Small Business Branding: Choosing an Agency, a Freelancer, or Something In Between
Updated: Mar 18
I love small businesses. I love the spirit of working together with shared values toward a common goal. I love when great ideas come from unexpected places in an organization. And I love companies that believe they can compete with the behemoths of their industry – and even be better in some areas than the big guys.
But while some small businesses excel at creating a great process, many haven’t figured out how to share their story with their intended audience. Often, they haven’t even been able to accurately describe what makes them unique and memorable - the things that make them remarkable. In short, they haven't established their brand.
So, it’s not surprising that trying to determine which, if any, outside partner should play in your branding efforts can be an exercise in frustration. When faced with this decision, most growing businesses believe they have three choices: Use an internal marketing team, or shift responsibilities of existing staff; reach out to an (often unknown) marketing or creative agency; or try to manage multi-faceted projects by cobbling together a menagerie of freelancers. Too often, the decision for business leaders comes down to “What option is the most budget friendly?” versus “What option will be easiest to manage?” Rarely do those questions arrive at the same answer.
Evaluating the typical models
Determining which model is right for your organizations depends on your objectives, your industry, your internal resources, your budget, and your overall strategy. All have benefits. Each has drawbacks.
Freelancers are generally masters at their chosen skillset, and work with a diverse clientele. Freelancers also generally have very low overhead, which enables them to keep their hourly rate very budget-friendly. According to Bonsai, freelance rates can vary from $25 to $150 per hour, depending on specialty, experience, and location. The two major obstacles to working with freelancers are your knowledge and theirs. How do you find a good freelancer if you don’t regularly work with them? Finding a freelancer to meet your specific needs can be a challenge. Combine this with the fact that most freelancers have great skill in only one or two specialties. If you have a project with a larger scope, you will need to hire and manage more people.
“Agency” isn’t a one-size-describes-all word. There are boutique (small) agencies, specialty agencies (digital), global advertising agencies, branding agencies, etc. Usually they offer a wide range of capabilities, someone to manage the process, and ensure timelines. A large agency will have multiple different area experts, so most projects can be done in-house. This also allows them to put all the pieces together for you. Of course, this comes at a cost. Agencies are more expensive. Most agencies bill in the $150-$250 range for many services, however, senior positions (Director of Client Services and Principal/Chief Creative Officer) may charge much more.
An in-house team is immediately accessible, and can wear many hats, and the team can have more direct interaction with other people in the organization. Plus, as employees, you are generally working with a consistent monthly budget. Too often though, staff can be stretched thin due to meet new demands. The team may also be asked to manage offsite events, or even production schedules to ensure timely product release. Most companies cannot staff experts in several areas, so there may be a longer learning curve to reach your objectives.
But what if there was a fourth option…?
What if there was an option that reconciled the two big decision questions - something that allowed you to stretch your marketing budget, but not require you to source and manage multiple freelancers? And what if this model provided full service brand strategy and project management as well as creative execution? One that combines the best of the agency model and the freelance model...an agenceelance model. This model would provide more leeway for companies who believe what they offer is unique and acknowledge they may need some guidance on how to share their story, but are reluctant to commit to a large agency retainer agreement. Welcome to Authentige.
First, let's acknowledge that virtually all organizations use freelancers. Even agencies. Even LARGE agencies. And agencies are good at itemizing different rates; from relatively inexpensive junior designers to very expensive senior positions, you may see more than 5 different rates on any one invoice (as described in the article above). But, you will never see a line item for a freelancer. If it’s a freelance web designer, you will be invoiced the agency web designer rate. Or copywriter, or social media manager, or whatever.
But that doesn't mean we are just a commune of freelancers (or coffee house by another name). Serious organizations may need someone to help develop the appropriate brand strategy and manage the process. You may think you just need a website, when you are actually trying to reach your target audience with the wrong message. You may think the hand drawn logo your niece created in 1983 conveys your image just fine, when your global audience actually expects greater professionalism. It’s all part of understanding who you are and knowing who you want to be - and finding someone who can help you get there.