We all know that agencies need to be agile and adaptable. Leveraging freelance digital marketing experts can provide the flexibility and expertise needed to accelerate agency growth, without the overheads of full-time hires. This is where the strategic integration of freelance digital marketing experts becomes pivotal. Leveraging their skills provides a dynamic flexibility and specialised expertise that can significantly accelerate agency growth, without incurring the overheads associated with full-time hires.
The Post-COVID Digital Agency Landscape
It’s tedious to continually reference the global pandemic that forced change across the economy, and digital landscape, like no other event in our lifetime. However, it’s essential for understanding the power of freelancers in today’s climate.
Balancing Headcount is More Important than Ever
COVID threw a curve ball of destruction into digital agencies. Some were pushed to the edge of extinction and others were forced to re-evaluate and micro-analyse the structure and operations they’d used since conception. As much as all agency owners loathe to admit it, it doesn’t take micro-analysis to know that one of the biggest hurdles of running an effective and profitable agency is balancing headcount. Ensuring you have enough boots on the ground to service clients and attract new business without having too many mouths too feed when times are quieter.
Whilst it seems uncouth to say that anything “good” came from COVID, one of the upsides for smarter agency owners was that between the combination of furloughing and redundancies, they could reflect on whether they needed to re-add the head count numbers once the world settled down or, retain a streamlined employed team and partner with senior-level, expert digital marketing freelancers when necessary.
The Challenges of Recruiting New Employees
We’re not going to sit here and teach you to suck eggs about the trials and tribulations that come with running a traditional agency, because as an agency owner we know you’re both on the front line, and well-versed in all of these.
However, to recap on some of the main challenges that come specifically with managing head count post-pandemic, we know that:
- Adding people equals adding overheads, which equals greater risk
- Adding people can hinder cashflow
- New recruits may look great on paper, but it’s not until a few weeks in that you get to understand whether the person you hired in the interview process is the person you hoped would be the new shining star of the team
- If you need to re-start the process of recruitment, it can be costly in terms of time and recruiter fees
- You hire a channel specialist because you won a massive tender that warranted the additional head but now that clients paused and said “expert” is now sat idle – what happens now?
The Rise of the Post-Pandemic Freelancers
The combination of digital agency furloughing, and covid-driven redundancies not only gave agency owners time to reflect, but it also gave those being furloughed or made redundant an opportunity to rethink their careers.
You’d have to be the type of agency owner to live on the moon if you weren’t privy to the fact that freelancing on the side is something that a large proportion of the agency workforce partake in. Whether they’re saving for a house deposit and need the extra income, or contemplating a future in freelance, the nature of our digital world makes freelancing on the side a viable option for most channel specialists.
Combine side hustlers with furlough and redundancy and the result equals a richer talent pool of freelancers with senior-level channel experts than ever before. With an average of 1 in 6 freelancers starting their freelance career during the pandemic, a perfect storm was brewing that resulted in more agencies willing to partner with freelancers, and more senior freelancers being available to support them.
Partnering with Freelancers vs. Outsourcing
Unfortunately, it’s the case that some agencies have been burnt by the freelancer model as the people they’ve outsourced to have been flaky, disappear off the radar or produce sub-standard work whilst commanding punchy day rates.
On the flip side of this situation, several freelancers we have spoken to over the past 24 months have started blacklisting agencies to no longer work with due to:
- Poor briefing
- Last minute or significant scope changes
- Inability to pay invoices on time
Having vetted over 120 freelancers in the past 18 months, we know how difficult it is as an agency owner to curate a pool of trusted partners that you can comfortably put in front of clients and trust to deliver exemplary work. It’s so difficult, in fact, that it can often take as long as trying to find permanent hires.
However, if agencies can successfully partner with freelancers as opposed to seeing them as an outsourced delivery arm, this synergy results in the ability to scale at pace.
When is the Right Time to Engage with Freelancers?
We partner with agencies daily, and the three most common situations in which they find themselves needing a senior-level freelancer’s support are:
- They’ve recently lost a senior member of the team and have several execs who are now left without any mentorship, as well as key clients who are missing an experienced strategic lead
- They’re either pitching for, or have won, a tender that requires a service they don’t generally offer and don’t have the need to recruit a full-time body to service this specialism, but still have to deliver on this particular contract win
- They’ve recently lost mid-level team members so there’s an immense pressure on the remaining team to cover the day-to-day client deliverables
All 3 of these situations force agencies into a state of pressure that results in team overload and panic to recruit to refill mid and senior level positions, which we all know can take weeks and even months. All the while client focus and team morale start to decline; it’s at times like these where agencies could significantly benefit from having a bank of trusted partners they can turn to.
