Agency vs freelancer – your take

Last month I asked what the difference is between hiring a studio and hiring an independent graphic designer. Some great discussion followed, and I’ve added a few of your answers below.

Jim Eaton, of James Eaton Design

James Eaton Design

“With many freelancers working from home, they can often pass on considerable savings made through low overheads.”

“It’s very tempting to use this as a selling point. But I wonder… if the end product has the same value to the client, shouldn’t the fees be the same? I’m defining value in terms of improving the client’s condition — stronger brand recognition, improved perceived value of their products/services, higher sales, looking better than the competition, and so on.

“For example, if Mercedes Benz figured out a way to produce their vehicles for the cost of a Hyundai without compromising quality — wouldn’t, shouldn’t they still charge the same high prices for their exceptional product?

“Seems to me if I can produce the same quality work with lower overhead, then that just means I’m running a better business than the larger firm.”

Aaron, of Aaron Russell

Aaron Russell

“Collectively, a decent agency can offer a much broader skillset than any freelancer can offer — and by that I mean much more than a group of collaborating designers. For instance, in an agency you could find experts from a direct marketing background, SEO experts, branding gurus, technical web geniuses, etc. Whilst it’s plausible a freelancer could be an expert in one or more niches, it’s unlikely they can cover all the bases an agency can.”

Adam Chang, of same tomorrow

same tomorrow

“Design revisions can frequently be made almost immediately after the request.

“I’m not too sure its a good thing, for the freelancer at least. Clients sometimes want changes immediately and it seems like they want you to drop everything to make that fix… but at an agency you would never have to deal with that part.”

Mark, of I am Mark Cameron

Mark Cameron

“The only time I can think of going with an agency is when I would have a project too massive in scale for a single freelancer to complete.”

Richard, of Peacock Carter

Peacock Carter

“As Mark mentions, the benefit of the agency is that they can handle bigger projects, though I fully agree that just because there are more people working at an agency, it does not necessarily mean the work produced is better than a single designer / freelancer.”

Andrew, of Andrew Kelsall

Andrew Kelsall

“Reasons to work with a graphic design agency …There is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas.

“That could also be true of freelancers, but in a different way ― via social networking.”

Jeff Fisher, of LogoMotives


“The independent designer can often provide exactly the same quality (and quantity) of works as that of a larger agency. The quality of a ‘contract’ designers previous work, and their marketing materials, is often all it takes to put their business on the same level as the ‘big boys’…”

Abbas Arezoo, of Design Sheffield

Design Sheffield

“I’m a freelance designer, however I run a company on my own. This means I’m a director, creative director, head designer, tea-maker and courier all rolled into one. Depending on the situation, depends on which title to use (apart from the tea-maker and courier of course!).

“I’ve not said I was a freelance designer since I left university.”

PJ, of Hardly Square

Hardly Square

“An agency is just a roof. Ok maybe I’m simplifying it a bit much, but if you have an extensive network to pull from there is no reason why a freelancer couldn’t include other talents (i.e. SEO experts, brand gurus, etc) within their project.”

Rob, from Rob Cubbon

Rob Cubbon

“…the larger bloated agencies will be slimming down… some might even disappear. And the reason is the freelancer can call on a network of other professionals in order to help with a job if it’s too big.”

Alicia, from 400

400 design

“…who is best depends greatly on the project, the particular client, and the relationship they have with their designer/design consultancy. As for the small cash-strapped start-ups that George mentioned, I think that good design is an investment and it will provide a bottom line return on that investment (look at the DBA design effectiveness awards). There is always a solution — for example, sometimes designers will exchange their services for equity in that start-up business.”

Thanks again to everyone who commented, and if you have any additional thoughts of your own, by all means continue the discussion.

Update: here’s an appropriate discussion from back in 2007 — are freelance designers really suckers? It focuses on the actual job titles used by the independent contractors among us.

