5 Signs a Freelance Writer Should Become an Agency

Carol Tice

Freelance writer has hired a team to write for himIf you’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men, you might start to dream of expanding your freelance writing business into an agency. That show certainly makes working at an ad agency seem glamorous, no?

The agency model sounds alluring. You find clients, then sit back, let others do the work, give it a quick little edit, and boom — make a big cut of the fee.

Or at least that’s the dream, as expressed by this writer who recently wrote me looking for input on his plan:

“I’m starting a writing and editing business.  My business model is to outsource to trusted friends and people in my network who are willing to help.  They all have advanced degrees, are amazing writers, and are also subject-matter experts.

“Can you give me your take on outsourcing?”  -Evan

Sure, I can: Starting a freelance business from scratch with the idea that you will instantly be an agency is not going to work.

The agency model works when there is a high volume of projects, as 50 percent or more of the pay will be going to other people. The volume needs to be high enough that by taking a 30-70 percent markup on each gig, you can make a living.

Needing to charge more to cover both the writer’s fee and your own cuts the client pool down. You’ll need to find bigger companies, in general, with the budgets to pay these bigger fees.

Especially if you’re hiring your friends, it’s going to be hard to take a big markup, as you’ll want to pay them well.

To sum up this little math exercise, you might need three or four times as much work or more to make close to the living you would have if you simply wrote for a smaller stable of clients.

Why newbies can’t be an agency

The big problem is, when you first start out, it’s hard to find clients. Any clients. Much less good-paying ones.

It takes a lot of marketing hustle to get those first few clients. Then, it takes more time to find good-paying ones that have a steady stream of work.

Give up most of the income from your writing gigs at this point, and you won’t have much left.

That is not to say that writers should never switch to the agency model. Some have done so quite successfully.

How do you know it’s time to consider becoming an agency? Here are five clues:

1. You have too much work

You’ve built your freelance business and you’re working too many hours now. Or you’re turning down gigs and leaving money on the table…money you might keep some of if you hired subcontractors.

You have enough client volume that you could earn a better living keeping a percent of all that than you do turning down gigs and writing only the best ones yourself.

2. You love marketing & have a great rep

When you’re an agency, you have more mouths to feed. You can’t ever have downtime, or your stable of writers will drift away and possibly be unavailable the next time you need them.

You want to have enough contacts that tapping them will bring you a large volume of ongoing projects. Your network will want to send you clients because you’ve established your credibility as a freelance writer and have a great reputation.

Barring having an amazing network up your sleeve, you’ll need sharp marketing skills and an eagerness to devote many hours to marketing and finding clients.

3. You know many freelance writers

While the writer above imagines his business can run off the aid of his personal writer friends, that path is fraught with problems. Are you going to be able to tell your best friend the client hates their writing and the copy all needs to be rewritten? Do you think you can even be objective about your friends’ writing?

What you need as an agency head are professional contacts with lots of writers.

Remember that good writers are often fully booked. They may not be available when you need them, or at rates you can afford to pay as an agency.

4. You like managing people

This one is important. As an agency head, you won’t be writing. You’ll be shepherding projects.

Your job is to:

  • talk to the client and find out everything needed to do the gig
  • find and hire suitable writers
  • train them up on your needs and the writing needs of this client
  • keep them on track
  • call them when they blow their deadline
  • call another writer when that writer flakes out
  • stay up all night editing the late work to make deadline
  • explain to the client why their project is late

…and so on.

You are a manager. Do you communicate clearly? It’s important because now you’re playing telephone — often, you’re talking to the client and then telling the writer what they said. The writer has a question which you relay to the client, and then relay back the answer.

There is more opportunity for miscommunication than when you were writing for clients, so you need really stellar skills here.

5. You prefer editing to writing

Unless you hire an editor as well, you will be combing through your writers’ work and getting it in shape to be turned in to clients.

You might think that’ll be an easy gig due to your awesome writers, but don’t bet on it. You’d be surprised the junk even pro writers turn in on occasion.

