Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Market Advantages of a Freelancer

An older article originally written for Creative Latitude, I am including it on graphicPUSH for posterity.

This was an article I originally wrote for Creative Latitude some time ago. For whatever reason it never made it to this site, so I am including it for posterity. Reading it through again I realize that some of the words might be harsh, and I have since come to appreciate good agency work, but at the time I was stunned by the tidal wave of crap I was seeing from small agencies.

Anyway, here ya go …

A Quick Story

I used to work at the in-house design group for a company that manufactured women’s hosiery and undergarments. As so often happens, upper management decided to outsource some of the creative work, so they commissioned a direct mail agency to produce a tri-fold brochure introducing a new product line, and as a separate project, a freelance designer to develop a new catalog.

The two endeavors launched simultaneously. We received the first comps in about a week, and the first version from the freelancer was rough but usable. The first comp from the agency, however, was a disaster. The firm had obviously put no thought into the design, and a piece that was supposed to introduce a series of therapeutic undergarments looked more like a power drill brochure for Home Depot. Marketing was anything but pleased, and our Creative Director sent the agency back to the drawing board.

Another week or so went by. The freelancer handed in her revision, which was exponentially improved, and marketing was happy. The agency delivered their revision. Except for a few font changes and some half-hearted starbursts, the design was exactly the same. Everyone was in a roar — we were spending thousands on a brochure that was, so far, completely unusable.

After another week, the freelancer turned in her piece; marketing made a few changes and it was off to the printer. The agency delivered another version of the therapeutic brochure. Unbelievably, hardly anything was changed — the harsh orange and blue still generated comments about power tools — and they demanded more money for “all the time” they spent on the piece. After an emergency conference call that included our VP of Marketing, the agency was fired. (Also true to management, that company continues to contract work out to other agencies.)

The Freelancer Stigma

The above example is only an anecdote of a theme I continue to witness on a regular basis. Independent freelancers often outperform agencies in quality, price and timeliness, yet they continue to lose their bread and butter work like small businesses, new start-ups and lower-budget assignments to the large, “do everything” advertising companies.

This is a result of several factors. In the mind of some clients inexperienced in contracting creative work, the word “freelancer” can carry a certain stigma, like the designer is some sort of rogue graphic artist that bucks authority, ignores specs and misses deadlines. Clients make assumptions like “agencies have more experienced designers” or “agencies will give my project the time it deserves.” In addition, the average freelancer often sells their skills and advantages poorly; they focus too much on past work instead of what they can bring to the table today. By nature, freelancers are independent and often busy, and they simply do not have the time to combat biases.

The goal of this article is to help educate both freelancers and their potential clients on the qualitative and quantitative benefits of hiring a “rogue” designer. Since each client and project is a case-by-case study, it would be impossible to compile a perfect list, but I’ve grouped a few key advantages into categories broad enough that any marketable freelancer will easily be able to fill in the blanks, compile them, and spin the ideas into a killer sales pitch.


A client considering a contract with a one-person design shop might suspect they would be at a disadvantage if a project goes sour. This is true from a certain perspective, but when a freelancer takes on a project, they put their career, reputation and livelihood on the line, and will do everything in their power not to let a project fall apart.

If the worst ever comes to bear, the client knows there is only one person responsible, and they know exactly who to call. The designer cannot defer fault to a project manager, print buyer, traffic coordinator, creative director or some other person associated with the project.

Freelancers understand they are singularly in charge of seeing a project through to the end, and that creates a valuable sense of ownership and personal responsibility.

Personal Experience

When a client assigns a project to a freelancer, they are creating a personal, one-on-one partnership. There is no middleman for the clients to go through; the individual doing the design is the same that answers the phone. Without the wall of receptionists, assistants, project managers, consultants, account execs, marketing specialists and coffee makers, ideas are more clearly and effectively communicated, work is completed faster and there are less people on the design end mucking about a project with revisions and “suggestions.”

Most freelancers directly handle other aspects of their business as well. If a client has a question about an invoice, they call the freelancer — not an accounting department — and they can usually get a straight answer quickly.

The personal experience is very important to a small business owner. They like knowing exactly who their vendors are, and that includes graphic designers as much as it does accountants and legal advisors, even if a designer’s skills are called upon just once. These are situations where meeting in person goes a long way toward building a professional relationship.