54 responses

  1. This is a well rounded selection of views, I think if I had lots of money I would choose an agency, they simply have more resources. A collective unit is nearly always going to have the edge on a freelancer (but obviously exceptions apply to all sweeping generalisations) but then again I appreciate the kind of relationship you are able to build with a freelancer, and there is a real possibility you are going to get way more for your money. How do designers prefer to work?

  2. More than once I saw something along the lines of “…freelancers can call on others…”. This is something that has really shown true for me in the last year. Twitter has been a great resource for me when I get stuck with a project. So many have been helpful, anywhere from @replying an answer, to connecting with me directly and working side by side. In some ways, this makes freelancers more powerful than an agency.

  3. Thanks very much David. It’s a great article and it’s nice to obtain views of freelance and agencies from multiple angles.

    Only thing I would fix is the aliased Mark Cameron logo :p.

  4. Thanks for spotlighting me David, my first one. Yay! :)

    @Chris Berthe It’s not my logo, I haven’t made one yet, designing for myself is the equilavent of sticking pins in my eyes. It’s just some rather large type that I have been using on my website.

  5. I remember the discussion last month and I enjoy how you highlighted some of the feedback. Seems that a lot of the commentary, and the premise of the article rests on the fact that an agency is a collective and a freelancer is completely independent. Which is true by definition, but not in every practice.

    There are many freelancers resourceful enough to know how to collaborate with other designers, developers, and copywriters – creating networks of support that allow them to actually compete with agencies – especially with the help of a project manager. Sites like Base Camp are empowering designers to manage projects with multiple channels of support – and it’s not that hard.

    Having worked in various agencies, there have been campaigns that I’ve conceptualized and produced work completely on my own – everything except actually communicating with the client which was handled by the account manager. And the agency billed for not only my time, but project management, account management and other costs to pad the invoice… etc. That just didn’t sit well with me. As a freelancer today, the only padding I do is to cover my time on the project. Ironically, i make more money self-employed than i ever did at an agency.

    My opinion on agency vs freelancer – it’s all about optics. When comparing apples to apples, a freelancer might look less capable than an agency, but they’re just as capable while being much more competitive. And as for stereotypes – with today’s networking technologies, it’s definitely a luxury, not a necessity, for pish posh agencies to house their talent in trendy expensive downtown office spaces.

  6. @Mark, Haha :) I was saying it because on your site it looks nice and smooth [in this article ‘Mark Cameron’ looks a bit pixelated].

    Either a) It’s too early in the morning and my eyes are acting up on me and the pixels are signs I should go get myself another cup of coffee or b) I just worry way too much about cleanliness.

  7. does anyone know if there are any books on this subject? I’ve to write a paper exactly about this, but only using books as sources?
    Thank you

  8. Two books I’ve found really helpful in this area are Talent is Not Enough and How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.

  9. I wrote about this very subject a little while back where I outlined the reasons I believe a small company or freelancer was better than a large design firm. The response got somewhat heated in the comments but overall was a healthy discussion. Since my post, my position has been somewhat neutralized in that I believe it depends on the company. Yes you may be able to get your projects done relatively cheaper than if you went with a larger company, but at what ‘cost’?. Maybe time to completion is a priority, hence a larger company maybe able to turn around your project faster…. What I’ve found is that really good freelance designers have a longer lead time to complete projects due to their high demands. I say, find the designer or agency that match your particular projects needs. Sometimes a project requires a freelancer and sometimes a larger agency might be a better choice. Just my two cents.

  10. Nice round up of comments. In some ways the grass is always greener on the other side, eh? I could see where it all comes down to the freelancer, the agency, the client and the specific project. The best answer would differ when any of the variables change.

  11. Many projects can be done by just one person, from print work to fully animated projects. The small scale project will find much better care in the hands of one person. No need to pay overheads or other expensive hands. There is simple fact: being able to spend more hours on the project = better project.
    I have done some commercials, from the first step of conception (like an agency) to the design, and the final animation. But I also have helped established companies to team with their full time employees on projects that could never have been done by just one-man orchestra.