There’s also the issue of changing client needs and priorities, where they assigned 1,000 words but they’ve decided last-minute they want 750. Guess who’s going to fix that? You.

Why I’m not an agency

As it happens, I’ve asked myself these questions, starting back in mid-2011. I’d built my freelance writing business so big that I had way more leads than I could handle myself. It’s great to be able to pick and choose your clients…but I’d reached a point where I was turn down some nice offers.

I scaled back on active marketing, but I was still turning away leads that came from my writer website and LinkedIn profile.

As I thought about it, I realized I’d been on the other end of this equation — I’d been a subcontractor for another writer who’d just gone to the agency model. Formerly a very successful corporate speechwriter, as an agency the man was a complete mental case, routinely screaming at and randomly firing some of his new ‘team’ almost every week.

Recalling how unhappy he was trying to manage my project convinced me becoming an agency was a stress nightmare I wanted to avoid.

I don’t enjoy managing people and editing as much as I enjoy writing, and most of the good writers I know wouldn’t want to write for lower-than-usual rates to be subcontractors.

It’s harder to get and keep good subs than the writer above imagines.

Instead, I focused on raising my rates and being selective about client projects as my route to higher pay. And I send my extra leads to the Freelance Writers Den job board.

Yes, I could keep those gigs and take a cut, but I believe the headaches would not be worth it.

Ever considered becoming an agency, or worked for another writer? Share your experience in the comments.

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  1. John Soares

    Carol, like you I’ve also decided I don’t want to run an agency. There are times I’ve had more potential work than I can handle, but I just don’t want to have to manage people and their writing.

    In a similar vein, I was offered a substantial project management position with one of the top college textbook publishers a couple of years ago and I turned it down.

    I treasure my freedom and my peace of mind. Both would be diminished if I ran an agency (or was a project manager).

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, John. It’s just a completely different role — and we all know middle managers are always the most stressed out. They’re the ones that go postal. I think it’s not the role for me.

    • Kalen

      I have to agree Jon. Running an agency can be a great idea, but it is not necessary a good thing for everyone. I do think that it can be a great opportunity for many people and it is something that I would like to pursue. However, it is important to refer to Carol’s fourth point – whether you like to manage people. the truth is that there are very talented people out there that would make terrible managers in their own industry. Having the skills to be a great writer doesn’t mean that you have what it takes to manage other writers. I remember working in other positions where the managers had the technical competencies, but not the leadership or visionary skills to succeed. They would have been better off letting someone without the technical skills write the roadmap.

      It is important to be realistic about your own skills when setting your career goals. I think this is what Carol tried to state in that fourth bullet point. Carol, please let me know if I misunderstood anything that you said.

      • Carol Tice

        That’s right — totally different skill. Also…a lot of writers really love writing…and I think would find themselves creatively stifled to give that up. No, you totally got it Kalen!

  2. Jools Stone

    Myself and my partner (both life and business) are weighing up a similar issue just now, but for very different reasons.

    We’re both freelance writers, have both done marketing and journalism, we own and work on a number of websites together.

    The question is this – how do we best present ourselves to clients? Should we pitch ourselves as a mini-agency, have one shared website, just our own individual writer sites or both. Should we come up with a name even?

    We have slightly different experience in terms of sectors of course and I’m generally happier pitching for work and being ‘the face’ of the business than my partner, but is it confusing to call yourself an agency / consultancy when it’s just the two of you who, doing roughly the same sort of work – and who also happen to be life partners and have no plans to expand the business beyond ourselves?

    I’d really welcome everyone’s thoughts, especially if you’ve been in / are in the same boat yourselves, thanks!

    • Carol Tice

      Jools, I think you can position yourself as a writing duo with a website that pitches that — I know other pairs that have done so. But curious to see what others think!

      • Carrie Schmeck

        How about each pitching yourselves, with your own sites, and perhaps a tab explaining your partnership or affiliation with the other that also outlines his/her specific and amazing value-added skills? Seems like you’d each get more mileage that way.

