Agency Work for Writers: 7 Insider Tips to Help You Get Hired - Make a Living Writing

Agency Work for Writers: 7 Insider Tips to Help You Get Hired

Evan Jensen | 21 Comments
Agency Work for Writers: Insider Tips to Get Hired

Wondering how to land some agency work as a freelance writer?

No, not the kind of “agency work” someone posts on Upwork. That’s almost always the path to low rates, soul-sucking work, and burnout.

Legit digital marketing agencies work with freelancers all the time. And there’s lots of them.

  • Agencies that work with a broad range of clients in different industries, and…
  • Agencies that specialize in specific niches like technology, healthcare, or financial services.

Google it: marketing agency + (your niche)

Agency Work

If you’re not sure chasing agency work is worth your time, consider this…

Right now, companies spend an estimated $400 billion a year on content marketing, according to industry data.

Here’s how it works: Companies hire digital marketing agencies to do the work. And those agencies hire freelancers to do things like:

  • Blog posts
  • Case studies
  • Annual reports
  • White paper writing
  • Website content
  • Lead magnets
  • Video scripts
  • Press releases, and more

Starting to get the picture? Agency work can be a great way to make money as a freelance writer, and have steady work.

So how do you get a slice of agency work? We asked two digital marketing agency pros to show you the ropes. Here’s what you need to know:

Meet marketing agency pros Annie Zelm and Ryan Malone

Agency Work: Annie Zelm

Annie Zelm

Annie Zelm is an award-winning business journalist and content marketing expert.

She wrote for the Sandusky Register in Ohio as a reporter. And then transitioned to public relations and content marketing.

For the past six years, she’s worked at Kuno Creative as a brand journalist and content department manager.

Agency Work: Ryan Malone

Ryan Malone

Ryan Malone is the founder of SmartBug Media. It’s a digital marketing agency based in Irvine, Calif. Malone worked in digital marketing for almost a decade before launching SmartBug Media.

He’s grown the company with an entirely remote workforce, and helps a long list of clients in healthcare, technology, manufacturing, and other businesses generate leads, drive traffic, and build brand authority with digital marketing.

1. What kind of content projects do you hire freelancers for?

Annie: It’s typically blogging work. We have a lot of clients that want 4 to 8 blog posts a month. We have an entire team of writers on staff. But sometimes we’ll hire freelancers for a bigger content piece like e-books,

Ryan: A lot of article writing and long-form things. There’s direct-response work for lead-nurturing emails and landing-page copy. We do a lot of infographic research and copy, and some writers are really skilled at that. We also assign some byline-article work and PR-writing to freelancers.

2. What do you give freelancers to complete an assignment?

Annie: We really spell out the strategy for a blog post when we give a writer an assignment. It includes information about keywords, the target audience, general topic, resources to use, and what the call to action is. We try to make sure this is really focused, so our freelancers don’t have to guess.

Ryan: We give our writers a very detailed brief with information about the client. Sometimes, we’ll have writers join us on client calls. Or we’ll send them an interview recording. For other assignments, we might provide a detailed outline and some key points we want the writer to include.

3. How do you assign projects to freelance writers?

Annie: We usually work from a spreadsheet of freelancers that we’ve worked with before, or freelancers that have contacted us. When we have assignments to fill, we refer back to that and go: “OK., what does my workload look like? What do I need to outsource to freelancers?”

Ryan: If we think there’s a good chance we want to work with a freelancer, we’ll ask you to write a test article first. It’s a paid test article, so we don’t do the cheesy game of looking for free work from people. Based on how you do, we go from there.

4. HubSpot certified: Yes or no?

Annie: That’s hugely beneficial. As a freelancer, I think that’s a gold star that sets you apart. Use the free training tools, do the tutorials, watch videos, and use the resources on Subscribe to the blog. Of course, the Kuno Creative blog is a good one to learn about inbound marketing, too.

Ryan: HubSpot can give you a solid primer on how and why inbound marketing works. But simply having that certification doesn’t necessarily mean that people have digested it. What’s more important that a certification is being able to show up in an interview and explain the concepts that make digital marketing work.

5. How do you determine rates for freelance work?

Annie: There’s usually room to negotiate. Obviously we have kind of a top level of what we can pay. But we look at things like the size of the client, complexity of the blog post or assignment, and subject matter.

