Tonic Consulting Group
Your Freelancers Want to Love You
Photo: The author, a few clients and a lot of freelancers following the completion of a private event in Orlando, February 1992.
As career agency and event industry guys, we’ve always embraced the important role freelancers play as an agency will never have ALL of the people in place exactly when they need them. Whether it was more of the roles we had on staff – Producers, Creatives, Designers - or folks with highly-focused expertise, our freelancers were essential to our success - and we had a lot of success!
We both were Directors of Production, and a key responsibility was finding freelancers, casting them on the right projects and nurturing our agency’s relationship with them. It wasn’t unusual that they also worked with multiple agencies – often the competition – and we wanted to earn their trust and loyalty. When they had a choice of who to work for, we wanted our call to be the one they answered.
At this time we believe your ability to access great freelancers is going to be more important than ever. Despite an increase in demand, many agencies are slow to hire, and it's the most challenging time we've seen recruiting talent for full-time roles. As a result, full-time staff may quickly become overloaded.
So freelancers will be critical to any agency’s success, and what we’re seeing is that experienced, talented freelancers – especially those with digital chops – are in high demand. Yet, one of the advantages of being a successful freelancer is having a choice of where to work.
Will you be their choice?
To help you understand how to make your agency more “freelancer friendly”, we asked a large group of freelancers – Creatives, Producers, Designers – to weigh in on what they believe is necessary for great Agency & Freelancer relationships. So in their words, here are some answers to four important questions:
1. What do you need in order to have a good relationship with an agency?
Clear and consistent communication!
I think trust and communication are the most important factors. It's ironic that we're in the communications business, yet the establishment of strong agency/freelancer communication is often overlooked. Trust builds slowly and works best when I can have a personal relationship with my agency contacts. Once that trust is established, I know I can depend on the agency to have my back at all times and -- by the same token -- I do whatever it takes to make their clients happy and bring them as much success as I can through my work.
I'd choose a low-budget project with excellent agency trust and communication over a lavish production where you don't really know who you're dealing with.
The most important aspect of a successful relationship with an agency is clarity of the freelancer’s role on the team. Each agency I’ve worked with has their own working processes, with unique expectations of the role of the freelancer within their team. Agencies don’t always know how to articulate their process or what their expectations are, leaving the freelancer to discover what their role is “along the way.”
The best relationships I’ve had as a freelancer are when I’ve received clear direction on what’s expected and good support from the agency throughout the project. For example, the client communication protocol is clearly addressed at the beginning of the project and Agency templates for schedules, agenda, etc. are organized and provided as tools to hit the ground running.
The agency lets me do my best work by not gatekeeping or overly controlling the direct client relationship between the freelance Executive Producer and direct client contacts.
I ask for regular team check-ins, I request access to any channel the FT staffers are using to talk about or track the project. I'm not afraid to have those tough "hey, please check with me before you assume I'm able to work on something" conversations --- but this burden shouldn't (and CAN'T) solely fall on freelancers.
2. What do you wish agencies understood about working with freelancers?
Freelancers are there to help the agency deliver to the client. Our reputation is key for our continued success. We’re motivated to do our best work to represent the agency with the hope of being hired again. Some agencies are distrustful of freelancers and keep us on the outside. It works better if we’re considered a trustworthy extension of the internal team.
Since we’re not full-time employees, we have multiple clients and projects going on most of the time. It’s important that we’re given realistic time-frames and workable budgets. It’s also important that we can work during work hours, and not around the clock.
As freelancers, we understand the hierarchy and the unwritten rule that we never work for a client directly that we’ve met through you.
As individuals (or very small businesses) cash flow is important. So please honor our invoices and net payment terms. The older I get, the more disrespectful I find financial complacency from an agency.
We need a solid understanding of the agency tools, resources, document templates, etc. before we start a project or we should be provided an internal resource to partner with for those needs.
An on staff “champion” is essential for the freelancer. Somebody who’s got your back and giving you real time feedback – both good and bad – for the work that you’re doing and how that works is being perceived by the team. When you’re in the room with a team this is much easier to read, but in virtual meetings direct unfiltered feedback becomes more important. Frequent check ins with your “champion” helps identify friction points early and allows the freelancer to adjust their product to better meet expectations.
I had often wished the on-boarding and off-boarding with agencies was more seamless and clearer. I know that agencies can be big, thousand-cog-machines, and you quickly just become one of the moving parts, but I've several times found myself starting day 1 of a contract with little to no direction or work to be done, or lack of clarity to what is needed of me. The same goes for closing out a project – it's nice to know where your work stands with the agency, rather than being left in the dark as to how the work has been perceived/utilized/implemented
3. Have you had a standout relationship that’s been your blueprint for how it’s supposed to be done? What was at its core?
At the core it’s trust. Being trusted to have a voice at the table and being listened to.
One agency stands out where they are very buttoned up internally. They clearly communicate their expectations for freelancers at every stage of production. When we get on site, leaders aren’t overburdened. Executive Producers lead a team meeting each day. Someone is always in the production office. If anything comes up, they’re immediately on it with a team of production assistants at the ready. Whether it’s during pre-production or on- site, there's no question who to go to if needed.
Best agency relationships are when I'm given autonomy to hire in the best resources I personally can recruit to ensure a solid and efficient team or when the agency has taken the time to properly onboard me and knows team dynamics such that a staff (and partially freelance) team is assembled. Also it’s best when there is a solid level of trust and division of labor with the account person.
My favorite agency is excellent at keeping things fun, positive, and mutually rewarding. They frequently ask in email as well as verbally what they can be doing differently to improve the experience. They formally ask for feedback on what could have gone better at the end of each large project.
It’s been the ability to collaborate and understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses and mutual needs.
4. What prompts you to end, or pause, an agency relationship?
The account executive has too much power and manipulates numbers to sell the work without consulting with the freelance EP, or they make promises to the client that effects the budget. They're always saying “yes” without consideration.
I don’t negotiate on price. I appreciate you being squeezed by your client and they need to do it better/faster/cheaper but I can’t absorb that budget cutting as a sole practitioner. An agency that doesn't respect that "the rate is the rate" is not a partnership that works.
Usually it’s a boundaries thing. When an agency doesn’t respect my time (e.g. scheduling client meetings without asking or my avails first), or changes scope without acknowledging that I didn’t sign up for the (often much bigger) commitment and may not be available. The biggest challenge with this work is the “in for a dime, in for a dollar” nature. I don’t mind being asked when things change. But agencies too often assume and don’t ask once you’re on the bus.
Unrealistic expectations without the proper resources or being under-supported. I'm all about efficiency so agencies working in the dark ages without templates and with layers of personnel are a big turn-off for me.
If I’m not having fun, if I’m not given enough time to comfortably do my best work, and if I am not given a budget that allows me to earn a decent living, then I stop prioritizing certain clients. Life is too short to not have fun, to not have a well-rounded life with time to relax and sleep, and to not make money commensurate with one’s skills and value provided.
Trust. Communication. Respect. Clarity.
It’s easy right?
What we’ve experienced are the agencies with some of the strongest, most functional freelance relationships have leaders who make their agencies easy to work for: they spend time on process, remove roadblocks and make clarity a priority. And not surprisingly, they also treat their staff and suppliers like they want to be treated by clients: not as transactions, but as leaders and valuable team members. It's no surprise they’re usually very profitable and have successful, long-term client relationships.
This is a mindset that starts at the top and becomes part of your brand to your freelance partners. And don’t think they’re not paying attention – they know whose call to answer.