Gini Dietrich

Freelancer vs. Communications Firm: Which is Better?

By: Gini Dietrich | March 19, 2015 | 
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Freelancer vs. Communications Firm: Which is Better?By Gini Dietrich

As Paul Sutton and I are wont to do, we recently had a debate about working with a freelancer versus a communications firm.

You see, he just left an agency in the U.K. to focus on doing really high-level, strategic digital communications and I, well, I run a digital communications firm.

But I also have been a freelancer…that’s what I did when I left my former agency, before I decided to build said communications firm.

So I see both sides of it and I still fall on the side of agencies are better.

Because we can’t agree, we have agreed to let you decide. You’ll hear his side and then mine. And then you can tell us what you think in the comments.

Just because you’re on Spin Sucks doesn’t mean you have to vote for me, but I do live in Chicago where people are strong-armed for votes. So keep that in mind.

For a Freelancer

I’ve skirted around this a lot recently, but for this debate I’m not going to sugar coat things.

The fact is that agency structures benefit agencies, not clients.

Agencies are structured around hierarchies based on experience. In the pitch you buy into what the directors (the most experienced team members) say. But in day-to-day life you deal with account managers, and much of the actual work is done by juniors (the least experienced team members).

This simply does not reflect the way business has moved. The days of recruiting for roles rather than skills should be long gone, but they’re alive and well within a communications firm.

The major issue with most agencies is that they haven’t adapted. The account director/ manager/executive model is outdated.

It puts constant pressure on the firm to meet payroll, and the best way to do that is to sign clients up to long retainers. But more and more clients want to work on short-term projects, or series’ of projects, which is an environment in which experienced and skilled freelancers can and do thrive.

With communications, you get what, or rather who you pay for.

If you hire me, you hire ME. Just like Liam Neeson, I have a specific set of skills. Hire me and you get those skills, not the dubious knowledge of someone who’s been in the job for less time than they spent in diapers.

Agencies, due to their nature, are inconsistent. Pick a good independent consultant and you get far better value.

For a Communications Firm

Any business owner starts out with the idea that he or she can do things differently. They either have a great idea or they have a different way of doing things.

The latter is why I went into business. I really believed communications could drive sales and I was working on a way to prove it. Now I have a way to prove it and all of our clients enjoy a hefty return on their investment with us.

But I couldn’t have done it alone. In fact, if I were still freelancing, I would be bogged down in the work and not have time to think about how to innovate.

A few years ago, a friend and business advisor said to me:

Do you want to be a kick butt communicator or a kick butt business owner? (Click to tweet!)

He said I had to decide; it’s impossible to do both.

I thought about it and decided I had to forgo doing the work (for the most part) to focus on growing the business. That decision afforded me the opportunity to grow this very blog, write two books, and go out on the speaking circuit, which all drive new business efforts for us.

Now my job is coaching and training—both employees and clients—and business development.

My job is no longer the day-to-day work (I think the last time I pitched media was in 2007!), but I have a enormously talented team to do that work.

Here is the advantage to our clients: They have an entire team of experts to work with. If they need someone who has earned media expertise, they can call the director of that department here. Likewise for shared, paid, and owned media. They also have a director of operations to better understand how it all integrates and the types of metrics to track. And they have me for really strategic stuff, for stakeholder communications, and to trot out at their big sales meetings.

So, while a freelancer might be really skilled at one of the four media types (or even two), they are still only one person.

A communications firm gives you lots of brains, lots of talent, lots of expertise, and lots of arms and legs to get lots of work done.

Now it’s Your Turn

Which do you think is better: Freelancers or communications firms?

Mind whose blog you are on.

Tell us in the comments! I promise not to harass you (too much) if you vote for Paul.

This was cross-promoted on Paul’s blog so don’t think we’re scraping, Google!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • OK, first, the voting thing isn’t working – I smell a fix!
    I’m with Paul – agencies have overheads, they have dedicated team members without necessarily having the right person for a specific skill-set,, and they (usually) charge by retainer and not on results-driven fees. 
    Agencies also farm out to freelancers a lot, because their team members lack the very skill sets for specific projects referenced above (how many agencies have mobile app developers in-house?). 
    A freelancer offers more value, more drive (usually) and can always team up with other freelancers to meet project needs.