  12. Freelancers actually earn more money if they know how to get the right clients. As a freelancer you get to choose your own time as well as decide on how much money you’re going to make. Low operational cost too.. Ofcourse working for an agency also has its benefits, as pointed out in this blog. Thanks for the helpful info.

  13. I have to agree with Rob, from Rob Cubbon. Freelancers may not have the swiss-army knife to be experts in every aspect of design and development, but that doesn’t mean they can’t call upon other freelancers who are experts in their respective fields. I know I’ve contracted work with people who build e-commerce shopping carts or specialize in heavy back-end coding. You don’t have to be the best at everything.

  14. This comment comes from Bangalore – that’s India – where the agency / freelancer ratio is pretty high. For every agency in the city, you could have 50 freelancers.

    On the “agency vs freelancers” debate, I think scale has a lot to do with it. Agencies are bigger, with larger resource teams and better equipped to meet the needs of large clients. Freelancers are typically small teams with one or two creative people with large-agency experience.

    The agency invariably gets to handle the bigger section of the pie. Going by our experience, we can cite the examples of at least eight instances, where we co-exist with the agency. The agency comes first as a design partner and the freelance team comes second or third in the Pecking order.

    We run a small design firm called “Freelance Network:” and on several accounts, we are the second team on the client’s creative or design pool. (The agency being the first to handle primary design and creative.)

    Freelance teams largely gravitate around the skills / experience of one star player who could be an offshoot from an agency, while the agency has a large talent base that spans creative, account planning, media planning and research.

    So “scale” really, decides on who a client needs to partner with. But there’s no harm working with both agency and freelancer – as long as the teams can happily co-exist.

  15. It doesn’t harm to build up a select group of contacts who you can sub-contract work out to. These relationships tend to work both ways and you can create strong working partnerships.

    I found that while I was still at University that there were a number of students that were highly skilled in areas that I wasn’t, and i’ve subsequently passed work onto them and I’ve built a strong network of collaborators.

    Thanks for the mention David, much appreciated.

  16. Hi David

    Something I mentioned in your original article is the perceived level of security with an agency. For example, I do a lot of work for agencies outsourcing, so the end client is effectively using a freelancer – so they might as well go straight to a Freelancer for less than half the price? But they choose to use an agency because there is a sense of security – an agency can’t (or isn’t likely to) just shut up shop and disappear, if they’re established they’ll have years of financial books that big clients are going to want to check out.

    I agree with a lot of the comments who believe in many cases a freelancer can match or even exceed the level of service offered by an agency, but many companies/organisations are so risk averse that paying the premium for an agency is the only option.

    By the way, thanks for link. :)

  17. Steve,

    Good question, about the situation designers prefer to work in. I reckon it all comes down to the individual, whether they prefer to work alongside people in an office environment, or in the comfort of their home. Working for a collective, or mainly for yourself.

    Personally, I’m very happy to be self-employed, and can’t see that situation changing anytime soon.


    It’s no coincidence that Jim’s opinion is shown before any other. I also agree with his sentiments.


    That’s great how Twitter is working to your benefit. There’s a fantastic community of designers using the site.


    Mark actually prepared me a new image after you left your comment, which is now shown. Hope it’s to your liking. ;)


    Glad to bring a smile to your face. Thanks for contributing.

    Rob (Hernandez),

    You’re spot on. Collaboration is a tool that many independent contractors (or freelancers) use to very good effect. I’ve outsourced a few projects, and worked with some agencies too. There shouldn’t be any restriction one way or the other.

    I’m curious, you mentioned about comparing apples to apples. Was that as a consequence of my post header image?


    Thanks for answering Alexis’ question. I appreciate you taking the time.


    Good to see you’re not averse to a mind-change. I come across people who won’t change their minds as a matter of principle, no matter what information is presented to them. I think you’re right to say it depends on the company / project, and the actual skills required for the job.

    Rob (Russo),

    “…differ when the variables change.” Well put my friend.


