Belief in the Agency Model from a Career Freelance Designer

From agency to freelancing and back again: Why this designer thinks agency life is better.

Let’s start with a little background. Fresh out of college, I decided that becoming part of a creative agency was the way to go. Some guy named Joe decided I might be a good fit for his team. That proved to be a good fit: On day one, I was instantly working on projects for high level clients. For four years, I worked on anything I could get my hands on to gain all the experience I could. It was tiring, but worth it. Pretty fun, too.

Now, for graphic designers, there’s always work. Mostly, of course, from your boss at the agency, but also from friends, and friends of friends. And once you say “yes” and see some extra cash, it gets harder to say “no.” Before long, you’re working two full-time jobs—your day job plus your “side hustle.”

Problem number one with the freelance model: When both jobs involve all creative work, it wears you down. Continuing down that path forces your hand—either keep the day job or explore the new opportunity. Being independent and self-confident, I opted to embark on a 13-year freelance career.

Freelancing had its perks, but also a major drawback: I was always at work. Without a steady paycheck, I was forced to chase almost every piece of business that came my way. Soon, I was working around the clock, and cool creative projects seemed like less of the mix. Invoicing, client management, a host of details—they started taking up more time than designing. After a while, fun levels dropped, burnout levels rose. That’s when I noticed I was doing what felt like a disservice to my clients, my family, and myself. Change was warranted.

Over the years, Joe (remember him?) and I stayed close—he’d been gracious enough to let me run my one-man operation in an open office in his agency. That was my daily front row seat for watching the energy and talent diversity that the agency possessed. Clients and projects were properly organized and managed, leaving designers to design. This model became more and more attractive as time progressed, until I eventually agreed to plug back into the Matrix.

The original plan was to integrate my freelance customers into the agency model. Idealistically, I assumed that most of my larger clients would benefit greatly from doing so, justifying the additional cost.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Unknowingly, I had created the model that made this impossible. As the one and only contact point, I was open 24 hours…I bent over backwards in an attempt to make clients happy…I tried to be everything to everyone. In the end, shifting back to the agency led to severing almost all ties with the previous 13 years of work.

As scary as that sounds, it turned out to be an exciting opportunity. In fact, it reinforced my sense that my decision was the right one: having a team around me to collaborate with, I was able to once again focus on what I do best and enjoy most.

What’s better? For me, four things stand out:

Consistency:

The agency is definitely fast paced, but also consistent. In general, I have a start time and an end time. There’s satisfaction in being able to disconnect when I leave the office every afternoon. As a freelancer, keeping clients happy meant vacations, nights, and weekends fell by the wayside. At one point, I didn’t take a vacation without a laptop for ten years.

Collaboration:

Focus is critical for creativity. Being able to work on a single project at a time results in better final products. Working with a team of designers is a process of shared workloads and funneling projects to the people with skill sets that best match requirements. As an added bonus, you can exchange ideas with other designers on their work and yours. Very cool.

Roles:

Like I mentioned, as a freelancer, every responsibility falls on your shoulders: Sales, marketing, concepting, design, production, edits, billing, meetings, fallout, and other curveballs out of the blue. Frankly, while I consider myself a good designer, I’m a terrible account manager and number cruncher. But these days, my role is more distinct and my talents are entirely devoted to playing the part I enjoy.

Offerings:

As an independent, you’re forced to limit what you can offer clients. In turn, you can only attract smaller clients or small portions of projects with larger clients. On the other hand, full-service agencies provide everything from strategy to execution—which means opportunities open up. So, on a personal level, I learn new skills working at Bigfish. Turns out interacting with smart teammates—developers, writers, managers, vendors—is refreshingly mind expanding.

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About the author

Ryan Carr

Ryan’s experience crafting exceptionally communicative and thoughtful designs for clients spans two [...]