  • Danny Brown Hmmmm…I’ll go see if I can figure out why the poll isn’t working. What if you have an agency though (cough, like mine, cough) that hires for skill and not for title? We just interviewed someone who would be an amazing leader, but he doesn’t want to do the work anymore. We would never hire someone who isn’t willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work. That’s what agencies need—the experienced people still get their hands dirty.

  • ginidietrich But you’ve said yourself many times AD isn’t the typical agency. I think the discussion here is about freelancer versus typical agency – and because of the remote aspect of AD, I actually view you as a collective of skilled freelancers.

  • Danny Brown No, it’s not necessarily about the typical agency. I had to leave it broad for sake of argument, but I’m not the only agency out there that is changing…or has changed. Bliss in NYC and Shift in Boston are a couple of the mid-sized agencies that are also going this route.

  • Oh, how timely. I’m talking to some college students tonight about the freelance world. (Though, like Arik Hanson posted yesterday, I don’t call myself a freelancer: http://www.arikhanson.com/2015/03/17/dont-call-me-a-freelancer/)
    Yes, I’ve always said the problem with PR firms is that most do not have a track for advancement for those who want to be a “kick-butt communicator.” So these people get promoted to jobs they don’t like and they’re not necessarily good at (building business, managing people). They’re miserable, their direct reports are miserable, and their clients don’t get the best work.
    Some are doing it — they have editorial or creative departments — but not enough that I know of.
    I don’t have a vote. It all depends. I would say to a client, be careful when hiring a firm. (AND when hiring a freelancer, or independent, though that’s an easier decision to get out of if it’s a mistake.) At the pitch, ask the classic question, “Who will be doing the work?”And understand that Big Firm economics don’t easily support the senior person being hands-on.

  • RobBiesenbach Ah Rob you beat me to the mention of ArikHanson “Don’t call me a freelancer”  post!

  • Digital_DRK And I win the day! Back to bed!!

  • RobBiesenbach lol….grumble…

  • ginidietrich Shift seems to be going more the route of names, but that’s another topic. With regards Bliss, look at their team page:
    http://www.blissintegrated.com/company/meet-the-team/#.VQrGEvnF-8Q
    Look at all the “Account” prefixed titles. The others are either ELT, with two handling strategy. There’s no dedicated content specialist (as far as titles go), no dedicated community manager, no dedicated SEM, no dedicated mobile, etc.
    They may be moving to the model you mention, but team-wise (at least as far as the team page would suggest), it’s still very much a “traditional” agency set-up.

  • Danny Brown That might be for sake of salaries. I know their owner and it’s very much set up the same way mine is. I just have changed the titles to reflect it.

  • RobBiesenbach The big “bring in the top guys to win the business” is something I’ve tried to avoid. While I do most of the business development, I am VERY clear that I will not be the one handling their Facebook page, pitching journalists, or writing their content. They know, from the start, who their team is and what my function is.

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown The onclick event for the buttons are calling JS functions, however I can’t see the code for these functions. Chrome has a nifty “Inspect Element”  option for debugging stuff.  I turned off my AdBlocker for this domain, still doesn’t work.

  • Digital_DRK Danny Brown I deleted it. I don’t have time this morning to figure out why it’s not working. In the code it says “error processing your poll.”

  • ginidietrich RobBiesenbach You may well do that, but in my experience that’s far from the case with the vast majority of agencies.

  • ginidietrich Digital_DRK Danny Brown Send them all over to me to vote. There’s tea & biscuits…

  • ThePaulSutton RobBiesenbach Yeah, I agree with that. It’s one of the reasons we do it this way. We kept hearing the big agencies do it and it drives clients crazy.

  • ginidietrich ThePaulSutton RobBiesenbach So here’ a question then: why do clients keep putting up with it?

  • ginidietrich Digital_DRK It’s working over at ThePaulSutton ‘s site! 😉

  • As a side note, my wife (who happens to be an employment councilor for a non profit) mentioned a website to me called – https://www.elance.com/  
    The Canadian piece of this website is  – https://www.elance.com/l/canada-freelancers/
    As the url suggests, the site is designed to connect freelancers with employers.

