The Agency Business: Maximizing the benefits of freelancer-agency relationships

When agencies find themselves with more work than their staffs can manage, many turn to freelancers to help ease the burden. Anita Chabria learns how to make the experience valuable for both parties

When agencies find themselves with more work than their staffs can manage, many turn to freelancers to help ease the burden. Anita Chabria learns how to make the experience valuable for both parties

As the PR industry continues to rebound, agencies are finding that they have more work than staff can handle. But lingering doubts about the solidity of this upturn still have many nervous about hiring more people. The solution that more and more shops are turning to is freelance help.

The challenge, however, is locating and managing these kinds of temporary workers. Freelancers are by definition not tied to - and sometimes not loyal to - the agency that cuts their checks. That means that managers have to understand what the freelance relationship entails and how to maximize its benefits for both parties.

The advice given most by experts on successfully working with freelancers is to keep them informed. "It's a similar relationship to what an agency would have when working with a client," says Jim Delulio, president of Southern California recruitment and freelancing staffing agency PR Talent. "It's better when there is more transparency."

Michael Volpatt, partner of New York and San Francisco-based Larkin/ Volpatt Communications, agrees. His agency uses a freelancer for media pitching, and he says, "We probably talk two or three times a day."

In addition to keeping in phone contact, many agency heads say that integrating freelance staff into the everyday events of the firm is also important. That means keeping them informed about other accounts and internal matters. At Kansas City, MO-based Ink, agency CEO Dick Grove says, "We literally don't call them freelancers. You want that person to feel that they are very much a part of what we are doing."

His agency gives freelancers access to the company intranet and includes them in brainstorming sessions - even for accounts they don't work on. Tom Woolf, director of San Francisco-based Allison & Partners, adds group e-mails to the list of ways to keep in touch.

"Technology is your friend," he says.

When it comes to finding good freelance help, many agency heads look to their own Rolodexes. Grove points out that even the most senior-level PR pros can find themselves between jobs or looking for more flexibility in their work. Networking keeps him informed of when these past acquaintances might be available for assignments.

Volpatt adds that, by sticking with people he knows personally, or at least knows of, there is a greater trust factor.

"The best way to go about it is to turn to people we know," he says.

But even with a personal connection, most experts agree that hiring a freelancer should be about the same as hiring an employee. Because the person will still be representing the agency, finding the right fit is critical.

"When we hire [freelancers], we screen them pretty well so that they will fit into our culture," says Grove. "We have several interviews via telephone, if not in person, because I want to make sure the chemistry works."

But Delulio cautions that while it's important to find the right person, it's also critical to remember that they are not part of the agency, but, in fact, are running their own business. That means that they are often handling more than one "client" agency at a time and have to have limits about how much time and access they can give.

"Understand how they operate," he says, adding that while it's important to respect the boundaries, it's equally important not to undervalue what a freelancer can offer.

"Sometimes agencies are looking for freelancers just to do media relations," he says. "But they've got a lot to offer in terms of strategy and creativity and planning."

Grove agrees and says that he looks for "senior-level" freelancers with 10 to 15 years of experience.

Those that hire freelancers point out that the pay range separating lower-level staff from more experienced freelancers isn't that great, making it easier to hire top-level talent. Delulio says that an SAE-equivalent person might ask for $80 to $90 an hour, while someone at a much higher experience level will ask $110 to $150 an hour.

While freelancers make a lot of sense in this economy, Woolf also issues a word of caution. He likes to keep his freelancers away from direct client contact because he doesn't want clients associating their service with a worker who might not always be available.

"In most cases, I find it's better to insulate the freelancers," he says.


Making the most of freelancers

  • Keep freelancers in the loop. You can't share too much information

  • Look for people you know. This helps create a smoother relationship

  • Don't underestimate freelancers' skill levels

  • Don't hire casually. Make sure freelancers fit into the agency's culture

  • Respect that freelancers are in effect running their own business
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