I’ve never worked in an agency

Yes, I’ve never worked in an ad, design or marketing agency before starting my own. That meant I lacked experience when I launched my own 3 years ago.

I didn’t know:

  • How to price my services
  • How to promote myself efficiently and effectively
  • How to handle a sales process from the vendor side

But what I had was the client-side experience. In my previous positions I had to deal with various subcontractors. Today this has helped me a lot to better understand my own clients’ perspective. Their fears, goals and problems.

I will outline a few differences between those 2 sides of the same world.

Note: It is actually not 100% accurate. I did two 6-month internships in agencies, years ago. Both were small (max 6 people), owner managed, local and graphic design oriented. My interest was limited to the graphic design part at that time.

Effort estimation: How much time will I need to create this.

As an employee, you don’t care how much effort it will take for the agency. You want to get the best bang for your buck. And obviously, have it delivered on time.

Also as an employee, I never had to write down the hours spent on each project. Generally, I would still do it, to understand where my efforts would go. Of course, a lot of companies will require you to do it. Especially if it’s a small one or if you work as a consultant (and your organization will charge clients per hour).

As an agency on the other hand, this is truly critical. Not knowing where you spend your time will lead you to a dead end. It helps you understand which client or project is profitable. How much time a typical task takes so that you can estimate better for the next time.

This is why I became good at using Toggl (time tracking app). It allows me to figure out how much time I spend on accounting or writing offers.

Note: I’m still not very good at estimation. I think it has to do with the fact that I don’t have a lot of similar projects. Which doesn’t help with estimating projects or having a perfect project flow. But I love change and new challenges. I guess it’s a tradeoff I’ll have to live with.

Pricing: How much is my service worth?

How much to charge for what you do? How much is an hour of your time worth? Should you charge for a phone call? What do other agencies charge? Should I bill by the hour, project-based or value based?

Those questions still take up quite a lot of my time. But they never did when I was employed.

Self-promotion: show you work.

As an employee, you’ll do some self-promo. But usually, it will be to one person. Your boss. Indeed promoting your work to co-workers and other departments can be helpful too. I would generally do it in a subtle way.

As a freelancer, you have to be much more aggressive. Build a website, write-up case studies, and promote yourself on social media.

You have to deal with the fact that you might not know exactly who you are promoting to.

This will generally take much more time in comparison.

Customer relationship

As an employee, I usually didn’t have to handle external customers. But I had internal ones. For example users of a particular service or marketing managers who needed a particular campaign.

As a freelancer, I only have external ones.

A good aspect is that if one of your customers is furious, he leaves. You get less income. But you still have the other one. As an employee, you annoy the wrong internal customer, you are done. #fired.

Internal politics & powerplay

As an employee, after a couple of weeks, you will be able to understand who makes the decisions. Who can influence those decisions in the different teams and departments.

As an external consultant, you enter a company and usually don’t have a clue who decides. Generally, I will have to do some research beforehand. Reading company organigrams, stalking people on Linkedin…

But this only gives you the “official” information. And the position titles are so confusing nowadays… Who has the best ranking/decision power: the manager? The officer? The specialist? The project leader?

Knowing and understanding this is critical for bigger projects or strategic projects. Discussing and defining a strategy with a marketing officer is of no use when the founder of the company will block it afterwards anyway.

Many more skills

There are plenty of other skills I had to learn which I didn’t learn as an employee. Such as handling finances (accounting, invoicing, retirement plan!), HR, handling partnerships.

On the other hand, what are the skills you’d need as an employee which are of no use as a freelance/agency owner? Can you help me out here?



The cover image of this post is an illustration from my recent codeart experimentations on Instagram.

This article was initially posted in my sunnyletter last year. Subscribe below to be the first to read my new writings.


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