  • Digital_DRK Elance is awful. It used to be better a few years back, and you may still get the odd decent freelancer / paying gig there, but now it’s mostly companies looking for $5 per hour people, and folks willing to accept that rate.

  • Danny Brown Thanks!  Coincidentally my wife only mentioned this over breakfast this morning.

  • Because they hope to land a SVP or MD slot at that agency someday?

  • StefGKarl

    DianeGaillard1 imo a little bit of zebra thinking nowadays – there are options in between. #Freelance #Firm still an interesting read!

  • ThePaulSutton RobBiesenbach The same reason they keep putting up with media impressions and advertising equivalencies? 

    The more savvy clients will require they meet the entire team, intern on up. We had to turn away a prospect because they wanted me to fly my entire team to Phoenix for the initial meetings. That would have been 10 people. As a small business, I just don’t have those kinds of resources. So hopefully they found a large agency that could work within those parameters.

  • Danny Brown Digital_DRK ThePaulSutton I know. Something in our theme is preventing it.

  • ginidietrich

    StefGKarl DianeGaillard1 Perhaps, but it makes for a fun debate! And you can’t debate without taking sides.

  • Danny Brown Digital_DRK I agree with Danny. eLance is awful. Don’t do it!

  • ThePaulSutton

    jocmbarnett ginidietrich There IS youtube ( http://ow.ly/Kxqa6 ) but alas it’s not a rap battle. Wish I’d thought of that…

  • StefGKarl

    ginidietrich DianeGaillard1 agree – that’s why I created my own side 🙂

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown Thanks I’ll forward that to my wife as well.

  • JOUZGE

    For background,  I am founder of a start-up preparing for launch, and have used every bit personal money I can get my hands on. Cash is KING! It colors every conversation.
    I am going to make an attempt to go micro here and cut and paste the definition of “opportunity cost” from Wikipedia. I had to google this as I seem to use this term haphazardly at times.
     “The opportunity cost of a choice is the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_(economics) of the best alternative http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Forgone&action=edit&redlink=1, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutually_exclusive alternatives given limited http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resource.”

    Freelancer:
    My assumptions are that I would get more work for less money going with a freelancer. Less money on the front end here. Yea! Love this!  Ego and lack of ability to pivot are a huge concern when I work with individuals who do not have a system of checks and balances…”gut check” conversations with internal teammates. A good freelancer is going to be really busy. Can they execute timely 100% of the time? My concerns are my ROI due to the above.

    Firm:
    This will cost me more and potentially tie up money with a contract and monthly retainer. Yuck! I especially do not like the up front costs without execution incentives. What can I say…the carrot in front of my nose works really well to motivate me, and I believe this works for most folks. 
    However the social media arena is like one of those Chimeras: part dragon, lion, goat and snake. It requires a team to identify and focus on the best piece so as execute a successful campaign. Having a team allows for more discussion on the front end and provides an in house “system check.” ROI feels more protected here.

    Start ups are high risk, so at this point I will always chose partners that can minimize that risk, execute and deliver the best ROI, even if that means more money upfront. I would go with a firm. It would have to be Arment Dietrich obviously. 🙂

  • ginidietrich

    ThePaulSutton jocmbarnett A rap battle would be hilarious!

  • This is an interesting debate. As a freelancer, I think part of my role is to have a “team” that I can turn to when I can’t handle a part of a project due to lack of time or expertise. My clients are small businesses and a communications firm is too expensive and too bureaucratic for their needs. So, like most things, I think the answer is “it depends” – it depends on the size of the client and the scope of the project.

  • samemac

    @ginidietrich ThePaulSutton jocmbarnett RAP BATTLE! Yes! 
    And for your morning rabbit hole before an awesome webinar:
    A princess rap battle between Belle and Cinerella (ft. Sarah Michelle Gellar) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeZXQf77hhk

    You are welcome.

  • samemac Let’s do it, @ginidietrich 🙂

  • samemac

    RobBiesenbach I would agree that it depends… on a lot of different factors and situations. The client can get raked over the coals in many ways – but that’s less likely to happen if the client has asked the right questions, etc… on the front end. I do believe that you get what you pay for, however. 