How to Maximise Freelancer Relationships
It’s easy (and completely normal) for agencies to think “freelancer” when they need a specific piece of work churning out at a moment’s notice that can be offloaded quickly and easily. Don’t get us wrong, there is absolutely a place for that and whether you use a platform like Upwork or Fiverr or happen to have direct freelancer relationships for this type of output, there will always be a demand.
However, over the past few years of working directly with freelancers and agencies to help maximise their partnerships, it’s the agencies that strive to integrate freelancers as a part of the team that really excel and enable themselves to scale quicker than the competition.
When they find good freelancers they cling onto them, empower them to come to them with ideas and, have the respect to pay their invoices on time!
Do you know what the key to these successful relationships is?
Treating freelancers as members of the team who can fill the exact same gaps as a senior level hire, as opposed to seeing them as a one-hit-wonder delivery machine.
Winning Freelancer Partnerships in Action
Here are some real-life scenarios of how of our most forward-thinking agency clients have partnered with senior-level freelancers over the past couple of years that have enabled both their businesses to scale, and their internal teams to skill up:
Scenario: Head of Digital PR moved on
Freelancer Remit: 50% managing and training junior execs and team management, 50% key client strategy. During their time in post, the freelancer reviewed, refined and implemented training processes, and audited internal and pitch documentation, and technical processes. They also trained and developed entry level execs to the point of being self-sufficient with day-to-day deliverables so that once the new Head of PR joined, they had more time to focus on getting to grips with the department, as opposed to focusing solely on executive development. They worked with the agency’s senior leadership team to help shape the job specification for the new Head of PR and sat in on interviews to help shortlist potential candidates.
Scenario: Agency required pitch support for a tender that required SEO as part of the wider service remit. At the time this wasn’t a channel that the internal teams could service.
Freelancer Remit: Competitor and market research to help develop a strong pitch narrative. Working with several internal teams they played an integral part of the pitch team that then went on to win the contract. Once the tender strategy was in flight, the freelancer remained as the delivery arm for that specialism throughout, maintaining client communications and partnering with the agencies team to deliver the wider digital strategy.
Here are the key traits that the above agencies had in common that enabled them to partner so successfully with senior-level freelancers:
- They were willing to let the freelancer into the nitty gritty of their ways of working as opposed to keeping them at arm’s length
- The freelancers stay alongside internal teams as opposed to being seen as a resource for the internal teams
- They humbly took feedback from a senior-level, external fresh pair of eyes and empowered them to suggest changes to their internal ways of working which resulted in advantages way long after the freelancer had moved on
- They had clear goals and briefs from the start and welcomed feedback and suggestions on how to improve their briefing process
Scalability with Flexibility
By having a bank of trusted partners who can deliver significant value at pace, agency’s open themselves up to being able to flex, scale, and pivot faster than the competition who insist on operating under the traditional structure. Yes, absolutely we agree that freelancer day rates trump the day rate of an internal employee. However, here is how we help agencies position and qualify the investment into high quality freelancers:
- In both scenarios noted above, the freelancers were only in post for 2 days per week which doesn’t give someone a great deal of time to make an impact, but when you’re a great freelancer building a great brand for yourself, you’ll get it done; without exception.
- A freelancer should never be seen as a permanent fix. They’re there to solve a complex problem and buy an agency some breathing space to contemplate the next step. Whilst working with a freelancer, agencies should gleam learnings that can be implemented into processes and teams long after the freelancer has moved on.
- Don’t shy away from using senior-level freelancers “on the tools”. For nearly all the freelancers we have spoken to in the last 2 years, one of the main reasons they’ve gone freelance is because they reached a senior level position in agency which meant they were now managing people instead of campaigns. Being back on the tools is what a lot of senior freelancers love, so embrace it!
Embrace Freelancers and Watch Your Agency Fly
In conclusion, partnering with great, senior level freelancers can be a complete game changer for agencies. The key to this is thinking outside the box of how a freelancer can help. Don’t feel constrained to the norm of churn and burn deliverables – allow them in, empower them to spot opportunities and share their knowledge with you and your internal teams. Before you know it your agency will fly without the worry and overheads that come with onboarding a full-time employee.
Ginny Nicholls, Founder – Interim Digital
Ginny is the founder of Interim Digital, a curated community of senior-level, former-agency digital marketing freelancers. Since starting the community in August 2021, Interim Digital has just shy of 100 freelancers across SEO, PPC, Content Strategy and Writing, Social Media, Data and Analytics and multilingual digital marketing, offering ad hoc support to brands and agencies such as IMA x Home, Summit Media, ITG and Better.co.uk.