Illustration of a tree with people as branches

Like most agencies, you probably juggle shrinking marketing budgets and rising expectations. And to manage costs, you probably hire a freelancer when you need specialized talent or extra help on projects. Although it makes sense, you still need a strategy. Because hiring freelancers without a strategy often creates challenges that could raise project costs.

But when you hire freelancers correctly, they can produce consistently superb work quality and help improve your profit margins.

Freelancers help agencies survive and thrive

In the old days, agencies hid freelancers behind the curtain as they quietly pumped out work. Today, success requires you view them as strategic assets.

The content agency Column Five engages freelancers with specialized skill sets and to gain new perspectives on a project. “Freelancers allow us to make measured and sustainable growth. They allow us to test our appetite for a new type of work before we commit to developing that format type as a regular service offering or revenue stream,” says Jeremy Fetters, director of client services.

When hiring freelancers, Fetters suggests you “think of the freelancers in your network as a way to help you solve challenges where you might not have in-house expertise.” Instead of just seeing freelancers as a way to increase bandwidth, Column Five thoroughly vets freelancers to build a creative network that provides fresh ideas and proactive solutions to design challenges.

Mobile app development agency Minibit Technologies incorporates freelancers as part of their growth strategy. Agency founder Usama Riaz says, “Freelancers enable us to be more agile than traditional agencies and win bigger projects. We can be selective about the projects we choose, and only work on things that are a perfect fit for our agency.” An added bonus: Freelancers help Riaz control overhead costs—a savings he passes onto clients.

Providing higher-quality output and lower costs to clients is why the content development firm Big Fork Content is geared towards operating via freelance talent. Managing partner Brian Chappell says, “Many projects need a team of experts and clients realize no single agency can have them all on staff. And the best talent for the project may not be available locally.”

Chappell works with Upwork Pro to source a reliable bench of highly skilled talent worldwide. He encourages their loyalty by engaging them for repeat projects, paying them quickly using tools like Upwork’s escrow services, and treating them with respect. From day one, project team members collaborate via Slack and Skype. This promotes open communication, which helps them resolve issues expediently and hold each other accountable.

The new norm

If you’re wondering, “But what would clients think about freelancers doing the work?” Most likely, they won’t have a problem with it. Using freelancers is so common that 80 percent of respondents in a ClickZ survey said their agency uses freelancers.

Now that 54 million Americans freelance, it’s almost inevitable that nearly every industry is accustomed to working with freelancers to some degree. And it’ll be even more ubiquitous over the next few years as nearly half of our workforce will freelance by 2020. This includes experienced baby boomers and top talent.

Brian Chappell presents freelancers as a value-add. He explains how he can assign the most seasoned expert to work on the client’s project—and only for the time they’re needed. Not only does the client enjoy higher-quality talent, they also benefit from a significantly lower project cost.

9 tips for freelancer success

Marketing and creative consultant Anne Miles says, “When you use freelancers properly, you can REDUCE overheads and increase specialization and IMPROVE service levels.” For exceptional creativity and projects that remain within budget, consider leveraging these tips:

Build your professional network wisely

1. Don’t restrict your procurement process. Don’t have the same teams hiring the same freelancers. Optimize your value for the money by having a wide bench of talent that any team can access.

2. Look at their rates and their ratings. Thoroughly vet talent until you can trust their work is good and that they know how to deliver what you expect. Marketplaces like Upwork make it easy to see a freelancer’s portfolio and client history.

3. Develop relationships with key contractors. A reliable bench of talent improves work consistency, shortens ramp up time, and minimizes the cost of searching for talent for every project.

Treat them like assets

4. See their value. Treat freelancers like a low-cost, temporary widget and that’s what you’re likely to get. Treat them like specialists whose talent and experience can benefit your team, and you’ll get cost-effective, high-quality results.

5. Provide all pertinent information. Help freelancers develop a deeper understanding of the client and project by inviting them to relevant meetings and connecting them to the right people to answer questions. What’s more, when a freelancer feels like they have all the information they need for a project, they become more dedicated and willing to collaborate. In turn, your project may benefit further from their expertise and experience across multiple projects and industries.

6. Communicate expectations clearly. Today’s freelancers are more particular about pay and an agency’s culture. Be upfront about what the work entails, deliverables, and what success looks like. Get the freelancer’s expectations too so you know what will be billed, availability, and other important details.

Manage your costs

7. Automate your processes. Wherever possible, automate and streamline freelancer sourcing, contracting, communication, and payment processes. When The Motley Fool adopted a contingent workforce solution, their editorial team saved 40 hours/month on payment processing alone.

8. Bring contractors onboard earlier. Before the pitch, involve freelancers to help shape the project scope, define what success looks like, and estimate price better.

9. Get the CFO’s input. Review how pricing was estimated, what your agency promised the client, and what the teams feel they can deliver. The CFO may be able to suggest new efficiencies or point out areas of concern before the pitch.

It’s no longer about who does the work

The bottom line is, clients want to know you have the experts available to produce quality work. And with the exploding freelance workforce and technology making it so easy to work remotely, it’s becoming irrelevant whether a worker is freelance or staff. That’s great news considering how labor costs are usually an agency’s largest expense. And how agencies must be able to ramp up and down quickly according to project needs.

But much like when you’re searching for the ideal employees, sourcing and vetting the ideal freelancers in an increasingly competitive market takes time—sometimes months. And the search can be ongoing as new projects and fast-changing technology may require new skill sets. That’s why many agencies are turning to sourcing services like Upwork Pro. Freelancers are handpicked for your specific needs, then served up—all you need to do is choose one.

If you use contract workers often, consider creating your own established talent pool through Upwork Enterprise. This complete contingent workforce solution makes it easier than ever to work with the best developers, creatives, and marketing professionals worldwide. The robust platform lets you handle all of your currently engaged and other contract talent from a single dashboard to dramatically streamline everything from sourcing and contracting to payments.