    Great reiteration. I’ve also been hired by agencies to do work for their clients, although nowadays I tend not to, because, more often than not, I wasn’t able to use the work in my portfolio.

    You, and Abbas, are both more than welcome for the linkage.

    Sharath, Toby, Rose, Rafael,

    Good of you all to join in the discussion, thank you.

  18. Hi, I’m kinda new to this site, I’m still a student. I have a question. I understand that freelancers collaborating with each other evens the playing field with agencies, but does that mean that the freelancers compensate the people they collaborate with? That’s the only thing that confusing me

  19. Criminy, Adam Change must work for a fabulous agency. Who hasn’t had the client call a fire alarm at 4:45, the gutless AE says, “Sure, we can re-brand you and come up with a new logo by 12pm tomorrow,” the vice presidents put a down payment on a Lexus, the owner buys a new hose, and the production artists and art directors make the same XX,XXX every year.

    And James Eaton forgets that we freelancers make the same (or much better) than the art directors in an agency, but the client isn’t paying for the Eames furniture and health insurance premiums in the vice presidents office, or paying for the building, or the owner’s mistress.

  20. Hey Scott,

    I worked at a couple of agencies before I started freelancing and yes they were great agencies to work for. Sorry for any confusion but what I meant about my comment for “Design revisions can frequently be made almost immediately after the request” was that at a agency whenever a request comes through for edits or changes and a client wants it right away the designer is not negotiating the time frame or deadline to have the changes done it’s usually the producers on the project. For a freelancer however, most of the time you do not have that middle man to go through which means the freelancer has to negotiate themselves and many times from my experience the clients can be quite demanding.

  21. Adam,

    Quite right.

    It’s been my sad lot in life to work with AEs more interesting in saying “yes” to every client request, than stopping to think about whether 1 hour for a massive revision is a good idea, or a bad idea.

    I’ve heard there are good agencies out there, but none seem to be in Fort Worth (all due respect to my compadres at local agencies). Going freelance has been a sanity- and life-saver.

    Sadly, I also need a proofreader when I get passionate — I imagine people got a good laugh at my implying the agency owner gets to buy a new “hose,” instead of “house.”

  22. Kendall,

    There’s no hard and fast rule for compensation. That’s something you work out with your colleagues / those you outsource to.


    That gave me a laugh, thanks (the owner buying a new hose). I actually didn’t pick up on it in your first comment, so I’m glad you pointed it out.

  23. Scott,

    I didn’t catch the ‘hose’ part either but I can use a proof reader myself haha. Sorry to hear about the agencies in Fort Worth but I’m definitely glad freelancing saved you.

  24. David,

    I have used an agency and I have used a free lancer for all kinds of work like WordPress blog design, content writers etc. and it has been my experience that generally better service is provided by a free lancer but when it comes to complexity and bigger projects, then an agency (which happens to have more resources) is better.

    For smaller tasks like logo design, and SEO analysis etc, I think I would definitely go with a free lancer who happens to a known expert in his field.

    By the way I have been a big fan of your work and I am hoping one day I can make enough money to hire you for branding my online works.

    – Ben

  25. What a great post! This should be done more often – it’s great to get the opinions of multiple people in the same article. Thanks for posting this discussion!

  26. This is an eternal debate! I’ve been a freelancer, but now I work for an agency. When I was a freelancer, I had to be everyone at once, whereas now I have my own specific tasks. There is no reason why a freelancer with good connections cannot be as good as an agency, but most companies don’t know how well connected their freelancer actually is, and if everything falls to just one person then problems can arise. So, I can definitely see the attractions of hiring an agency, as you know that the work will get done, and that they have all the human resources to look after you for further work, if necessary, as your business grows.

  27. Wow, what a great debate. I really think you can get the best of both worlds in a small to medium sized agency.

    Obviously, that’s what I work for and I’m a little biased. Especially in terms of web design/production/programming – working for a stable firm with a 15+ year history is a much better for a living, breathing website. We run into clients all the time that had a freelancer design their first website for next to nothing and now they can’t get a hold of them. The website just became a LOT more expensive for someone to come in and try to add functionality – or even change out a logo.

