The ‘Agency Piggyback’ Strategy for New Freelance Writers

When you’re getting started as a freelancer you have to deal with some big competing priorities.

You have to prospect for clients. Manage your time effectively. Produce great work.

All while trying to meet client deadlines.

It’s like trying to thread a needle at full gallop! And because you’re now a solopreneur, you can’t turn to your cubicle mate or talk to your boss when you have questions or need guidance.

Which is why this “agency piggyback” strategy can be such a good fit for new freelance writers.

By “piggyback,” I mean using the agency-freelancer relationship to ramp up your business and experiment with different target markets and content platforms … while also reducing the immediate pressure to land and manage clients on your own.

After all, marketing and ad agencies already have clients and projects. And they need writers!

The Benefits

Agency-freelancer relationships can have real advantages for new writers. These include:

  1. Agencies do the hard work of landing clients

Marketing and ad agencies already have clients. They already have their own marketing programs. As a freelancer, you step into the process after most of the pitching and selling has been done. You don’t have to spend days or weeks or months wooing the client.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to land these agency clients. But if you do good work, agencies can become a continuing source of projects.

  1. Agencies do the hard work of managing clients

If you’ve never managed a client before, you might be shocked at how time consuming (and sometimes frustrating!) it can be. Typically, agencies take charge of client management, which gives you more time to write.

  1. A shorter ramp-up period

Unless you come armed with pre-existing clients, it takes time to build a client base. But agencies already have clients and projects in their pipelines, allowing you, as their contractor, to ramp up your business (and your income) that much faster.

  1. Broadening your experience

Depending on the agency, you might get the chance to write for a greater variety of platforms and industries than you would on your own. It’s a great way to broaden your experience and figure out where your preferences lie.

  1. Exposure to bigger clients and projects

Similarly, you might find yourself working with clients or on projects you couldn’t have landed on your own. Fortune 500 companies work with agencies, often several agencies. So, if you want to get experience working on big-scale projects with big-scale budgets, agencies are a great way to get that kind of work early in your freelance career.

  1. Learning the ropes

Working with an agency can give you an insider view of the marketing industry. While agencies are unlikely to share all their internal strategies and tactics with you, you’ll still have opportunities to learn if you pay attention and ask questions.

  1. Perfecting your craft

Similarly, while agencies won’t teach you how to write (you’ll need solid writing chops to even be considered), you’ll inevitably get feedback on your writing, both positive and negative. Both are invaluable.

  1. Increased predictability of income

Once you’ve proven yourself, agencies can be a source of steady work, which increases the predictability of your income. A major bonus, especially when starting out.

  1. Increased productivity

Working for an agency can be a trial by fire in terms of deadlines. But you’ll be amazed at how much (and how quickly) you can write when you’re under the gun.

Knowing you can push yourself to generate more content than you thought possible will serve you well. After all, the more productive you are, the more money you can bring in.

The Down Side of Agency Work

This isn’t to say everything about freelancing for agencies is rainbows and sunshine. As I mentioned, deadlines in the agency world are often tight. If you decide to go this route, be prepared for some crazy hours.

In addition, you may find that agencies pay at lower rates than what you could get by working with clients directly. According to freelance writer Caryn Starr-Gates, the spread is typically about 20 percent on an hourly rate and more on a flat rate.

However, this lower fee is balanced by less upfront work (you didn’t have to land the client) and less ongoing client management work (time you can’t charge for).

But even with these drawbacks, piggybacking on agencies is a great springboard to developing your own client base.  Which is why many freelancers will pursue agency work while also working to nurture their own clients on the side.

A Word of Warning

If you plan on doing these two activities concurrently (working with an agency and building your own client base), then you must be stringent about not approaching your agency’s clients directly. (Most agencies will have you sign a contract that spells out this restriction.)

Yes, you might feel you know the client best. You might feel that it makes sense to cut out the middleperson. But doing so will burn your bridges, big time. You don’t want to go there.

You Can Build a Career on This Model

All this isn’t to suggest that you have to eventually evolve out of the agency-contractor model. Many freelancers don’t.

