When I was working for an advertising agency in Mauritius called Circus Advertising, the Art Director from Ogilvy in the Middle East came to our office and delivered an inspirational speech. He said something that has stuck with me over all these years.

Freelancer working
Photo by A L L E F . V I N I C I U S Δ on Unsplash

Projecting his presentation on the wall, he showed an image of a knife and a sharpener. He said that the agency is the knife and the customer is the sharpener; the interaction between the two is what creates magic.

I think the same analogy can apply between the agency and the freelancer.

The agency knows the client, and the client has briefed the agency on the project. Therefore, the agency takes the interim role of being the sharpener.

The agency then uses the freelancer to bring their creative freedom to produce out-of-the-box, innovative artwork. In this instance, the freelancer becomes the knife.

While collaborations between agencies and freelancers can create magic, it’s inevitable that friction can also occur. The question is then: how do you get the partnership to work frictionlessly?

Today, I work as the content marketing manager at Mynewsdesk. I’ve ordered numerous projects from agencies and freelancers. And although this little anecdote of the knife and sharpener was 14 years ago, I find it to be still relevant.

Below are my takeaways on how to create a fruitful relationship between agencies and freelancers.

1. Sit in on client meetings

The freelancer’s responsibility is to be cutting-edge and push the limits of creativity.

However, the agency’s responsibility is to refine those ideas and align them with the client’s expectations and what resonates best with the client’s customers.

Jennifer Aniston saying 'sit'

After all, the agency should be in a position to understand their client’s customers best.

Lesson no. 1—So however creative you would like to be, remember that the agency knows their client’s customers more than you do. Take their feedback seriously and listen attentively.

If you are a freelancer working for an agency, ask to sit in on meetings to get a better understanding of their client’s consumer markets.

2. Insist that you get briefed correctly

We mentioned the agency’s responsibility is to align your design concepts with the client’s expectations and target audience.

Cartoon gif of animal painting

However brilliant your design concepts may be, the quality doesn’t matter if the designs are not in-line with what the customer needs. If the agency doesn’t correctly understand their client’s customer base or are weak at communicating their client’s expectations, you as a freelancer will struggle to deliver exceptional graphic-design work.

Lesson no. 2—If the agency fails to brief you correctly, you will struggle to meet not only their expectations but also the audience they wish to target. I’m sure all of you have experienced this before.

To avoid such mishaps, insist that the agency provides you with a thorough briefing document.

And if there is anything that is unclear or unrealistic, don’t be shy to communicate your concerns and correctly manage their expectations before the start of the project.

3. Don’t be shy to manage expectations

Tommy Wiseau saying 'we're expecting'

From my experience, any given person at an agency may have very little knowledge or insights into your creative process as a graphic designer. They may expect you to wave your wand and create magic. However, having worked together with many graphic designers, I know that creativity doesn’t come quickly and often is a time-consuming and painful process.

When I was working at an agency, I often sat down next to our graphic designer so that I could get a better appreciation of the time it took them to do things. That simple step opened my eyes and made me much more understanding. Consequently, I was able to manage client expectations more effectively.

Lesson no. 3—Be transparent about your creative process and limitations. Realize that the more open you are with the agency regarding what you can and cannot do, and the more you explain why, the better the cooperation will be in the long run.

Also, if possible go to the agency’s physical location and do your work there. Show the account manager the work you are doing and the amount of time it takes to do it; this will pay off.

4. Communicate and update regularly

Having worked on many projects with freelance graphic designers, I have found that the more frequent communication, the better.

'I was trying to communicate without words, but it's not working'

We all know the stress that ensues when you go to check on the status of a project and confront worrying silence. If you’re an agency, accountable for keeping a client happy, you start to worry that the freelancer isn’t going to deliver what you needed for the project.

Lesson no. 4—Reassure the agency by keeping them up to date regularly on what you are doing and where you are in the process. Inform them about the stages in your process and when they could expect to receive the deliverables. It all comes down to good project management.

There are a dozen collaboration and project management tools, some more advanced than others. Slack, Trello, Asana,  Jira, TeamGantt (or even a simple Google/Excel sheet can do) are a few of many useful tools one could use.

Break down the various steps in your project to small items; allocate who is responsible for what, when you will deliver each piece and when you expect feedback from the agency.  Try to add extra time to your plan for any contingency and inform in advance if the project timeline will change due to unmet deadlines.

5. Take time to look back and evaluate the project

One thing I have never tried with freelancers and which I would now recommend to do is a retrospective of the project.

At Mynewsdesk, we work in two-week sprints and have adopted the agile approach. After each race, we carry out what’s called a retro to look at three things:

  • What went well?
  • What did not?
  • Can we improve anything going forward?

If you want to learn more about how to run a retrospective, check out this post.

Lesson no. 5—There is always room for improvement, and this process is great to get constructive feedback. As a freelancer, I would strongly recommend that you take the time with the agency to go over these questions. And more importantly, take note of how you and the agency can improve your collaboration and processes for the next project.

Keep your collaboration skills sharp

As a graphic designer, remember that your work will be mediocre if the agency fails to understand their client and fails to provide you with a good creative brief. As the art director said to me that day in Mauritius, every knife needs a good sharpener. Remember, nobody creates exceptional work in a vacuum; collaborations do.

Christopher Van Mossevelde
About the author

Christopher Van Mossevelde is the global content marketing manager at Mynewsdesk. He has over 16 years of experience in marketing and communications and has an international background, having lived in South Africa, Mauritius, France and now Sweden.