Freelancing doesn’t always have to involve scouting for gigs—if you play your cards right, the jobs can come right to you. Working with creative staffing agencies can keep money coming in, help you build a portfolio and connect you with top brands.
Agencies such as Onward Search, The Creative Group, 24 Seven, Creative Circle and Vitamin T help corporations fill temporary and permanent positions for writers, designers, art directors, social media managers, video editors, web developers and the like. Companies often turn to these agencies because the agency prescreens candidates for full-time, part-time and freelance gigs. A sweet bonus is that many agencies offer benefits such as retirement accounts and health insurance if you keep consistent hours.
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I’ve personally worked with agencies on and off during my career, so I can attest to some of the pros and cons. Here are seven things to keep in mind when deciding if working through an agency is right for you.
1. Approach a staffing agency like any other job you’d apply to.
Graphic designer Stacey Maloney, based in the Washington, D.C. area, says she researched agencies in her area and has worked with a few of them. In one case, she snagged a full-time job because the job was posted exclusively with the agency.
Fellow Washingtonian Terry Biddle, a writer and illustrator, concurs. He says agencies “have many of the jobs you will never see posted anywhere else.”
Biddle added that creative professionals will have to work as hard to secure an agency as they would getting a job on their own.
To apply, assemble your best clips, get a resume together and prepare to offer references. Typically, you can apply via the agency’s website. From there, if the hiring managers like what they see, they’ll reach out to you. Next, they want to see if you’re a good fit.
In most cases, recruiters at the agency will want to meet you. Most of them are located in big cities. If you are, too, they’ll want to interview you. If you are not local, count your lucky stars for Skype because many of them will use it.
2. Know what to expect money-wise.
Once you’re offered a project or assignment, be prepared to fill out some paperwork—and potentially, a contract.
When you complete the financial documents, consider withholding on your taxes—that’s something employers are not required to do when paying independent contractors. It will keep you from having a hefty tax bill at the end of the year.
On the topic of money, understand that many of these jobs pay hourly and don’t offer the premier industry rate. Most of the projects I take on my own are for a fee, and they can work out to some pretty sweet hourly rates so long as I am efficient—not as much when I work an agency gig, though I can get a lot of hours with some projects.
3. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the job details.
Be as specific as possible when you talk about the types of jobs you want—it doesn’t make you picky; it helps the recruiter best match you. Want to only work off-site? Prefer to stick to one-time projects? Say it!
Agencies often have new jobs pop up every day that often need a quick turnaround, so the more specific you can be about your work status and desires, the better. If anything changes—perhaps you’ve decided you want a full-time, permanent gig—let the recruiters know so they can best match you.
“Be absolutely clear on what you won’t do,” advises Prescott Perez-Fox, an art director from New York City who has worked with agencies. “If you don’t want to work for a tobacco client or for a nonprofit, say that, and be firm. Same with location… if you won’t or can’t commute to a certain place, make it known.”
4. Be diligent to keep the jobs coming.
Agencies receive so many jobs and projects to staff for that you may see job listings for gigs that last a day or a week or a year, or you may also find temp-to-perm listings.
The recruiter may not always be actively hunting for your dream job, so search the agency’s website and sign up for emails when relevant gigs come up. Some recruiters may ask you to call and check in every week or so. Others may email you or call you when a potential match comes up. It’s often best to contact them when you see something that’s a good fit, and move quick—spots are filled fast and you’re not the only person with knockout skills.
“It’s in [the recruiter’s] best interest to make a good fit because the end client will be happy,” Perez-Fox says.
5. Establish good relationships with recruiters.
Certain recruiters are great about keeping you busy, especially if they know you’re willing and able to take on multiple assignments. If you just want to take on temporary jobs, for example, the recruiter can be on the lookout for your next gig so you can start working on a new one as soon as another one ends.
Maloney agrees that recruiter relations are important: “Dependability and professionalism go a long way with recruiters. If your interaction is prompt, polite and professional, they will be that much more likely to continue contacting you.”
As a way to keep top of mind of the recruiters, Maloney says she adds those contacts to her LinkedIn network. So in the event the recruiter switches jobs to another agency, her connection remains intact.
6. Make the most of face time with temporary colleagues.
If you are placed in an on-site gig, there’s the potential for it to feel a little weird, cautioned Perez-Fox. “It feels like being the new guy multiple times a month, except unlike being a new hire, no one will invest in a relationship with you or try to assimilate you into a team,” he says.
That said, Perez-Fox acknowledged that some other office experiences led to great connections in the industry. And this should be one of your goals when taking on agency assignments.
As with any new job, working hard to prove your worth and, of course, making an effort to get to know your cubemates (a simple gesture like initiating a little small talk by the water cooler works wonders) will surely help ease any awkwardness.
7. Remember that company etiquette is in play.
There are “rules” when it comes to working with agencies. For example, when I have received a new opportunity, I am not allowed to contact the client directly until the recruiter connects us. In addition, I may or may not be able to showcase the work or client name on my website. And on the first day of a gig, I have to check in with my recruiter and share an update.
Also be careful if a permanent opportunity crops up at your temporary job. “It’s pretty standard to sign an agreement stating that you will not work directly with an employer after being placed there by an agency for a grace period, something like six months to one year is standard in my experience,” Maloney says.
Additionally, if a project wraps up and the client wants to retain you for more work, let the recruiter know to avoid any conflicts.
Another situation when it pays to speak up: If the gig sucks.
“I’ve had some cases where the assignment wasn’t a good fit, and I finished out the week before saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,'” Perez-Fox says. “Luckily, I’ve avoided conflict and never had any big embarrassments or confrontations.”
The bottom line…
Overall, Perez-Fox says agencies were more useful when he started out as a freelancer. “There was a period where I was earning my living from short-term roles introduced to me from these recruiting firms,” he says.
As a young designer in the big city, I didn’t have a ton of connections, so they proved to be a very vital part in that system.”
Sometimes an agency job leads to a full-time position unintentionally, either through establishing great relationships with the agency’s client or through good old-fashioned networking; however, if your ultimate goal is a permanent position, you may be better served applying directly to companies.
Regardless, agencies will likely give you the experience and, hopefully, the contacts you need to get your foot in the door of your desired career path.