Some freelancers enjoy working with agencies. They like being part of a team, and they like working under, and learning from, experienced senior marketers. And they don’t miss the chore of having to continually market themselves.

These freelancers are happy to sacrifice a little financial compensation in return for these benefits.

Piggybacking on Other Marketing Professionals

If you’re not fully sold on the agency piggybacking model, there is a middle ground. Some freelancers get their start not by working with agencies per se—but by working with established designers or seasoned freelance writers.

In fact, Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, built his whole freelance copywriting business on this approach.

Peter grew his business by partnering with designers. The idea is simple. Just like many marketing agencies need to write copy as part of the work they do for clients, some designers also like to offer their clients a service package that includes both design and copy.

If you can become one of their go-to writers, some of these designers can provide you with a fairly steady stream of work. Not enough to make them your only client, but enough to add some diversity to your prospecting efforts and income stream.

If this is something you’re interested in pursuing, Peter Bowerman has written the definitive field guide to how to do this right. It’s a PDF guide titled Profitable By Design! Tapping the Writer/Designer Partnership Goldmine (that’s an affiliate link).

Similarly, it’s not unusual for established freelance writers to bring onboard more junior writers to help them meet client needs. You may find that some of these established freelance writers are incredibly generous in sharing their hard-won knowledge and lessons learned.

What do you think? Have you tried piggybacking on agencies or other marketing professionals? What was your experience?

 

 

  • The agency podcast episode was one of my favorites! This article “piggybacks” nicely with that episode 😉 Also, this was perfect timing for me since I recently decided to focus my efforts on agencies. Thanks for sharing!

  • maranj

    Sounds great, but exactly how do you do partner with agencies without being seen as someone who could potentially ‘steal’ business away from them?

  • Hannah Glenn

    I’ll have to give the agency podcast episode another listen. It’s been a while. I’m curious about the best way to approach agencies and established freelancers with these options. Any thoughts about positioning?

  • Elizabeth Farr

    Brilliance again from Ed! But don’t just listen to him – this works! My first client was an agency in New Zealand that does websites and online content for accountants around the world. 18 months later, and I’m still doing work for that firm. My portfolio of work for that company just helped me land a job with a local web design firm. And that firm is already talking about doing more work with me in the future!

  • Saurav mishra

    Brilliance again from Ed! But don’t just listen to him – this works! My first client was an agency in New Zealand that does websites and online content for accountants around the world. 18 months later, and I’m still doing work for that firm. My portfolio of work for that company just helped me land a job with a local web design firm. And that firm is already talking about doing more work with me in the future!

  • peterbowerman

    Thanks for the shout-out, Ed! And yes, parterning with designers has definitely been my #1 most profitable strategy in my copywriting practice. And while I’d love to say it was a very deliberate strategy, it really wasn’t.

    As you’ll learn if you pick up “Profitable – By Design,” I pretty much stumbled on it very early on in my career. But I happened to connect with a graphic designer in my early days, and she not only brought me in for some work with the design agency she was working with at the time, but when she went on her own a few years after that (as all the good ones do, eventually…), I was the first person she called when she needed copywriting.

    in P-BD, I focus on how to be the kind of writer that designers not only want to work with, but for whom designers will find opportunities to work.

    @maranj: As for your question: The short answer is: You DON’T steal clients. That’s one the HUGE no-no’s in our business (and I talk about this at length in P-BD”).

    If you’re brought in by a designer, don’t even think about “going around” the design firm that brought you to the table, unless you want to have to find a new line of work. That’s one the quickest ways to get a bad reputation in our business—one that will have no other design firm touch you.

    Even if the end client approaches you with a proposal to work directly with them, you should politely decline (if you know what’s good for you). Even in cases where the client is proposing work for which there IS not design attached (i.e., you’re not taking any $ out of the designer’s pocket), you need to still contact the designer firm to ask permission.

    In many cases, the design firm will be happy to give their blessing, but they will appreciate the fact that you asked. And if they tell you they expect a finder’s commission (usually 10%), you should pay it happily. After all, you wouldn’t even be in the position to of being offered the extra work if it wasn’t for them.

    Great piece and comments!

    PB