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!
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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?