Sometimes, as a freelancer or owner of a small studio, I have the opportunity to collaborate with a larger agency or studio on one of their projects. I usually join their crew without hesitation but I have learned some things being on both sides that I try to apply in this type of scenario and that I think are worth sharing, to facilitate this relationship and avoid dead-ends.
I know many people who avoid this type of interaction as much as possible, but I enjoy them, since they allow me to get out of the routine, vary types of clients and projects, or meet professionals who work in different fields, depending on the size of the project.
In addition, in these types of projects I have discovered other ways of doing, of thinking, new processes, methods or techniques, how they deal with the relationship with the client, internal communication or tools that you may not use or have not tried yet... For me it is an enriching experience that we should all go through. I have integrated many of these points, acquired in my relationship with various agencies or studios, into my daily professional life.
If you find yourself in the situation of starting such a collaboration, these thoughts should help guide that collaboration, with the aim that the project is completed properly and that the relationship of the parties is as profitable and less "toxic" as possible.
Defining the relationship
Before going into the proposal or making a project kick-off, you should take your time with the agency/studio to define exactly what your relationship will be. Lay the foundations, "cement" the relationship.
There will be quite a few agencies that will "sell" that relationship to you as a partnership and it seems perfect to me, as long as, if we are really partners, we share all the knowledge, resources, insights and (important) budget/costs. No dark areas here. Many expect such a relationship only for what benefits them: excess additional hours without billing, assuming modifications and issues that you should not, impossible timings, unforeseen deliveries, etc. This thing must flow in both directions. If not, this doesn't work and we will no longer be talking about a collaboration.
Your exact role in the project
Define exactly (always in conversation, this is not a monologue), what you are going to do and what not. Set up red lines that you prefer not to cross. Assert your rights. It will avoid (or mitigate) later disappointments. Many times, if you are passionate about your work (as is my case), you are willing to give more or take on tasks that do not correspond to you, for the good of the project, but, in the long run, it can lead to "burn out". Be honest, clear and direct and if they don't understand or don't want to participate in such a relationship, maybe you should think twice about this collaboration, you still have time.
Availability and calendar
As a freelancer, it is highly likely that you will be on several fronts at the same time. Project schedules don't always flow perfectly and sometimes they conflict. Adjust your calendar with this in mind. There will always be unforeseen events but the agency must know, understand and know your availability, it is worth specifying this point, to facilitate the relationship.
If this situation is really a problem for them and they need someone exclusively for a specific period of time for a specific project, they should not hire a freelance, but hire you. If not, they are basically trampling on your rights.
Who deals with the end customer and how
It should be the agency/studio, usually the account/project manager. Many times it is not like that: it is one thing to be in CC in emails, IM groups or project management apps, etc. and another one to carry the weight of management and communication with the end customer. In the event that you had to full manage that relationship… are you billing it? Dealing with the end customer in a situation like this supposes a considerable investment of time and also you have to keep all the people on the project in the loop, from both sides, more time involved.
There is also the issue of agencies or studios that do not want your collaboration to be visible as an "external" partner when talking with the end customer, so you will also have to learn to navigate in those dark, deep waters...
Who is your client here? The agency/studio? The end customer? Based on the previously defined relationship, we will know "who" pays us, even if the transfers come from the same source. This is difficult to deal with but also a key issue. Review your proposal and estimates, all the clauses, conditions and observations and above all, discuss them with the agency/studio before starting the project. Do not take anything for granted or a T&C page as read. These are conversations that you won't like to have but you need for sure. Shield your practice.
Imagine that in your preferred payment conditions, agreed with the agency/studio, you have a 30-day deferral and, for whatever reason, the end customer decides not to accept payment within that period. Is it acceptable that this situation affects you? It is, if you have agreed so. Or the situation where you spend two full months completing your part of the project and be forced to put up with your bill until the project is finished globally, months later? Same thing. We are not here to “subsidize” the projects of others, we need to make a living and pay the bills, no matter how “ours” we make them (although sometimes we can make concessions in favor of the relationship or the good of the project).
