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When does it make sense to hire a creative agency? To hire in-house full-timers? To contract a freelancer? A break-down of 3 hiring options for startups that need creative work.
For example’s sake, let’s imagine a startup building a dating app for dogs called Woof. They need a minimum viable brand (MVB), including a logo, website, marketing copy & collateral, social media strategy, and an activation campaign targeting dog moms in cities. 🐶🐾
The founders are deeply familiar with the dog dating industry and are confident they’ll find product-market fit with their MVP 1.0 if it’s launched with a successful campaign. They’ve raised money from previous ventures, from friends and family, and from some seed investors.
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What’s the Woof team look like? It’s lean— let’s say the 2 co-founders have hired a marketing strategist who has successfully launched MVBs in the past, plus two developers to build the app. The strategist is saying they should be able to have a launch activation in 3 months with the right creative team. They’ve already got a sales agency hired and working with the marketing strategist to conduct user research and talk to dog groomers that might be willing to partner.
Now it’s time to bring on the creatives to work alongside the team.
👨🏻🎨 The Freelancer
In an attempt to avoid Fiverr/Upwork/Contra, Woof’s gets a few referrals for great freelance creatives out there. They’re looking to work with someone who is based in the U.S. because it will simplify communications and they have no idea how to navigate the international contracting market. For better or worse, it feels safer.
They’ve emailed 3 freelancers who have hourly costs ranging from $50 to $100 per hour.
All of the freelancers have been really communicative and feel like they’d be fun to work with.
But Woof has no idea how to evaluate the quality of the freelancers’ work. All they have is the portfolios on their websites, and even then, they can’t judge the effectiveness of their work. They might be able to chat with references, but the quality of the work is going to be a real mystery.
Their instinct is to play it safe and go for the most expensive freelancer. If they’re the most expensive, that must mean their work justifies the price – right? Right???
But even if they do pick the right freelancer, the timeline looks problematic. They want to get the 1.0 version of the platform in the hands of customers in 3 months so that it can start generating revenue. But with only one creative, it could take 2-3x longer than if they had a small team. And what happens if the freelancer goes on vacation or can’t work for some reason? Or what if they get a job offer that’s too good to pass up halfway through the project? All of their eggs will be in one basket, and it feels risky.
🚀 The Agency
Woof does a Google search for “creative agency” and is overwhelmed with the results. Endless billboard spec mockups for brands that probably don’t exist. Illustrious headlines promising to “go beyond the ordinary”. Every agency has an office “mascot” of an AI-generated dog (😳). None of these people even look like the ~cool artist vibe~ they pictured.
After a few hours of sifting through search results, the founders reach out to 4 agencies that look to have good reviews and a brand that feels right.
The quotes come in: $100 per hour, $125 per hour, $165 per hour, and $200 per hour.
Most of the prices are higher than what the freelancers quoted. Some of them are in the ballpark of the sharky lawyer who bills in 15-minute increments. They’ll need 3+ months of support from this agency!!
But two of these agencies really seem to know what they’re doing. It looks like they’ve launched similar projects before with team members who know how to work together, and they’re able to scale the team size up or down depending on the phase of the project. They also have a team of people not just in design, but in UX research as well. Woof’s founders hadn’t even considered UX research, which sounds both like an inviting lifevest in an uncertain future and also like a needless expense.
They receive polished PDF proposals that make the freelancers look novice. To Woof, it seems like the agency can handle the bigger, spontaneous problems that a freelancer might fumble.
👽 The Full-Timers
Of course, the founders also think: what if we just built our own in-house creative team? We’ll need to do it eventually, and it will be a fraction of what we’d need to pay an agency.
But what would the job posting say? Neither of the Woof founders has the design acumen needed to communicate their vision to a full-time hire. Their marketing strategist could probably fill in some of the blanks, but hiring feels like the riskiest path. Kind of like trying a new baking recipe and fooling yourself into thinking “I don’t need the instructions”.
Even if they hire a consultant to help them build out their team, the hiring process could take months. And then what happens when a creative quits? Don’t these Gen Z’ers switch jobs every 3 months? Is there even data on Gen Z workers???
They might be better off just hiring the really expensive (good?) freelancer and planning for the project to take 6 months instead of their target 3. But what about the opportunity cost of not generating revenue as early as possible…
Finally, what happens to Woof after the MVP 1.0 version is released? If the large marketing milestones are completed and autopilot sales is all that’s needed, they can’t justify paying $205k in creative salaries each year (1 Creative Strategist at $95,000 (source) + 1 Graphic Designer at $55,000 (source) + 1 Social Media Manager at $55,000 (source)). Will they just need to lay off the team?
The founders are stumped, and Woof is pooped.
Who to hire
The path the Woof team takes in hiring should come down to their startup’s strategy.
There’s no need to do a full SWOT analysis, but let’s review where the founders have more risk and where they have less risk ( a.k.a. more confidence):
Areas of confidence: The founders know the industry and their clientele well. They have high confidence that they’ll quickly find product-market fit and that a well-built launch campaign will earn them traction with dog moms. They’ve done their homework on the market and they know that if they can find love for dogs, the owners will spend top-dollar on the app. All this is to say, the most certainty is around the revenue side of the business.
Areas of risk: The founders lack expertise in digital marketing, copywriting, & design. They’re unsure how to establish a meaningful brand identity for Woof.
If the founders know their strengths and weaknesses well, they can make a strategic decision about how they move forward based on cost, timeline, and scope:
Woof decides to hire the agency.
While it will be expensive up-front, this decision is most likely to deliver the MVB & launch campaign quickly and at the highest quality.
Equally important, it frees the founders up to focus on other areas of the business. Their business strategy doesn’t hinge on building the best in-house creative team, and that’s not going to be a differentiator for them, at least in the early years. So they’ll rely on the agency to get the work done and will invest their time in areas of the business that make better use of their skills and will have a better return on their investment.
Finally, when it becomes time to solve the in-house talent problem, the founders will have a solution in place if the hiring initiative fails: the agency can continue doing the work until the in-house team is successfully built out.
It’s all barks for Woof.
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