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How to Decide Your Own Role in Your Creative Agency

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This post is part of a series called Evolve From Freelancer to Agency.
The Differences Between Marketing Yourself Solo and Marketing an Agency
How to Keep Your Creative Agency Growing in the Long Run

When you open an agency, you’re the head honcho. Everybody else has to do what you say, while you kick back and put up your feet.

Or, at least, that’s what we’d all like to think.

But, while you do get to define your team’s roles at the agency, you’ll still have your hands full with work of your own. The big question becomes what work you’re going to take responsibility for at your agency.

As you first start working towards an agency model, the answer will probably be ‘all of it.’ But it’s worth setting some expectations of where you’d like to wind up. That way, you can prioritize what sort of team members you’ll need to bring in first.

Creative Versus Administrative

It’s not that uncommon to hear agency founders discuss how they’d like to get back into actually doing creative work after they’ve been in business for a while — it’s very easy to slip into a place where you’re focusing on handling the administrative side of the business while contractors and employees handle all of the creative work.

Part of the reason it’s so easy to slip into such a routine is because, as a creative yourself, it’s going to be a lot easier to find other creatives. You can judge if they’re good enough to take on work for your agency much faster than you’ll be able to tell if a salesperson or administrator really knows what she’s doing.

This situation is only a problem if you aren’t particularly fond of administrative work. If you like administrative work, perhaps even more than creative work, winding up with most of your schedule devoted to planning and other details may sound ideal to you. If that’s the case, by the way, you’re practically guaranteed to be able to bring in some of the freelancers who love creative work but hate anything that even hints of administration very easily. But if you’d rather spend most of your time on creative work, you need to be clear about that fact from the beginning.

Don’t necessarily carve the division you’d like to see in your schedule in stone, at least right now. As you’re getting everything up and running, you may have the opportunity to handle some types of work that you’ve never dealt with before. You may find that you like certain types of work more than you’d expect.

Breaking Down the Creative Work

Within the creative work your company takes on, there will likely be many different elements. The tasks can be separated far beyond design work versus copywriting. Developing the copy for a website, for instance, might take research, writing, editing and testing. You’ll be responsible for the overall result, but if you can clarify exactly what component tasks will make up a project, you can more easily pick and choose the bits you enjoy.

But the perk of the position is that, most of the time, you can work on the creative work that most interests you.

Since you’re at the top of the pile, you’re almost certainly going to have to take a project management role. You’re going to have to pick up the slack when a part of the project that you’ve assigned out isn’t completed. But the perk of the position is that, most of the time, you can work on the creative work that most interests you. Assign your own work before you start handing off anything to anyone else.

It’s also crucial to think about the finished product. No one will ever complete creative work (or even administrative work for that matter) exactly the way you might. But some people will go farther afield than even the average. You need to lay out what constitutes a good job, as well as what indicates a job so bad that you’re willing to redo it yourself rather than hand it over to a client.

You need to identify when a project is done, as well as what needs to be completed to get to that point. When you’re operating an agency, you can’t go overboard on creating perfect work — but you do need to impress your clients time and again. It isn’t an easy line to walk.

Breaking Down the Administrative Work

Within administrative work, the first question should almost always be whether or not you can automate a certain task. A lot of administrative tasks are incredibly routine and, as a result, there are automated solutions for many of them.

Whether or not you can automate those tasks at a price point that makes sense is a different matter, but from accounting to human resources, there are tools out there — including many focused on the small business market, which most brand new agencies fall directly into.

It almost always makes financial sense to automate as much administrative work as possible (or even outsource it to an assistant, virtual or otherwise). That’s because the more time you can free up to either land more work or actually do that work, the more money you’ll have coming in. However, from other points of view, outsourcing and automation can be less appealing.

As the owner of an agency, control can be very important. If you’re not aware of everything that is happening, from client communications to accounting, you may not be able to make the most effective decisions. It’s harder to keep track of the threads of your business if you are just reading reports, rather than doing the work yourself. It can come down to a question of your personal workflow: if you need to process invoices yourself to understand your cash flow, do it. Knowing exactly how your business is doing is more important that squeezing out a little more free time.

If your agency grows, you will likely find yourself needing some help with the administrative workload, even if that’s where you spend most of your time. There’s just an upper limit to the number of projects most people can handle and it’s even harder when you’re running a company at the same time.

As you’re starting out, keep track of the decisions that only you can make, as opposed to the ones that can be handed off to an assistant. You’re the only one who can sign checks, most likely, so that’s not something you can pass along — but generating a report of outgoing checks that need to be cut may very well be something an assistant with access to your accounting software can print for you.

There’s a question of comfort levels, as well as whether you’re willing to train an assistant or pay for someone who really knows what they’re doing.

Handling Sales

Not all freelancers are comfortable with the actual sales process, but if you have an agency full of creatives depending on you, you’ve got to make sure that work is coming in on a regular basis. You have two options: you can go out and sell or you can hire a salesperson.

The big question is often how much room you can give your salesperson to negotiate.

For some of us, hiring a salesperson can be the greatest advantage to moving to an agency model. If you can find someone who is truly superb at winning over new clients for you, it can be well worth a salary and even a commission on top.

Exactly what a salesperson will do for your agency depends on what you ask for. You may find someone willing to write proposals or you may find someone who is just focused on actually pitching new clients and setting rates. Decide on what you need in advance, as well as how much power you’re willing to hand over to a salesperson.

The big question is often how much room you can give your salesperson to negotiate. Depending on the margins necessary to pay your team, you may not be able to empower a sales person to negotiate at all — she may have to sell a client on a set of standard prices.

Of course, if you’re comfortable selling, you can make that your primary role. You’ll almost certainly have to take charge of your sales to start out with and if you find that the networking and pitching is easy, it’s worth going for. It’s always difficult to find a salesperson who really understands the creative process, especially when it’s rare that a salesperson has also freelanced in the past.

Taking on the role yourself can help you avoid potential problems that come from a salesperson not knowing exactly what the process will entail. You may also be willing to win over some better creatives to your team, as well: there are some talented freelancers out there who hate to sell but who will happily work with someone who can bring them plenty of business.

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