Ownership and Rights
Who is the author or owner of the of the project and/or its parts/pieces? Do you have any rights to your work? Do you have any idea about Intellectual Property? Will you be able to use parts or the whole project result for promotional purposes later on? Few things are more frustrating than finishing off a really fantastic project by collaborating with an agency and not being able to include it in your portfolio or not being credited when and how it should be done. This detail is often overlooked, I know several cases like this among my peers and it has also happened to me in the past. As always, think about it and discuss it previously.
Basically calculate your economic proposal as you see fit (fixed price, hourly, etc.) with the aim of making it profitable (as always?) and be transparent with the agency. In the same way, demand that transparency on their side. What are they billing for the project, or for your part of it?
In the first projects you work with the agency/studio, it is really useful dding an additional cost percentage as "adaptation". You may have to use processes, channels, tools or techniques that you are not familiar with and you will need to invest some time in that learning curve and adjustments to get everything flowing.
Shield yourself and shield your work. It may seem harsh, but a proposal without a good page of conditions and clauses is not a proposal, it is a dead letter, especially when you enter a relationship over which you will have less control, as there are more intermediaries. Give as much detail as possible about payments, timings, revisions, extras, face-to-face and online meetings, possible cancellation or modification scenarios, additional expenses, materials, rights... Review models you find, compare your clauses with those of other people you know and comment on them. It takes an effort but it's worth it.
Be careful with this issue, a "classic one" in the freelance/agency relationship with which I have had to deal several times (and I have already been teased a few times)
“Please adjust the estimates, more projects will come out later, for sure.” — Another CEO
No, absolutely not. Each project has its cost. Are you going to have a coffee and ask for a discount because you do it every day? If a new project comes, perfect. Are ten more coming later on? Great, a sign that you are doing well. Remuneration should be unrelated to volume, if costs have been properly calculated. Also, have you signed any contracts on the other ten projects that will come in the future, theoretically, to justify that discount? I know several agencies that do this thing systematically and basically what they do afterwards is rotate freelancers, obtaining a higher margin by squeezing suppliers. A hard no.
A colleague proposed me this “diplomatic” solution that he had been exercising for years: “Charge an additional 10% to the budget and then subtract it as a discount, everyone is happy”. I prefer to be clear and not have to go into things like that.
The ASAP issue
If the project has a calendar (it should!) and you receive an ASAP task request, you need to think about it and put it on the calendar, whatever their priority is. Just define what is the task to do, add it to the project calendar and communicate to the agency a date when you think it will be done. Seems easy, doesn't it? Being "ASAP slaves" is exhausting, we lose focus, the project quality goes down and we enter into a very toxic zone.
The FYI Hell
“FYI”, acronym for “For Your Information” or “I am sending you this as I have received it, read it on your own as I've not done it yet and apply the changes/tasks/comments that the customer has requested”. No no and no. The project/account manager should do their job. I think it's great that he is so busy that he can't process all the information and he sends it to you this way.
There is nothing worse than receiving three or four messages with feedback, forwarded from the project manager phone with an FYI subject in which you have to do "archeology" to retrieve a list of changes. As a rule of thumb, I don't even open emails like this and I don't hesitate to let the agency know, they don't lead to anything good and they waste time for everyone involved.
Some final thoughts
If you have come this far, you will see that I have sketched the freelance-agency relationship as something complex, difficult, even hard. It can be, it all depends on how you take it and how well you tune it, according to your experience, your values and professional goals. It is not only in our hands to decide who we work with, but also how we do it.
Personally, I see the people from the agency/studio with whom I collaborate as my allies, we are “comrades” and we are going to work together to move the project forward in the best possible way. As in any relationship, everything improves with a solid foundation of trust and clarity.
Put your ego aside, offer constant communication, be flexible, share your knowledge and learn as much as you can from the professionals with whom you are going to collaborate. Commit and comply, remember that you not only have rights, but also duties. In this there are many more possibilities of reward than purely economic ones.