Pretty common to figure out an agreeable rate with something like:

Q: “Here’s what we estimate the word count will be. What would you charge for a post like this?”

Ryan: We have a similar process. So there’s room to negotiate. We have a range to work with, and usually start by finding out what your normal rate is for the type of assignment we’ve got. If your rate is out of range, we’ll try to figure out if we can come to some kind of an agreement.

But again, one of our goals is to have a long-term relationship with writers. Grinding somebody for a dollar or two when you know they’re talented and trying to make a living, isn’t a best practice. It’s better to negotiate, pay fair rates, so everybody starts off on a great foot.

6. What do you want to know from a freelance writer who contacts you?

Annie: It’s really helpful to know what industries you’ve written for and what types of topics you’ve covered. That helps us determine if you’re a good fit for one of our clients. Be specific. Give us some details about your experience when you initially just reach out.

Ryan: We have an application process for freelance writers on our site. But I think the things that stand out the most are your writing quality, your personality, and what you know about how digital marketing or inbound marketing works.

7. What experience do you look for in freelance writers?

Annie: It’s really a case-by-case basis. It really just depends. But we do like to see that you’ve had business-writing experience. You know, it’s a lot different than writing a personal blog post or even writing newspaper articles. We also want to work with writers who have an understanding of how business writing and marketing works, keywords, SEO, and the objectives of a blog post.

Ryan: There’s a lot that goes into that. We position ourselves as an extension of our client’s team. And we look at freelancers as an extension of our team. Sometimes we get our freelancers involved on client calls. We like to get them involved in idea generation, and give them a lot of flexibility in terms of creating a compelling story for the client.

Accountability and deadlines are huge. Sometimes we need a writer with specific experience or expertise to match up with our clients. And we look for people who are just fun to work with.

Bonus question: Where does the name SmartBug come from?

Ryan: SmartBug is actually named after my dog, Lola. We call her “The Bug,” because she has big bug eyes. I don’t tell that story all that much because a 6-foot-3-inch tall guy naming his company after a 12-lb Pekingese doesn’t always come out right. But, such is life. She’s a cool little dog.

Go get some agency work

When a digital marketing agency needs a freelance writer, they’ll usually start with their existing network of writers or ask for referrals. Many don’t actively post job listings or recruit writers. But client managers and content directors are always on the lookout for talented writers to help their clients shine. Reach out. Send an email. Introduce yourself. That’s how it’s done.

Have you landed agency work as a freelancer? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Evan Jensen is the blog editor for Make a Living Writing. When he’s not on a writing deadline or catching up on emails, he’s training to run another 100-mile ultra-marathon.


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21 comments on “Agency Work for Writers: 7 Insider Tips to Help You Get Hired

    • Carol Tice on

      I wouldn’t say that, Lisa — but it would depend on your work background. I meet people who’ve interned at digital agencies — they might be new to writing, but agencies would probably be receptive because they have that agency background, and get their what I like to call ‘deliverable-speak’. 😉 I’ve also seen freelancers with a background in corporate communications have a fairly easy in with agencies, even if they’re new to freelancing.

      Also, there are a lot of SMALL, startup, aspiring-to-be digital agencies that I think are definitely great places for newbies. Pay would be less, but great way to get experience.

  1. Diane Fanucchi on

    Great article. Thanks.

    But my question is, can you get agency work if you have very little experience?

    I have some decent samples published in magazines and online, as well as my own blog, but no private business clients yet.

    It would be more about what I can do, not what I’ve already done for clients. Is it possible to start without much paid experience?

    And is an agency a good place to start rather than hunting down your own clients, or should you get that experience first?

    • Carol Tice on

      I think it would be tough, Diane… agencies are looking for business writing experience, and ideally for AGENCY experience, is what I’ve found.

      In general, I think agencies are never a good place to start, rather than hunting down your own clients… because you’ll almost always earn less, working through a middleman.

    • Jaime on

      Hi Evan and Carol,
      Thanks for the insider tips! I’ve read through the article and I just have a quick question regarding when you say to “reach out and introduce yourself” to the agency.

      Do you mean to send an “LOI” or just a simple email stating who I am and asking if they are seeking writers? Are there examples of how to craft the email?

