yes, I did follow up by phone and e-mail, but to no avail.
The truth came out in mid-June, when Elusive Friend and I spoke on the phone. She’d just gotten out of a meeting with her board of directors, and, sorry, Martha, the board had chosen a local marketing firm as the redesigner of the organization’s website.
My initial reaction was, shall we say, shocked. This marketing firm isn’t exactly known for the eye-catching design of its websites. But, according to Elusive Friend, two of the board members were friends of the marketing firm’s owner, and that was that.
Then there was that round of warm calls I made earlier this month. The people on my call list were faculty members at a university-based research institute. I’d just completed a website redesign for a graduate degree program that’s affiliated with this institute, and I figured that this would be a good time to drum up more business.
When I’m calling academics, I find that a two-pronged approach works best:
- I call, and more often than not, I end up leaving a voice mail message. At the end of that message, I say that I’ll be sending an e-mail. (Most academic institutions have online directories listing faculty phone numbers and e-mail addresses.)
- Then I send the e-mail. In this case, my e-mail included a link to the just-redesigned graduate program website.
One of the faculty members’ responses included a note saying that she’d forwarded my e-mail to the institute’s director of communications. And, since I’ve known the communications director for 20 years, I sent her an e-mail with links to three other design projects that I’d done for the institute.
Well, turns out that they’re still using that local branding agency that beat me (and a lot of others) in an Request For Proposal (RFP) derby last year. I distinctly recall that RFP asking for a quote on the redesign of the institute’s website and logo. Although the website was recently redesigned, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, not for the better, the institute’s logo remains the same. Oh, yes, the logo does have a catchy slogan beneath it, but I wouldn’t call that a redesign.
In short, Martha’s pride as a designer has taken a real beating of late.
Which has gotten me thinking hard about how freelancers can compete against the agencies. I think it can be done, but we, the small, the scrappy, and the proud freelancers will have to choose our battles carefully.
Here are my recommendations:
1. When seeking leads, avoid the business communication groups. Here, I’m referring to groups like the American Advertising Federation, American Marketing Association, International Association of Business Communicators, and the Public Relations Society of America.
These groups tend to attract directors of communications, and, yes, they do have nice, juicy budgets. But, I’ve found that when it comes to prospecting, the communication director’s office is where my efforts go to die. When I stopped trying to court communication directors and started going directly to university faculty members, my business emerged from its multi-year coma.
The business communication groups also tend to attract agencies. And, sorry to say, it’s going to be tough for you, the freelancer, to break into the dance between the agencies and the communication directors.
2. Choose your markets carefully. Since I deal with scientifically oriented faculty in academia, I don’t have to storm the communication directors’ temple. I can go directly to the faculty.
And, let’s face it, there are plenty of clients who like small, scrappy, and proud freelancers. They may be small business owners. Or the founders of innovative, rapidly growing tech firms. Or they may be professional practitioners like doctors, dentists, accountants, and lawyers.
Or maybe you’ve decided that your route to freelancing happiness is to do work for other people who share your interest in skydiving. Or your passion for fly fishing. Or your love of gourmet cooking.
As a freelancer, you have the freedom to craft your business the way you want. It’s not the sort of freedom that an agency, with a staff to keep busy, mondo overhead to cover, and big accounts to chase after, can enjoy.
3. Form a virtual agency for going after the big fish. So there you are, out in your freelancing boat, and you’re fishing for marlin. And there’s a huge tug on your line.
That’s no marlin-project, it’s a whale-project. Much too big for you to handle by yourself. Time to find a crew to tackle this thing.
The good news is that there’s this thing called the Internet. It’s a great way to find the virtual crew-mates you need for those too-big-to-handle-yourself projects. (Have you checked out the FreelanceSwitch Forum? Or the Job Board? I’ve also found very good project partners in the Women Web Designers Directory.)
If you’d prefer to collaborate locally, consider the idea of a shared workspace. They’re popping up all over the place. And they’re a great antidote to that “working at home alone” isolation that solo freelancers often feel.
4. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re a Web programming whiz, a copywriting superstar, or an illustration ace, there are agencies that need you. Especially if their work doesn’t sparkle the way it should. And, maybe-just-maybe, you’d rather not deal directly with clients. So, become an agency subcontractor. (You can find agency principals at the meetings of the organizations that I mentioned in Item #1.)
Note: I make this recommendation with one caveat, and here it is: Agencies are notorious for their “you don’t get paid until we get paid” policies. Which means that, in essence, you’re acting as their bank, and you’re not earning interest. For the sake of your financial health, add this verbiage to your subcontracting agreement: “Client’s obligation to pay [Name of Your Business] when payments are due is independent of Client receiving payment from the Client’s Customer.”