As a copywriter, should you work with agencies? Or go it alone?

I meet a lot of fellow copywriters through my business and networking groups. And a lot of them grapple with the same question – should I work with digital agencies or stick to direct clients? I do both and I enjoy both but, like most things in life, there are pros and cons of being an agency copywriter.

I’ve worked as an agency copywriter for over five years and it’s taught me a lot about branding and business ownership. Let’s dive into some of the things copywriters should consider before stepping into agency land.

Pro: You get a steady stream of work.
Con: The stream may turn into a tsunami.

If the agency you’re working with doesn’t have an in-house copywriter, they’ll be sending you a steady flow of jobs. Agency work has meant that I’ve never had to worry if I’m going to have a slow month. Most often, I’m booked out a month in advance without spending a cent on marketing.

Agencies are a fast-paced environment and they’ll often be sending you lot of work that needs to be completed within very tight deadlines. While this is great for your bank balance, it can quickly throw out any semblance of work/life balance.

Agency copywriter, Jacqui McCallum and a woman with long blonde hair are sitting in brown leather chairs facing on another. Jacqui is wearing a multi-coloured silk shirt and mustard pants. The other woman is wearing blue jeans and a white shirt. They are both drinking coffee and smiling.

Honest communication is key to a mutually beneficial relationship with agency directors.

During 2020 and 2021, I worked with a top branding agency in Melbourne. The director and I were kindred spirits and it was, in most respects, a dream gig – awe-inspiring clients, phenomenally creative design team, every invoice paid the day I sent it. The work was fulfilling but the juggle became too much. Managing their big projects plus my own lead me straight to Burn Out Town. I had to turn away direct clients and lost focus on my own business goals.

If you’re going to work with an agency be very clear on how many hours you can realistically commit to them. Also, recommend that they engage more than one copywriter so that you’re not under pressure to take on every job.

Pro: You build up a diverse portfolio.
Con: You may not be able to promote that portfolio.

Some agencies will be ok with you promoting the work you do for them. Others won’t. Make sure you have a clear contractor agreement in place so you know what’s what from the get-go.

I’ve been working with a creative agency in Geelong for a few years now. I use their branding on all the copydecks but it’s clear to their clients that they are contracting me through Blue Budgie. They’re happy for me to promote the work I do for them in my portfolio and in turn, I look after them with agency pricing and referrals. We have a mutually respectful, win-win relationship that both of us value.

Two women are sitting in front of a laptop. They have their backs to the camera and you can only see their hands and shoulders. They are looking at a website with products on it.

Make sure you have a clear agreement on whether you can share your portfolio or not.

Other agencies are a lot more rigid and want your work to appear more in-house than contract. I get it. But it can also be tough when you’re working to build up a great portfolio and you can’t share it with anyone. If you already have a big portfolio of work, this might not matter. But if you’re in the early stages of building your portfolio, have a think about how this will impact you.

Pro: You get to work with dream clients.
Con: They’re not your clients.

I’ve built up a solid base of repeat clients over the last five and a half years. Often I start with writing their SEO website copy, then they come back for some extra service pages or product descriptions, then they ask for a few blogs, then a job ad, you get the drift. I love building relationships with my clients and contributing to their brand growth over the years. I get really invested in and excited for my clients.  

As part of my agency gigs, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the top senior leaders in Australia and overseas including the Senior Vice President of the biggest entertainment company in the world (dream = realised). I’ve worked on 60-hour-plus projects and grown really close to agency clients. When I made the tough but necessary decision to step away from one agency, I was gutted. I had to say goodbye to a team and clients I genuinely loved working with. As a copywriter, you need to weigh up the benefits of working with dream clients that aren’t yours.

Agency copywriter, Jacqui McCallum and a woman with long blonde hair are sitting in brown leather chairs facing on another. Jacqui is wearing a multi-coloured silk shirt and mustard pants. The other woman is wearing blue jeans and a white shirt. They are both drinking coffee and smiling.

My agency gigs have led to me working with a lot of ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ clients.

Pro: You get to enjoy a variety of work.
Con: Some of the work might not resonate with you.

I’m at a point in my career where I want to work with people whose values align with mine. When I started as a freelance writer, I took every gig I was offered. I don’t want to come across as ‘up myself’ but I no longer have to or want to.

If someone works in an industry I’m not comfortable with, I politely decline the job. And that’s good for me and them. If I don’t believe in your service or products, I’m not the best person to write about them.

I remember sitting in a strategy session for an agency job once and feeling a sense of dread. The client had made a seriously vile comment that related to a woman in his life and I just thought, I don’t like you. The deposit had been paid, the Asana board was set up and I didn’t want to let the agency down so I smiled, nodded and completed the job. The agency director and the client loved the copy and no one ever knew how I felt about his misogynist views. My professionalism won over my principles and I was left feeling a bit ick.

Agency copywriter, Jacqui McCallum is leaning against a glass wall in an office. She is wearing a multi-coloured silk shirt and mustard pants. She is smiling at the camera.

As I get older, I just want to work with clients whose values align with mine.

My process for working with direct clients starts with a discovery call so we can see if we’re a good fit to work together. If I feel like the potential client could be better served by someone else, I’m always honest. During a big website project, we’ll likely be working together for a month or more. We both deserve to enjoy the process.

When you work for an agency you might feel pressured to work on projects that you’re not keen on. With direct clients, you have more freedom to say no. Think about why you started your copywriting business in the first place. If agency work is going to get in the way of your ethos and goals, it might not be right for you.

There are a lot of other pros and cons of agency work but in the interests of brevity I’ll stop here. I know rates often come up as a barrier for taking on agency work but I’ve always ensured that I set my rates and it’s up the agency director to say yay or nay.

I’ve had a great experience working with agencies and it’s something I’ll continue to do. I’ll just make sure that it doesn’t impact the business I’m building or compromise my wellbeing and integrity. Only you know what’s right for you but hopefully this blog has given you some food for thought.

How have you found working with agencies? Has it always been a seamless and enjoyable experience? Or have you decided it’s not for you?

What would you like to do now?