      I currently write for a wine brand and would love to get work from a wine marketing agency by crafting the proper email.


  2. Raghavendra on

    Hi, just got recession proof…. I am a retired person with a PhD degree , am now a freelance reviewer and translator from indian languages to English may i get an assignment from you ?

    • Carol Tice on

      Raghavendra, I’m not a content mill or hiring agency. My passion is teaching writers how to go out and find their own clients. I think the Recession-Proof Freelancer outilnes that for you! For more trainings on how to do that marketing, check out my community site.

  3. Andrea Kluge on

    I have worked for a small agency for over three years now and have a very tight relationship with the owner. They are, by far, my biggest and best client. If an agency is a good fit on both sides, the continuing relationship can be very beneficial. There is a sense of working with a team which both sides find gratifying. When it works, it’s a good gig!

    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Andrea,
      That’s great. I think the biggest downside to agency work is usually rates, with the agency taking a cut. But when an agency pays freelancers fair rates and offers steady work, it’s a pretty good gig to have.

  4. Shazi on

    Evan, great post! I have been eyeing agency work for a while now, but didn’t feel as if I had the relevant know-how to approach reputable agencies and get consistent work from them.

    Interviews from these two industry veterans certainly throws up a lot of insights as to how they hire and work with freelancers.

    Much food for thought.

    Thanks again.


    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Shazi,
      Start introducing yourself to agencies. My advice at the end of the post: “Reach out. Send an email. Introduce yourself. That’s how it’s done.”

  5. Lynda Dell on

    Evan, thank you! I’ve been trying to get more agency work and found this article extremely helpful. Getting two different approaches helps me have a better understanding of how the process works.

    Some follow up questions: How much expertise do you need in an industry to be considered an expert in an agency? For example in healthcare, do you need a medical background, for patient focused content?

    If you have a working knowledge of how digital marketing works from agency or prior work experience and independent research,
    how detailed does your explanation of key concepts have to be?

    How do you make sure that you are pricing your services correctly for agency work? People want to hire me, but when we discuss my rate, I’m told it’s too high. So, if you’re trying to break into another agency, how do you determine your rate.

    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Lynda,
      I think most agencies want to see samples of your work. First to gauge your skills. And second, to see which client of theirs your writing skills match up with best.

      And you don’t need to be an expert or have an advanced degree.

      Here’s a couple of healthcare examples…
      -I had a year-long blogging gig with an agency for a podiatry clinic in New York City. No, I’m not a doctor.
      -I also write a Q&A feature for a lifestyle medicine doctor called Ask the Wellness Doctor. We plan out the topics. I write the Q&A. He reviews it, and generally approves with little to no revisions before publishing. I’m not a doctor and don’t have a medical degree.

      Digital marketing
      I think this kind of depends on the agency. Some make assignments with done-for-you details like keywords, headline, and optimization. But the better-paying gigs are going to be from agencies that want to work with a copywriter + content marketing strategist.

      Agency rates
      Ryan and Annie both explain their process, and it’s pretty similar across the board. Basically, an agency gets a client contract. They figure out what they can afford to spend to hire a freelancer to do the work, and still make money. And they’ll often have a pay range to work with. Once they identify a writer, they’ll probably start at the low end with pay, but have some room to negotiate. I think some agencies probably go with fixed rates per project, take it or leave it.

      If agencies keep telling you you’re too high, it might be time to focus on getting your clients directly, vs. working through agencies that take a cut of what you could be billing a client.

    • Carol Tice on

      Lynda… afraid the answer to all those is likely, ‘It depends.’ Different agencies have different writer needs.

      I don’t think agencies are looking for ‘experts’ in a topic — they’re looking for good writers, who have a familiarity with their topics, strong clips that show they can write in the topic. In general, you don’t have to be a doctor to be a medical writer!

      When it comes to rates, agencies often do pay less than direct clients… I’d try asking them what they pay, rather than quoting them a rate. The idea is supposed to be that the volume of steady work an agency gives you means you can do less marketing, so it works out to do a lower rate because of the better job security. It’s a trade-off.

      There are certainly a ton of newer ‘digital agencies’ that pay writers very poorly… I’d say steer clear, when they start talking $20 an hour or less.


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