Agency vs freelance vs in-house


When tasked with a new brand-building challenge, many marketers question whether we should hire an agency, use or build our in-house team or get a freelancer to help us.


Whether it’s a brand refresh, UX design, copywriting or branded collateral – how can businesses ensure they make the right decision for their brand?


This article discusses the pros and cons of using agencies, freelancers or in-house teams to deliver re-branding, positioning and creative art working for businesses rather than marketing (SEO, Content, or Lead Gen) which have a different set of nuances.



Using a design agency


Most brand design agencies are a hub for harbouring creativity, fresh thinking and innovation. They tend to know what works and what doesn’t by drawing from experience working with and getting results for hundreds of projects for different clients. When businesses work with an agency, they benefit from the skill, expertise, experience and creativity of the entire team – from talented creatives and strategic thinkers to organised project managers – agencies are a one-stop-shop to ensure you have the right ideas and people on the job. As the famous saying goes, there is strength in numbers. They can scale their team up and down; interestingly, if you choose a large agency group or a smaller independent firm, the actual team size on a project is always similar. If you go for a big or smaller agency, they will likely be able to deliver larger projects in a shorter time than a single individual freelancer or the internal team. Have a tight turnaround? They are more likely to be able to help as there is a whole team to ensure pace.


On top of this, if your project requirements span disciplines, an agency can often provide continuity through strategy, design and roll-out. Once they have been able to audit and conduct the necessary research on your business, they will become experts, diagnosing and recommending where you should invest.


Once they understand your business, clients get the best value from an agency through having a strategic partner relationship.


However, sometimes clients can be frustrated by the discovery phase and onboarding phase, which you wouldn’t have from using an internal team.


Gaining continuous support means that the agency team get under the skin of your business; they know how you work, they will strategically spot business challenges that need resolving, be on the pulse of what the market and competitors are doing, and they know what your stakeholders need to see to gain sign off. This reduces the amount of time you’ll need to spend on the briefing, which you likely felt was heavy at the beginning, and the day-to-day projects tend to be managed by the agency rather than by yourself. On top of this, they will become your brand guardians, so you can guarantee a consistent end-customer experience no matter the channel. Fees vary from agency to agency, but generally, this will be your highest-cost option, and there is a risk that you could invest and that the agency won’t get the results you need if you don’t hire the right one. Make sure you reference check with some of their prior clients to avoid this risk.



Using freelancers


Freelancers have a reputation for being very flexible. Being self-employed, freelancers are able to dictate their own working hours, which can work to your benefit as they often are at hand to respond to your late-night edit requests, but also a challenge – for example, they have a holiday booked, and there is no one to cover the work. However, it’s not guaranteed as every individual works differently, so you must check their terms in advance.


One of the most common reasons why businesses would hire freelancers is cost-related. As independent operators, freelancers offer a much lower cost option than hiring a design firm and sometimes the running costs of having an internal team.


It’s sometimes harder to trust an individual than it is to trust a collective. However, as long as you approach it diligently, there is no reason this should be the case. When looking for a freelancer, ask around to see if you can get a recommendation, check out their portfolio and request references. Even agencies require freelance support at busy periods or to call on a particular expertise so its common for them to build a network of trusted partners.


One single freelancer working on a large, multi-faceted job will take a lot longer than a whole team can as they can’t split tasks to work in parallel. Yes, the cost is cheaper, but you must be more patient to see the project through. We’ve found that businesses get the best results when it’s a task that needs doing, for example, roll-out collateral or where the business has more time to complete a specific task.


It’s rare to find a single person who can be great at everything so if you want to go down the freelancer route, be prepared to hire more than one expert and that someone in the business will need to project manage.



How about in-house?


For many businesses, having a strong in-house team is the perfect solution for them. A permanent team means they know your business and your brand inside out, and are often up to date on what your customers want and are looking for. Trust is a key benefit for using the in-house team and there is real transparency of who is working on what and when which is a distinct advantage when you need to move quickly.


Running your own in-house team can be really beneficial in giving a lower cost per project rate and allows tighter creative control of the Head of Brand or CMO to ensure continuity. If you don’t have a team already in place, deciding on the right skill set to bring in-house can be tricky, but a good recruiter should be able to help.


If your business has a smaller team, there can be a limit to what is possible to achieve, and a large volume of work can overwhelm. Whereas an agency can normally flex more easily,
an in-house team can sometimes struggle with a lack of outside perspective (please note this largely depends on past experience of the team you have hired) and structures need to be in place to keep pace with the rest of the industry. Since the teams strategies and ideas are not shared with a third party, the idea’s efficacy is limited to the perspectives available within your internal team.



Making the choice


Just like everything in life – there is no set answer as to which option will work best for your business – it depends on the particular project, the expertise required, the results expected, the budget available, and whether or not your team has the capacity to project manage the job themselves.


It is possible to have a hybrid approach. You can build an in-house design team that can handle swift response activities, often requests from the marketing team on day-to-day brand activities and activations and also employ an agency to take care of tasks that require greater expertise or more strategic thinking. In this way, the teams complement each other.
Your in-house team can also work in sync with an external agency on the same project. Instead of acting as separate teams, your in-house team and agency become two parts of one big design and marketing team.


For example, the agency takes on the strategy of a project and creative ideation of bringing this route to life visually is done collaboratively. To implement this hybrid approach effectively, firstly, you need to make sure that the agency has the right culture of collaboration, and you must set clear roles and expectations for each team. This way, both your in-house team and the agency fully know what they are responsible for.



Confused by what is right for you?


We would recommend detailing out the requirements for the project not from a deliverable perspective but from a results perspective. What does good look like? Who are you targeting? And what results do you need to see? Then work backwards; what are the areas of specialism you need to achieve those? And what they would deliver? This approach will help you clarify what support you need and what will get the most value for your business.


Value doesn’t just means low cost but skills, experience, time saved and targets or impact made.


If you are a large global business trying to turn the ship, it might be worth commissioning an audit research piece to get under the hood of your business and give you the information you need; once everything has been considered, you should be in a solid position to make the best decision for your business.