Free Agent or Secret Agent — Which Will You Choose?

The other day, a client sent me a cryptic message on Skype. It read,

Do you ever feel like 007? I feel like ‘M’, always keeping you in the shadows.

Huh?

Then she explained. Kristy had just seen the latest James Bond movie. And she thought I was one of her best agents.

I had to smile. We’re not exactly in the spy business.

You see, Kristy is content manager for a local marketing agency. Their specialty — like mine — is content for hi-tech B2B companies. Over the last 12 months, I’ve written a lot of copy for them. In fact, they’ve given me new projects every month.

That’s a lot of work for a copywriter who only launched full-time last January.

“But wait,” you say. “Working for an agency? I thought you were a freelance writer.”

Does working with an agency compromise your “mission”?

I hear that question a lot.

Freelancing means no boss. It lets you set your own schedule, take your pick of assignments, and still pull in a nice income. That’s why I chose it. So it might surprise you that most of my paid projects in the first year came from an agency.

Not what I set out to do.

Does that somehow compromise my goals of becoming an independent freelancer? Not at all. In fact, it’s given my writing career a real boost.

How did it happen?

Never underestimate the power of LinkedIn and your own marketing message. I’d just given my profile a makeover, ditching the tired, old “resume” format. A local search for “B2B hi-tech copywriter” led Kristy’s recruiter right to my profile. And that, in turn, directed her to my website.

My portfolio was pretty slim back then. You see, I hadn’t had any real clients yet. One sales letter, one case study, and one white paper — and all were practice pieces.

But with my background and my website copy, it was enough. My Inbox dinged … my phone rang … and Kristy and her boss decided to give me a shot.

I’d been recruited.

From free agent to secret agent?

Why was Kristy joking about 007 and secret agents?

In most agencies, freelancers are almost invisible. They work behind the scenes. That's because the agency, not you, finds the clients and provides the client management. I get to listen in on an occasional client call, but most of the direction comes through account managers like Kristy.

So I work my craft “in the shadows.” In Kristy’s words, it’s like being a secret agent.

Yet I’m still very much a freelancer.

Kristy’s happy when I’m available to her, of course, but I’m free to write for other clients, too. I get to pick and choose.

They’ve even offered me a staff position, more than once. But so far, I like having both options — agency assignments and my own clients. I guess that makes me a double agent.

It’s far from a compromising position in my book.

The perks of getting started with an agency

Of course, getting paid assignments is nice — an agency will do that for you. But “enlisting” has other perks, especially when you’re just starting out.

As new writers, we have to learn the craft of writing effective copy. That takes time and practice. So why not let someone else find and manage the clients while you learn? An agency will do those things for you — so they’ll pay a bit less than a direct client. But you get to spend more time writing and less time prospecting.

You’ll also get to explore writing options you hadn’t considered. That’s because an agency’s clients — and its content needs — change all the time.

For example, last year I meant to focus on white papers and case studies for IT companies. Or so I thought.

Yes, I’ve written some of those for Kristy. But I’ve also learned to write brochures, sell sheets, product announcements, bylines, blogs, e-books, research papers — just to name a few.

I’m not strictly confined to IT companies, either. I’ve explored Internet security, cloud services, and web software. And I’ve written about healthcare technology, restaurant equipment, unified communications, mobile apps, project management, and so much more.

All unexpected, and all in the space of a year.

As you can imagine, your portfolio can explode. Most agencies let you showcase your work once it’s published. There are a few exceptions, like ghostwriting. Even then, they’ll let you share these offline, if you ask.

In only a short time, you can build an impressive and varied portfolio. And all from real paying clients.

From secret agent to secret weapon

What happens when you become indispensable to the agency? After all, no one can replace 007!

Last November, Kristy called me in a panic. Another freelancer had dropped the ball on a 20-page research paper. He just disappeared, the deadline less than two weeks away. Could I help?

In spite of a full plate and never having done a professional research paper, I accepted the rush job. And 007 came through — again.

It was the perfect time to ask for a referral. But Kristy said she wouldn’t share me with anyone else — jokingly, of course. She said, “Now you’re my very own secret weapon.” Then she wrote me the best LinkedIn recommendation I could ever want.

When someone praises you online as their go-to copywriter, you should feel good. You’ve got a client for life.

007 never really retires

Once you get your writer’s chops, you’ll probably move on. Or not. Some writers just prefer working with agencies, either as free agents or employees.

As for me, I still write for Kristy, even though I’ve started getting more of my own clients. But I know even the best freelancers will experience a lull now and then.

That’s when having an agency or two in your back pocket can come in handy.

Once you’ve established a strong working relationship, don’t let it wither. Nurture it — even if you’re not on “active duty.” Then when you need an extra project, you only have to ask if they need help.

So it’s up to you. Do you want to be a free agent, a secret agent or — like me — a little of both?

This article, Free Agent or Secret Agent, was originally published by B2B Writing Success.

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Published: February 18, 2016

3 Responses to “Free Agent or Secret Agent — Which Will You Choose? ”

  1. Les,

    Great article and congratulations on your meteoric success! Kudos!

    Now for the $64K question. What agencies do you recommend? Or is that a no-no question to post on the board!? (smile goes here).

    Thanks anyway for excellent counsel.

    Don

    Don JonesFebruary 18, 2016 at 3:41 pm

  2. Hi Les! I so enjoyed your article, because I can identify with your situation.
    I've been a freelance translator for years, writing translations for major companies who had no idea who I was because I was on the roster of the international agencies they hired to do their translations.

    For some, my English adaptations of their website text or tech specs were the basis for translations into several other languages. Scary (& proud) moment when I heard that!
    So here's to all us SPIES out there! :)

    Beth JonesFebruary 18, 2016 at 3:54 pm

  3. Hi Les. A great article and as a fellow secret agent, one I heartily agree with.

    I answered a classified ad for a B2B tech copywriter and now have a steady stream of work from a well respected B2B marketing agency with blue chip clients. They had lost their previous writer (careless) and needed a quick replacement. I parachuted in!

    It is really helping me establish myself, build confidence, improve skills and expand the portfolio.

    Here's to more secret assignments!

    Paul

    Paul HansonFebruary 23, 2016 at 3:28 am


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