    I can’t speak for the non-interactive side, but that’s my .02 cents.


  28. Chip, I agree — there are a lot of bargain-basement website designers who say, “I can build your website for $300,” and the client is then shocked that they get what they paid for.

    In the end, it may be a better learning experience for the client. if they don’t know to value what we do, then learning the hard way may be the only way to get them to understand that we provide a lot of value above and beyond simply building the website.

    Until a client understands that, I don’t want them as a client.

  29. Roger, Andrew,

    You’re very welcome, and Andrew, sorry for letting through the spam comment that was a copy and paste of yours. I get so many, it’s hard to stop them all.

    Amelia, Chip, Scott,

    Thanks for adding to the discussion. It’s a pleasure to have you around.

  30. This is an interesting discussion.

    A capable freelancer can offer the same level of service as a dedicated agency.

    It’s been my experience to find experts and partner with them. Although a designer may have a one man shop…it’s never a one man operation. Design is a collaborative process that involves not only you as a designer, but clients and other creative professionals like writers, marketers, photographers, printers and others.

    I never see these other professionals as “sub contractors” or “vendors” I see them and treat them as partners in the project.

  31. Thanks very much David.
    It’s a great article and it’s nice to obtain views of freelance and agencies from multiple sides. Really great thoughts, I think that in most cases we inclined to hire a freelancer if the quality of his work satisfy our demands and the price of work will be lower. I can think about hiring an agency just for realization of any great projects when disigners, programmers, administrators are needed.

  32. I’m surprised no one has talked about what an important time this is to be a freelancer. We might be one of the few businesses (besides liquor stores) that do well in the coming “economic downturn.”

    I imagine quite a few companies will be looking for the lower-cost alternative to agencies — those of us who are established might do very well for themselves.

  33. David,


    As much as I enjoy the creative part of our business, I like putting together a team and working with other creatives in other disciplines. And it’s mutually beneficial to everyone involved…the client gets the best service and advice my team can offer and by bringing other people in,
    I help keep people employed without having a staff.

  34. After reading all of these comments, I wonder what percentage of people have actually worked for both. I myself have only ever designed as a freelancer, but sometimes I wonder if the creative ‘personal drive’ is there when working at an agency. Don’t get me wrong, agency’s do amazing work (mostly through lots of quality control), but does the freelancer have higher potential (or more soul) due to his work always reflecting directly on himself?

  35. @Octavio: A lot depends on the agency (having done both), and how much power the creatives hold. For instance, at one agency, I had to design not only what I thought was right for the client, but also had to design so that the ACD would show it to the CD. Once it had been designed to their satisfaction, I also had to design it so that after the CD saw it, it also had to be palatable to the account executives, who wouldn’t want to show it to the client if they didn’t like it. Not to mention, if any part of the creative idea had originated from an account executive, the CD would turn up his nose at it (good idea or bad), and would feebly pitch it to the client if it wasn’t stillborn.

    I suspect, though, that that agency was dysfunctional—but that wouldn’t make it unique in the advertising and design world. I also worked at an agency that only used one font — Myriad Pro — at the insistence of the president.

    A freelancer runs without filters (not always a good thing) between himself/herself and the client. There’s less chance the idea will be diluted or bastardized. In which case, you’d better have great ideas, or a good network to bounce the ideas off of.

  36. Octavio,

    I’ve worked at agencies and as a freelancer. Scott is right, depending on how big the creative staff is there are a lot of people to go through before the work gets to the client.

  37. I really enjoyed this article. I am in business with a friend of mine. We specialise mostly in web design. Although there is only two us we have branded ourselves very much as a firm.

    We are also very young in comparison to a lot of the designers that run the show.

    It’s interesting to get all the different reactions from clients who assume we are a standard agency, when in fact we are like freelancers and run many job descriptions.