    Our agency doesn’t charge retainers, we strongly believe in client partnerships, and all projects tend to have several management hands on deck. We are on the small side, but I think we go against the mold of traditional agencies around here (and others, I think).

    As for someone who has worked on both sides… I think there’s more value for the dollar with a team of people than in the scope of a single person. Depending on the project, it’s very hard for a single person to be both analytical and creative, client-focused and project-focused, business-know-how and production-oriented. That’s a lot of different hats to wear… and while maybe not the stated expectation from a client- it is the realistic one that usually presents itself at some point throughout the project.

  • ThePaulSutton ginidietrich RobBiesenbach A lot of clients are strapped for resources, on a deadline for a campaign, and need to make decisions fast. That can lead to cloudy judgment… or simply less-than-desirable outcomes to get the job done.

  • Danny Brown ginidietrich I disagree – their titles are listed as such because they probably do a lot of different things; not always specializing in one specific tactic. 

    Additionally, it is because at smaller agencies the (public facing) structure is still more closely aligned to traditional PR/pitching, even if they do digital work. They aren’t freelancing, they just multi-task… whether that is good or not I’ don’t know…

  • An additional benefit of working with a PR consultant (like Arik, I don’t use the “freelancer” word), is the ability to build a custom team for each individual client’s needs. Most of us collaborate and use virtual teams regularly, and the ability to partner with someone who has deep experience in exactly what a given client requires (versus having to tap into the stable of salaried employees, which may or may not be a fit) is a big selling point.

    I think the biggest advantage of agencies is the additional arms/legs/ears they bring to the table. There are some companies and programs that are huge and/or international, and having an established agency with infrastructure in place is beneficial. BTW, if needed, an organization can hire their desired consultant and an agency to work together – they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

    Disclaimer: As the founder of Solo PR Pro, I’m a bit biased of course. 🙂 I assume you can figure out how I would vote, but – as with everything in life – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

  • I agree with all of that. I either work with a team for big scope programs or I’m working solo when it’s a discrete, specialty project.
    And if money is at all a concern — like you’re not sure you can afford it — a boutique or specialty firm is going to give you better value. It’s very hard for a big public firm to economically service smaller accounts.

  • I stand with KellyeCrane on this one. The advantage to an “agency of one” (I don’t freelance) is that you get senior level consultation as clients determine the solutions to their problems, and the “agency” can assemble the best team to execute those solutions. 

    The challenge for all of us is bringing the right team to the table, but that’s a challenge for freelancers and agencies alike…even the big agencies. Do you always have the right team at your fingertips? That’s where the relationships come into play that we all need to succeed in this ever changing business.

  • JOUZGE OK, so why would you think you’d get ‘more work for less money’? Why do you think an experienced consultant would be cheaper than a firm where juniors do the work?

  • jenhp There’s not an ‘it depends’ option for this debate 🙂 But seriously, totally agree with having a ‘team’. Since going independent I’ve surrounded myself with other consultants with differing skill sets who I can pull in for specific projects they’re suited to. I believe that offers top notch value and experience to any client.

  • ThePaulSutton jenhp For argument’s sake, though, why wouldn’t you consider that an agency of sorts? You’ve built a team of professionals you trust. You bring them in for certain client work. That’s an agency. It’s not the traditional agency—from our perspective—but does the client know any differently?

  • KellyeCrane “Most of us collaborate and use virtual teams regularly, and the ability to partner with someone who has deep experience in exactly what a given client requires.” See, I think that’s an agency. It’s an agency of the future. You may only have to be responsible to yourself for payroll, but you’re still an agency.

  • mdbarber KellyeCrane You’re right about the challenge for all of us. I face it, too. We desperately need someone who only wants to do media relations. Do you know how hard it is to find someone like that?

  • JOUZGE And you didn’t ask for the data! You can ask for data, though I’m not sure there is any. It definitely depends. Last year we had three clients who took their work in-house because it was getting to the point that it wasn’t cost-efficient for them to keep paying us when they could have a full-time employee. I always hate to do that, but I’m too ethical. I helped every one of them find the right person. My point is…it just depends on what you need, where you are in the business cycle, and what resources you already have available.

