Agency vs Freelancer. Choosing the right person(s) for your new website.
Posted in Web Design on Wednesday, 3rd August 2011 at 10:02AM
Being a freelancer that has worked closely with agencies in the past I find it interesting what makes people choose one option over the other. They both produce a similar product but come at it from a different angle and often with varying results. Before deciding who is best suited for any particular project there are a few things I would recommend thinking about to ensure you get the right person for the job at the right price.
Without the overheads that larger business' inevitably incur, freelance web developers are often able to keep their rates relatively low. There's only one salary to pay, no premises to rent and no shareholders to demand that profits continue to build year on year. In my experience, sites that I have built on behalf of agencies have been charged out at 2-3 times the figure I would have demanded as a freelancer.
They say 'you get what you pay for' and if you decide to go for an agency, that may well be the case, but make sure you do your research. Most freelance web designers are generalists in that they do a bit of everything that's needed to get your site off the ground. In my case I have become adept at all aspects of web development from front-end design and Flash to back-end coding and SEO but I wouldn't claim to be a world class expert in any of them.
A good agency will invest in web designers, UX designers, illustrators, account handlers, server-side developers and so on, to make sure that the projects they produce are dealt with by an expert every step of the way. Before paying the agency premium find out who will be building your site and make sure that they really are bringing added value to the project.
The safety net
I recently had a discussion with a director of a large company who, when I mentioned I was a freelance web designer, informed me that whilst if it was up to him he would use me for all their websites, he couldn't because using a freelancer for a high profile company just isn't the done thing. His problem was that if he had used me and something had gone wrong, his job would have been on the line for using a freelancer as opposed to an established marketing agency and I could see his point. Big business' are expected to deal with big agencies with big budgets and that's just the way it is.
If an agency works well as a team then it is likely that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts and your website will benefit as a result. This is especially true of large scale projects where there is too much work and expertise needed for any one individual working alone. On the other hand, having so many individuals involved with a project leaves you vulnerable to the failings of any one of them. A superb designer working with awful developer is only ever going to produce a sub-standard website.
Try and speak to at least one previous client before committing yourself to a particular agency and ask them how they found the whole package, from the person taking the initial enquiry to the one that issued the invoice.
For small-medium sized brochure or e-commerce sites, having the planning, design and build stages all coming from one brain can benefit the overall coherence of a project and avoid overcomplicating what should be a simple site. Most competant freelancers posess adequate knowledge and skills to undertake the vast majority of these types of sites but again it is worth checking with previous clients about their experiences.
Getting your questions answered
During the build of your site you are bound to have ideas and questions you will want to bounce off those responsible for building it.
When dealing with an agency you are likely to be dealing with an account handler who is good at managing clients but may have limited knowledge of how the site is actually being made. This has the advantage that you will probably have you enquiry answered quickly by someone who has quite a good understanding of your business and objectives but the downside is that they may not have a clear idea of what is and isn't possible / advisable from a technical point of view. This can lead to the 'Chinese whispers' effect between yourself and the developers where information is innacurately conveyed or answers take a long time in coming. If you get the feeling the person you are speaking to doesn't really understand what they are talking about, cut out the middle man and ask to speak to the person who is actually carrying out the work.
When choosing an agency to work with make sure you look at as many examples of their recent design work as possible. Just because you are paying a high price doesn't guarantee creativity and you can often find that at busy times, the pressure to get the job out the door quickly leads to cookie-cutter templates that are quick to produce but lack originality or suitability for their role.
This can also be a problem for freelancers, although being in control of their own timetables and choosing which jobs they do and do not accept, often leads to more room for creativity. I also know that when creating a design for a client that is going to have my name on it, I want it to be as close to perfection as possible. This isn't usually the case for agency designers who are rarely personally identified as being the creator of a specific design.
Agencies and freelancers are both a decent option for small-medium sized website projects. If you have done your research and feel confident that their recent work is up to scratch and their clients are generally very happy I would let budget decide who gets the work.
For large-scale sites with healthy budgets you may well benefit from the coming together of minds that an agency has to offer. Don't discount using a freelancer, especially if you are looking for a bargain, but make sure they have all the skills to the level that your project requires before signing on the dotted line.