Time is money: Hiring a creative agency versus a freelance designer

“How much is this going to cost?” is probably what every CEO I have ever presented a design or marketing proposal to has asked. So dressed in numbers and spreadsheets like belts of ammunition, I’ve learned to adjust how I talk to head honchos.

After all, it’s an understandable question. To a newcomer, trying to understand the creative world is a bit like attending a white party without getting the memo to wear white. It makes a person fixate on pinpointing design’s return on investment, and it pigeonholes creative as an expense, rather than an asset.

Creative services is a broad term that includes a myriad of things, from brand identity and strategy, to marketing and advertising, to design and user experience. Before looking for someone to work with on a creative project, it’s critical to understand exactly what your business needs. Regardless of who you team up with, good creative input should be rooted in brand intelligence, while delivering fresh ideas and clear business opportunities.

Cost cannot be the driver when tackling creative projects, especially when making that first important decision to partner with an agency or a freelance designer. So it’s quite funny that when I sat down with Cherie Lim, senior art director of digital product design at DirecTV, and Arnaldo Capo, senior application engineer at White Ops, to discuss the difference between agencies and freelancers, cost was one of the first topics discussed.

“Money is the wrong lens to look through,” says Lim. “You can always find the right agency or the right designer for the right price. The key is to find work that matches your vision for the brand. If you’re worried about budget, then start backward, and identify those key deliverables.”

This can be a hard pill for a businessperson to swallow, but process, quality, and value are the most important things to consider when deciding who to work with. This is because creating quality design systems that are rooted in your brand’s strategy has absolutely nothing to do with money. For every good designer, there are 10 mediocre ones, and also 30 great ones that are completely wrong for your brand.

“Everyone knows what Mercedes is, right? It’s kind of luxurious, very metallic,” says Lim. “If you’re Mercedes, would you hire the design team who did the advertising campaign for the Beetle? It’s a much safer bet to hire the person who did Lexus, because the brand mirrors that same tone of luxury.”

Websites like dribbble.com and cargocollective.com have made it easier than ever to search for freelance designers that fit your brand’s unique tone of voice. Whether you are selecting a creative agency or a designer, your search criteria should remain the same. There’s a misconception that design agencies generate higher quality work than freelancers. While an agency may have diversity and breadth of work, a freelancer is going to be really great at that one thing they do—and at the end of the day, that’s exactly what matters.

“But I still don’t understand who to hire. The freelancer or the agency?” I explain to Lim and Capo, feeling unresolved, yet sensing my question was quickly becoming moot. It suddenly felt like I was wearing magenta at a white party.

Capo and Lim laugh conspiratorially. “An agency could deliver the best design or the [worst] design, and so could a freelancer,” responds Capo. “It’s just that their services are different. And the process will likely be simpler if you work with an agency.”

I felt like we were finally on to something: process and procedure are sometimes overlooked, but they are truly game changers, smoothing every iteration of a creative project throughout its development. Whether you’re CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a mid-level marketing manager, or an entrepreneur just starting out, time is money, and process saves time.

“When you go to a club, do you want bottle service? Or do you want to go up to the bar and fight for a drink?” asks Lim.

I listen closely as Capo starts laughing. He clearly knows exactly where this is going.

“In either scenario, the amount of alcohol you’re going to get is the same, and the amount of drunk you’re going to get is the same,” she explains. “But do you want to go to the bar and hustle for your vodka tonic, or would you rather sit, pay a premium, and have the vodka tonic come to you?”

Capo finishes Lim’s thought. “The agency is always going to bring the vodka to you. All you have to do is pour the vodka.”

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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