Cost Effective

Through pure logistics, a freelancer will almost always be more cost effective than a large agency. Unless the individual specializes in a true niche market (high-end character animation, for instance), their invoices will be substantially lower. This is a real, tangible advantage, especially over the long run when a client uses the same freelancer for multiple projects.

If a client requests a series of magazine ads from an agency, the project will run through a project manager, a designer, art director, creative director and an outside photographer, and the client will pay the hourly fee of each. Those ads have to cover the salaries of everyone involved, plus administrative time, materials and business overhead (like the building lease, equipment costs, etc).

With a freelancer, the project brings in two people: the designer and the photographer. Since freelancers often work from home and don’t use huge amounts of equipment, there is no bloated overhead to pad the invoice. This translates to tremendous savings — easily thousands of dollars for most projects.

Time and Effort

For a big company that constantly requires design work (a chain of restaurants for instance), an agency is the natural destination — they can deliver huge quantities of great creative in small amounts of time, and they are very good at catering to large accounts. A project manager colleague said she regularly handles about thirty simultaneous projects for just one of her three highest volume accounts.

Unfortunately, the time of most agency graphic artists is stretched very thin, and smaller clients can get “back-burnered” because they might not have priority.

Freelancers typically work for smaller businesses or on smaller segments of larger projects, so they are able to devote much more time into a piece. When an agency employee is juggling thirty open items for Chatchkee’s nationwide restaurant franchise, the brochure for Bill’s Ocean Side Bed and Breakfast might barely get an hour or two of creative attention before being shipped to the printer. Predictably, the results can be just a little under whelming.

In what seems almost contradictory, freelancers are able to turn creative around faster, even though they may spend more time on a piece. Rush projects can be delivered in two days and still win awards. A client calls a freelancer directly for last minute changes and they can be made in less than an hour. A client who tries to get the same results from an agency will quickly discover even the smallest alteration can go through four or more people before actually getting to the designer. (And often goes through the same four again before being returned to the client for approval.)

Experience and Specialization

Almost no designer enters their profession freelancing. In fact, most begin years into their design career, often after working for several different agencies or in-house design groups. Many come from high level art director or creative director positions, and others retain full-time design jobs. This practical, real-world experience they bring to the table is irreplaceable; designers who have been around the block a few times can communicate directly with printers, bring in copywriters, or consult with clients about designing a website.

In most cases, freelancers are very niche-oriented, and their expertise comes through years of specialization. Some designers focus regionally, choosing to work with local companies for provincial campaigns, or by market, such as healthcare, real estate or education, and often by medium, like print, packaging or web. It is not uncommon to find a freelance designer that focuses on websites for real estate agents, or one that concentrates on print catalogs for private universities, or one that produces advertising for pharmaceutical companies. One of the most flourishing designers I know only does labels for winemakers in Australia, and he is often engaged to the point of turning away business.

This army of uniquely trained and specialized professionals provides a healthy buying market. Clients have their choice of designers, and if their work requires a particular niche market specialist, chances are there is a graphic artist dedicated to that exact medium. This not only results in better creative, but ample opportunities for the client to consult with the designer for recommendations, market analysis and branding strategies.

Choosing Wisely

Although this article focuses on the positive, business-impacting benefits of freelancers, it must be clearly pointed out that not all freelancers are created equal. There are too many people who label themselves “freelancers,” who in reality are frighteningly uneducated and sorely inexperienced individuals who can do a lot of damage to the creative industry. A company running into one of these designers can easily be burned, either through mediocre creative work, inappropriate and uneducated charging, or just plain bad business practices.

The professional freelancer must market himself as he wants to be perceived. Targeted and well-groomed portfolios are a must. Prepared case studies that focus on past successes also work well — larger companies employ this tactic constantly because it works. But the most important angle of marketing is to focus on the client at hand — what you can do for them today, and how your services and your talent will help their business grow.

The best tactic is to create value beyond a monetary figure. If the client is confident in your skills and professionalism, he will choose you over the next person in line, even if they offer a better price, every time.

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Tuesday November 15, 2005

You have touched a raw nerve with me and I love it.

I must always shave before working in-house. When I’m at home, I may be hairier.


wrote the following on Tuesday December 6, 2005

Great article. I’ve been a long time reader but this has to be my first comment. You hit the nail on the head. Keep up the good work.