  • I’ve only known two in my career who loved it and were good at it!

  • JOUZGE

    Busted, Paul! Great questions.
    My response is only based on my experiences with regards to my project. 
    1st question:”OK, so why would you think you’d get ‘more work for less money’?”
    Freelance(FL): Tend to not have large overhead and in an effort to cultivate their companies, they often work for a lower hourly rate, or lower fixed fee. In my experience they tend to be scrappy. There could be negotiating space here. This is a good thing. I am sure these conclusions depend on how long they have been on their own and the clientele they have developed. 
    Firm: My project has to be worth their time and money. I have not often found much room for negotiation with firms. I have been really fortunate to have worked with some amazing firms. Item of note, most of these folks were folks who got burned out at the large firms, started their own small companies(1 or 2 person show) and grew successfully.  These folks were not inexpensive,  and they kept track of every single hour, although I feel as though I got my money’s worth.  I don’t know if this math is going to pay off yet. It will be interesting to see. 
    2nd question: “Why do you think an experienced consultant would be cheaper than a firm where juniors do the work?”
    You are assuming that junior folks will be doing all the work. You are correct that this is sometimes the case.  I only had it happen once and had to fire a firm for this exact reason. Juniors doing the work, big ego boss who could not read the creative brief. It taught me to hire slow and fire fast. To answer your question, each and every freelance bid I have ever received  was less expensive than firms that bid on the same work.
    I have a question for you: Are you suggesting that an “experienced consultant” charge the same fees as an experienced firm? If so, then that “experienced consultant” must be amazing and simultaneously have a line out the door of clients waiting. One person however amazing can only work so many hours in a day. I have a better shot at firm.

    I guess there are pros and cons to both. Some responses below were spot on when they commented that determining whether to go with a Freelance or Firm is something that must be assessed on a case by case basis. Truthfully, I have hired both on my project. I am REALLY demanding…firms where folks can spread that out amongst a team do better. 🙂
    my apologies for any typos…

  • JOUZGE “One person however amazing can only work so many hours in a day. I have a better shot at firm.” You made my point for me. Thank you! A person can only scale to 10-12 hours a day. Maybe a little bit more, but certainly can’t sustain that. But a team of people can scale in either direction, based on needs.

  • RobBiesenbach I’ve known a few, but everyone wants to do content and social now, too. We need them to focus!

  • JOUZGE

    ginidietrich JOUZGE and I thought you would have loved the “I am REALLY demanding…firms where folks can spread me around…” 🙂

  • AbbieF

    Is it ok to say both?  As an agency owner, I certainly stand beside Gini in the reasons why you should hire a firm. But as a former freelancer (or consultant or sole practitioner or whichever term you want to use), I could cite a variety of reasons why clients should have hired me instead of an agency.  The truth is, I think there is value in both options.  Some clients don’t have a budget to bring on a full-service firm. I still want them to engage in public relations so am grateful that I have a list of experienced freelancers to refer them to.  There are times when I need to add some senior experience to our team, but can’t make a fulltime offer, so will partner with a freelancer to ensure my client is taken care of.  And conversely, there are times when the freelancer is unable to manage all the client work and wants to have some behind-the-scenes help and will contract with us.
    I don’t think this has to be an either/or situation.

  • danielschiller

    A good agency should be able to recommend a good freelancer — and vice versa. And for that matter a good agency should be comprised of good freelancers. Neither proposition needs to be mutually exclusive.

    While cost will always be a consideration — sadly — it shouldn’t be the sole one. In the end they really meet different needs, so it’s really a matter of determining what yours are and the model that can best meet them. And someone like me is happy to work for you either way!

