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What’s the difference between a freelancer and an agency?

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So you're in the market for some creative services, whether it be a new or redesigned website, a marketing strategy, advertising or printed material. You may also have an idea about what sort of options you have to choose from: you could choose a creative agency or studio, or a freelancer.

But what exactly is the difference between the two?

One versus many?

On the surface it might seem obvious: an agency or studio is a group of people, whereas a freelancer is just one. With the agency you would have a group of specialists in different fields, and with the freelancer you'd have an all-rounder who may be good at lots of things, but not an expert in any one. But in reality, the two maybe closer together than you might think.

Quite often an agency is run by the principal / founder / director but the rest of the staff are themselves freelancers who are brought in to work on different parts of the project. There might be a writer, a marketer, a graphic designer, and a web developer who may all work together on a project. Different projects will have different requirements so the agency principal would need a network of professionals in different fields to call on.

It's at this point that you find that an agency may not be that much different from a freelancer. A freelancer can't be expected to know and do everything, because it's just one person. So any good freelancer would also have a network of professionals in other creative fields that they can call on to help them with parts of projects that they can't do themselves.

A question of perception

The main difference between the agency and the freelancer would be in how each is presented and the language used in their promotional material. One is presenting as a group, the other as an individual, but the services provided can often be almost identical.

Now of course, not all agencies are like what I've just described: some will have a whole group of full-time staff who work either remotely or have their own premises. But again, the type of work they do is probably not much different from that of the agency who works with a network of freelancers, or the freelancer who also has their own network to call on.

The main difference here is likely to be the volume of work they can produce. An agency employing lots of staff may have multiple project managers on their team which means they can manage more projects simultaneously, whereas a solo-run agency and a freelancer may be undertaking the project management themselves, as well as handling some aspects of the creative work.

Having only a single project manager limits the number of projects that can run concurrently, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It means the same level of attention and care can be directed towards each project, whereas agencies with a large number of projects might find their attention split, their focus less concentrated.

They all want the same thing

And that is, they all want what you want. You've come with a problem and both agencies and freelancers want to solve it. How they achieve the end result might vary, but ultimately it's all about the result you're trying to achieve.

Having said that, it's a well known maxim that the journey is often more important than the destination. Yes, you want the expected result, but if getting to the result is a painful process, it may take some of the gloss off the result, or it may negate the success of the result altogether.

To ensure the journey is as successful as the result will depend on who you choose to accompany you on that journey, and I'll talk about a bit more about that in my next post on how to choose a freelance web developer.

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