  3. Allen Taylor

    Have spent the last 8 years managing a content production business, I’ll have to say I agree with every bit of this. I like managing creative people as long as they do what they’re supposed to do. However, having managed a lot of them, creatives lean toward the flaky side more often than not. The reason many freelancers end up working for someone else is because they’re not good at the business end of the writing business and that side is just as important as the creative side. It requires some of the same critical thinking skills.

    My business model was somewhat different than than the typical agency model, and my role was different from what most writers would have had. I started out as a writer and moved up to managing someone else’s business. What I learned is, after 8 years, my income plateaued and it was largely dependent on someone else doing their job – the owner of the business was the sales manager and I was the production manager.

    I finally figured out I can make more money doing less work by going out on my own. I can charge more, pick my clients, and work when it’s convenient for me.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly, Allen — I got out of music and having a band because I hated being dependent on the drummer to show up. It’s so empowering to me to conceptualize an idea and then execute it, all by myself!

      Being an agency gets you back into having to stress and/or work more hours when someone else lets you down. Definitely not for me.

  4. Linda

    I agree with all of this and it comes at the prefect time for me. I owned a resume writing business for 28 years. At times I’m so swamped I can barely breath, and now I cherish the down times so I can finish up projects and focus on more freelance work. In the past, I hired an independent contractor to allow me more time for freelance work. It was a nightmare and it didn’t really pay for itself. I eventually let the person go and then was hired by Corporate America and stepped in a paid employee role for 13 years.

    Now I’m back working solo but times have changed and I’m seeing the demands of this business are more like a nightmare. I’ve more flaky clients with sometimes outrageous demands or who simply don’t know what they’re doing. I’m in process of reorganizing the business and focusing on a freelance career where I pick different types of clients, work when convenient and can charge more without major hassles on why my work is worth the price.

  5. Lisa Baker

    Wow. Um. You just convinced me that I DO want to run an agency. I’m nowhere near at that point yet, obviously. But dang, that sounds fun. My favorite parts of freelancing are marketing, finding new clients, interviewing, and editing. Especially interviewing because I love talking on the phone. I really like sending invoices too. 😉 Writing first drafts is my least favorite part…especially once I’ve had a client for a little while and I’ve got the hang of what they need. I thrive on last-minute deadlines and new challenges. I shine in emergencies. Oh, and I’m brilliant at networking and managing people — that’s my superpower. Matching the right writer to a client? Sounds like what I do for fun. Seriously, sometimes I spend as much time looking for prospects for my friends as I do looking for myself! I’m always sending leads to friends, just because it’s fun. I also often put off work I’ve already landed because I’m more interested in marketing to new prospects.

    I’ll definitely need to put that idea off for a while, at least till both my kids are a bit older and in school, but I’m totally putting this on my list of dream goals.

    • Carol Tice

      Interesting! I’ve come to enjoy marketing and client-finding, but I really like to write. Seems like you’ve identified a possible future way to grow your business, though. 😉

  6. Kathryn Hawkins

    Great post, Carol! I recently made the transition from working as an independent freelance writer to running a content marketing agency with my husband (who had previously worked as a freelance website developer). For us, there were a combination of reasons involved: I had grown my business to the point where I often had more work than I could handle (a good problem); we realized that focusing on the same business rather than building separate businesses could increase our efficiency and profits; I’d already built up a good network of freelance connections; and we wanted to build a company that we can keep running even if we want to step back a little from time to time.

    Having just had our second child, I’m glad we made the decision when we did, as we’re now able to assign projects to our freelance team, rather than turn away work that I don’t have the capacity for at the moment. My role has definitely changed – I still do some writing for clients, but am putting a lot more time into pitching new clients, writing proposals, managing and editing writers, and marketing our business through blogging for our site and guest blogs; my husband is now focused primarily on developing our own web properties and managing our own business and technology needs. It’s a challenge, but we see a lot of potential for growth.