  • Les Gart

    An agency is a collection of individuals. Individuals, sometimes working in teams. Do tge work. The traditional agency model doesn’t allow for lots of unbillable colloboration.
    Some individuals like Ginni have built agencies of talented people which is to be commemorated.
    For clients – rare is the non-public organization that needs the firepower of a bigger agency – Edelman, Weber, etc. For most companies a boutique PR firm or a solo-preneur (who likely cut their chops at a big agency AND can source the exact right team or partner with the right boutique firm if necessary for a client’s specific needs) will get the job done as well, if not better. If you save a buck or two in the process, even better.
    I’ve been on the large agency side, the boutique agency side, in-house as sole decision maker of $50k+ a month retainers and now a PR consultant by choice. I can honestly say the depth and expertise of the solo-preneurs affiliated with Kelly Crane’s SoloPRPro.com are better than almost any personnel I’ve ever had work with or for me via traditional agencies. Forget e-lance …visit Kelly’s website and use Find a Consultant. Generally speaking you will find senior experts with deep knowledge in almost every industry.
    The “agency” of the future is here.

  • Les Gart

    Most solos know other great personnel so they can easily put together “insta-agency” if necessary. The only difference between boutique firms like Ginnie’s is she chooses to bear the responsibility for meeting a regular payroll, providing benefits, and supervising people every day. Some solos choose do the exact same thing …e.g. Just use a different tax structure for the people they ask to help. Yet other solos prefer to focus on 1-3 accounts they can handle mostly by themselves and hiring/colloborating with the right partners as necessary.
    The bottom line is no approach is better than other. It is far more important to find the right PR resource with the right expertise … How they work is secondary.

  • Les Gart

    Use Find a Consultant on SoloPRPro.com – free service, top talent. Unlike E-lance no one affiliated with SoloPRPro.com is going to work for $10 an hour. In PR, you get what you pay for.

  • Les Gart

    Don’t agree – I handle analytical-creative, as well as the project work all day long. A client CEO of a 500 person company calls me their “secret weapon” much to my amusement. I earned that by repeatedly producing earned media results far beyond expectations.
    As a senior professional I am fortunate that I get to mostly pick the clients I serve. And I no longer work for jerks. I also make almost twice what I made in a Fortune 100 and about $60K more than the last agency …but I don’t wear a target on my head for endless new business or have to supervise immature junior staff and here’s the clincher …it makes for a terrific quality of life. 😉

  • Helena Brantley

    I think an experienced and supported freelancer has, in my experience, trumped the value of many agency teams. A huge generalization, sure, but I worked for small, medium and large agencies in NYC and DC in the early 1990s. When people ask me now, why I don’t have or develop an agency, now that I’m an independent book publicist, after the hives surface, I explain that I love the actual work of being a publicist. I love pitching and placing and reading and getting smart in the verticals I represent, almost 20 years later.So I’d rather not delegate things I enjoy and do well and that’s what I charge for. 

    I realize that I am in the minority. I also, quite frankly, want a quality of life as the married parent of two kids. Still working on that one! 🙂 

    Apart from a small team of subcontractors, authors and publishers are paying for me and my years of experience. I do think there are probably many amazing agency teams, I just think the nature and structure of an agency, where you’re constantly trying to grow and maintain the business, turnover is constant, well, in my experience that doesn’t often serve the client well. 
    Or the employees.

    All that said, if you get the wrong freelancer or contractor, that’s a nightmare too! 
    I know this from being on the publisher side and having hired freelancers. 
    As I said in tweet, I think a lot of this is also very situational.

  • Helena Brantley

    ginidietrich JOUZGE There are some big assumptions in the idea that a team can scale in either direction faster, than say a good and supported freelancer with a clear work scope and timeline.

  • JOUZGE

    This feels like a good time to ask everyone to define what Freelance means, and what Firm means. This feels a lot like everyone is on the same page but definition is creating a barrier. Someone mentioned assumptions… good point! All my assumptions thus far are based on Freelance being a person of 1 and all parts of the team being no more than that 1, and Firm being 3 or more, universally at any one time. Again, I am looking at this from a client role as a start up.

  • ArikHanson1

    I’ve been in your shoes, too, Gini. I’ve thought about starting an agency, but continue to decide against it. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure it would NOT be a great fit for me. But, solo consulting IS a good fit for me–at least right now.