    In the end I think the decision is based on the project size, the experience of the designer(s), and the quality of work. Price is always a factor, but I have seen plenty of freelancers charge the same as an agency. Sometime you can get a lot of marketing just from having a famous agency or freelancer do your project.

    Do you ever get contracted by design agencies to do work?

  38. I’ve not been around my comment areas much during the past week, having just moved house. The heavy lifting is over now, which is a relief!

    Glad you’re enjoying the comments, and thanks very much for letting me know.

  39. It’s an interesting discussion, David. Thanks for the mention. I’m with Rob Hernandez, freelancers are “just as capable while being much more competitive” than agencies. Let’s stop spending hours commuting and working away from our loved ones and all work from home!

  40. Great to hear the views of the community. Personally some of my best work has been as a freelancer. I feel less pressured when freelancing, I get thinking time which doesn’t seem to be allowed in an agency ‘your not paid to think, your paid to do’. Maybe the bigger agency forge a strong project team that spend a lot of time researching and brainstorming ideas, generating concepts a sole freelancer would find hard to achieve. I however haven’t experienced this in the 7 years I’ve worked for agencies. Targets, deadlines and budgets set the reality in agencies which hinder any creativity.

  41. Interesting discussion that went on/ now going on here…..I’m encouraged, VERY, as a freelance designer to read the views..
    ……my take, END PRODUCT…..if I can be able to do it tons better than an agency, good, if I can’t handle the brief satisfactorily, even after calling up my people, then the agency will have the cup, howbeit only for that time, as I have TIME to constantly keep improving my skill, and all else that will make me able to handle such briefs.

  42. It is also interesting to factor in politics. Some marketing directors choose an agency because of a personal friendship, need to impress a CEO, need to score brownie points with a firm they might join someday, etc. One other big one is the need for corporate marketing departments to HAVE to spend the budget they are allocated or they lose funding in the succeeding fiscal year. There are so many layers, but agencies serve the needs of corporate marketing departments because they make it possible to spend large amounts of money and keep the wheels greased. This isn’t bad per se, it just is a simple fact of how things at the corporate level work. One project I worked on as an employee working with another design agency had a flash banner of seven rotating images that cost (I saw the invoice) close to 5 figures because it involved “project management”, several meetings (that we didn’t need), several rounds of changes (because the agency interactive department didn’t follow the 3 bullet points I laid out), etc. etc. But hey, that Flash banner fed a lot of people that week, and is the reason the hot dog vendors on the streets of NY can stay in business, parking valets can make a living off of tips, and restaurants booking business meetings can keep the single working mom’s in the kitchen employed. Strange how these things work. But I could have made that banner in half a day (with blog breaks) for piddley-cents on the dollar! Maybe I should stop thinking like that, and start thinking about how my more-inflated fees might just help working-class :)

  43. The thing is; there must be a lot of designers out there like myself who are freelance but pose as agencies – so how do you know exactly what you are buying into anyway.
    Now I know that seems dishonest of me, but I find I can pull a lot more business by having two brands. One that is advertised as myself (freelance) and the other posed as maybe more of an agency.

    The thing is I work in a large organisation as well as designing, with a huge amount of creatives in a much wider field than any creative agency would possess. From journalists, designers, music producers, Web designers, Software/app developers, writers, web coders, the whole lot.
    Which means I can take on quite a broad range of work safe in the knowledge that I generally have a friend who can take up certain elements (although I generally avoid this if possible).

    Agencies are seen to be somewhat of tight group, possessing many qualities whilst having worked as a team for a long time and coming up with final design solution all under one roof, in a well practiced manner.
    However quite a few agencies I have worked with have been quite the opposite. People stepping on each other, sour relationships, politics, disagreements, wage envy, run by people who have come out of marketing, with no real understanding of an actual creative process and more knowledge of squeezing pennies from a brief than producing exceptional design.

    A lot is at stake when you put your own name to a design.

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