  7. Writing It Right For You

    Wow. Talk about perfect timing! I sort of had an agency…a few writers and editors who were independent contractors themselves. In just the past few weeks I have let all of them go to “do their own thing” and my two related writing and editing businesses are now just me and my hubby and biz partner. Whew! BUT, one of the best decisions I made last year was to hire two 1/2 time admin assistants (who have complimentary skills) who do almost all of my “back office” admin and web maintenance work and non-client marketing writing, etc. Now hubby and I don’t have to worry about all of that and can spend our own time on client work.
    Great article, Carol!

    • Carol Tice

      I’m a big fan of delegating lower-level tasks out. I once saw a great article by Bob Bly, where he talked about how he does not run errands, clean house, or anything else but write his books. Everything else, he delegates. It can really accelerate your income to take those tasks off your plate!

      I’d see that as a great, often more manageable alternative to going the agency route.

  8. Sharon Palmer

    I’ve thought about an agency type setup for freelancing. A placed where a few of us freelancers would gather each day, have a cubicle or office to work from, find our own work, but be there for each other for when a project has stalled and needs fresh eyes, or there is too much work to do and an office partner can take it off your hands. It would be more like a partnership rather than someone working for you. Has anyone tried something like that?

    • Carol Tice

      That’s not an agency, Sharon — that’s co-working in a shared office, and giving each other referrals, and it can be great!

      The co-working place I use doesn’t really have many other freelance writers, but I still really enjoy being among other solopreneurs now and then.

  9. Susan Johnston

    Great topic! I was starting to wonder if you were about to announce the launch of your own agency so I’m glad you addressed that question later on in your post. I also considered growing my business into an agency and came to the same conclusions you did. That said, I’ve had some very positive experiences working with freelancers-turned-agencies so I think that model can work well if the person running it has the right skills and temperament.

    • Carol Tice

      Definitely no for me! But as you say, could work for the right successful freelancer who’s turning away business.

  10. Debbie Kane

    I’m a little worried that this aspiring agency owner wants to hire his friends as subcontractors. No offense to his friends, but I’m not sure I’d want to be in the position of having to edit or worse, fire, a friend. The one or two times I’ve hired a friend, it was difficult for me to step into the manager role. You have to set clear guidelines about how you work together.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m with you — it’s a situation that can so easily turn sour.

      And friends who ‘volunteer’ to help you out have a tendency to get busy, get full-time jobs, and otherwise become unavailable as time winds along. How would the business sustain itself? You’d need other writers at some point, I think, in any case.

  11. Aahna

    Agreed with your points, If you have management skills only then you should move forward to become an agency. Running a successful business requires managerial skills and if you lack it then you can easily lose your money. Also after becoming an agency your work pressure increases and you won’t be able to live light freelancer life anymore.

  12. Terri

    I used to dream about the days that I could start an add agency. That dream soon turned once I realized how little I’d actually get to write. I started freelancing so I can write. Luckily, I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t need to market as much so writing can return to the forefront. Starting an agency would mean going back to marketing enough to keep enough work for other people plus edit their work. That means not enough time for me to write so I’ll pass.

    • Carol Tice

      As an agency manager, ALL you do is market and manage clients. That’s going to be 90%+ of your time.

      Exactly — isn’t it a relief to get your inbound marketing cranking where you get referrals and you can mostly just write! I’m not giving that up.

  13. Dan Stelter

    This is some great insight here, Carol. It’s a tough decision – work hard enough to get a high salary for myself, or become a business with the potential to make a much higher salary – but deal with all the stress as you noted.

    I like doing many of the administrative tasks involved with running a business, so it could be a good fit. Definitely not ready for it yet at this point, though. I did have a small agency of a few contractors when I was in the SEO writing, but later discovered the market can’t bear reasonable rates, so it became necessary to get out of it.

    I’m pursuing higher rates and more clients now – and this advice will be very helpful down the road as I decide to be a writer or an agency.

  14. Kelly Boyer Sagert

    I really enjoy editing and tried outsourcing work to another writer: once. It wasn’t that she did a bad job — because she didn’t. It just made me realize that I enjoy doing the writing too much myself to change.

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