    I’ll make a different lobby for consultants (please, don’t EVER call me a freelancer. I will hurt you.) Your key point about about solo consulting is right on. Most people hire ONE person. They want YOU. But, here’s the thing: When clients hire me, they don’t just get me. They get my network, too. I can (and do) pull in different resources for different client needs. I probably don’t do it as often as you. I don’t scale like you do (I don’t have employees). But, I can offer solutions to client problems that fall outside my wheelhouse. Now, I have limits. I really don’t get too far outside my skill set. That’s where you and I may differ. You most likely have folks on staff that perform work that may be outside your skill set. That would happen at any agency. I don’t do that. But, it’s a similar system. And, I know a lot of other consultants take this approach, too.

  • Helena Brantley I think we had a similar experience! I, too, worked at agencies in the early-to-mid 90s (no small feat in those boom years, as you know!). I looked at the folks up the food chain and what they were spending their days doing, and realized that was not for me. Fortunately, we live in a time when there are other options – consultants can build a business doing the activities they find energizing and enjoyable.

  • Les Gart Wow, many thanks for that endorsement, Les! Always great to meet another indie like yourself. You’re right that some of the most well-known pros in PR work as Solo PR consultants who – as Gini notes – want to be “kick-butt communicators,” rather than agency owners. The world needs both types of people, I think.

  • JOUZGE PR consultants often assemble teams of multiple independent contractors to work on a given client, so the team can definitely be more than 1. As ginidietrich noted to me in her comment, often the experience to the client is the same as working with a boutique agency. 

    The difference is in the business structure. Each consultant is his/her own business owner, and we tend to pick and choose which new clients/projects to take on based on our workload, areas of expertise, interests, etc. So, most top consultants have a network of fellow indies they can tap for any given client need – if one of my frequent collaborators is unavailable, I have others I can call on.

    I think for the purpose of this discussion, a firm has employees and (one would hope) an infrastructure for supporting those employees and their work. If the agency is large enough, they should be able to handle bigger accounts. It would be difficult for PR consultants to handle $1 million/year in business, but agencies are built for that. Having a larger client roster can provide some benefits (for example, account teams can pitch multiple clients at once for a trend story). 

    For a startup, I’d suggest looking at whether an agency has a track record of success with other startups with a similar budget. Many do – in fact, some of the best startup work I’ve seen has been with boutique agencies. But there are some places where you do not want to be the small fish, or you risk being neglected. 

    Hope that helps, and would love to hear if anyone disagrees with my characterizations!

  • JOUZGE

    KellyeCrane JOUZGE ginidietrich
    This is super helpful. Thank you!

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown Digital_DRK ThePaulSutton The problem with the Industries (marketing, advertising, pr) is not the free lance vs agency models. The fact is both make more money billing clients more. So when their is a problem or a goal or a challenge a solution will always be found within the scope of work the agency or freelancer can offer. Which is why the outsourcing you mentioned earlier.
    That is my problem. The pay is not tied to results but activities. Paid media buying agencies work on 15% commissions so there is no incentive to spend less but every incentive to talk you into spending more. If an agency/freelancer hires people for a specific client and there is significant revenue, even if after say a year they realize they can pull this off with much less resources or less cost to the client……why should they do they right thing and lower billings and fire people?
    The big brands are trying to change this but it is hard because of all the reasons this blog has covered with figuring out ROI when many activities are all involved with the same goal.

    When Facebook went public and filed their S-1 they chose a personal care campaign from P&G or Unilver that had major paid advertising and couponing for the launch of a new product…..yet Facebook claimed 100% of all the sales success was due to their ads.
    Fix the way compensation is provided and this can be fixed.

  • To be honest, I have never run a digital communications firm but I have worked for them and have experience of being a freelancer. And know what?  I vote for Gini. Just imagine yourself in a client’s shoes. What will you do if you are interested in quality? Unfortunately, freelancers are not so reliable though they are usually cheaper. It is better to hire them only if you have no doubts about their skills. Meanwhile entire team of experts sounds much better. That is what I think.

  • MillisJess Trust me, having worked with agencies (both for and with), there are equally as many non-reliable agencies as you say there are freelancers. The quality doesn’t come because of the size of a team (or lack of) – it comes from expertise and ethics. Saying freelancers are not so reliable is an unfair generalization.

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