The Silent Subcontractor

For the last four years I’ve had this daft rule: I don’t work with agencies.

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It wasn’t one of those opinions I’d always share with people, I’d just find excuses to turn down any agency work that came up. A few weeks ago I blurted out my agency-phobia on Twitter:

And then I realized how foolish it sounded. Why was I doing this? I was really just attributing a few dodgy practices to all agencies—and minimizing my potential to work with great people. By a basic definition, an agency is just a collective that produces work for clients. If I worked with one more person, I could be an agency. Now I’m feeling a bit silly for discriminating for so long.

So I took the time to understand what it was about some agencies that made me feel I couldn’t work with them. There may be a few processes and practices that some agencies use that would make me feel uncomfortable, but looking at the real reason I dreaded working with agencies, I realized I just don’t want to be a silent subcontractor.

The silent treatment#section2

When a freelancer working for an agency (or even another individual) can’t pitch the project, communicate with the client, or get any recognition, they become a silent subcontractor.

They don’t pitch the project#section3

As designers, we need to have a say in how long it should take to do a good job on the project. In order to do this, we need to be able to discuss how much budget is available. And when we understand the time and budgetary needs, then we can make a reasonable estimate about how the project could be executed.

When a freelance designer is brought into a project after the brief has been written and the budget and deadline set, there is little room for movement. The architecture of the project has already been designed by another party, so the designer is expected to just sit down and execute.

They don’t communicate with the client#section4

For the duration of a project, designers need open and direct communication with their clients. The ability to communicate and justify our design decisions is a significant part of our jobs. If we have no contact with our clients, then we can’t field feedback effectively or explain our reasons for creating work in a particular way.

If design feedback is filtered through another party, such as an account or project manager, then this intermediary is expected to impart feedback truthfully and accurately. But even if they do, the intermediary still breaks the flow of a conversation as they stand between the designer and the client.

Even if the feedback from the client has been reported back to the designer word-for-word, there’s a significant part of the communication missing. What was the client’s tone of voice when they said, “I’m not sure about the navigation…”? What was their facial expression? What were they looking at when they said this? What was the discussion that came before and after it?

Inevitably, these scenarios result in the intermediary saying, “I’ll go back and ask the designer,” or, “I’ll go back and ask the client.” As either a client or a designer on the receiving end of this type of feedback, it’s frustrating hearing a summary like “they say it’s not possible because they tried it already and it didn’t work,” without any further explanation.

The more separation that is put between the processes of the client and the designer, the harder it is to understand each other’s decisions and motivations. These removed forms of communication can make the client and designer appear to each other as a distant, egotistical enemy: someone out of your reach who is saying no without giving you the chance to explain yourself. The ideal process is one that unites the client and designer, allowing them to share the reasoning and responsibility for design decisions.

They don’t get any recognition#section5

In a recent article on 24ways, Geri Coady pointed out how unusual it is for each contributor to be properly attributed on a web project. A designer’s portfolio is one of the few places they can promote the projects they worked on to potential clients. If our right to claim credit as creators isn’t enforced in the contract, designers often feel they should comply with agency requests to stay quiet about their role in a project.

When an agency is giving the client the impression that the designer is in-house, or puts the freelancer under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), the designer is unlikely to be able to display their work publicly. If a designer isn’t allowed to share their involvement in a project, it’s a noticeable gap in recent work. It isn’t about our egos, but designers do need recognition. Without a good portfolio that backs up their skills and experience, a designer will find it harder to get work.

Breaking the silence#section6

In 2014, I’m going to have a better chance of collaborating with great agencies. I’m updating my website, but it’s not going to say that I don’t work with agencies. It’s going to say that I don’t work as a silent subcontractor—and I recommend that other freelancers also think twice before allowing themselves to be used in this way.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

16 Reader Comments

  1. I’ve never worked for an agency as a sub-contractor but I’m planning to do that so I’ve been making a research on that. As far as I understand there are two main reasons an agency will refuse to give you credit: they don’t want their clients to know they’re sub-contracting work to freelancers (especially if the freelancer is living overseas) and they don’t want clients to abandon that agency to solely work with the freelancer. The former is obviously shady practice while the latter doesn’t make any sense since there is no way for a one person to handle the agency work load. Clients with more than a couple of thousands dollars to spend go to agencies not to freelancers.

    So far I’ve only worked directly with clients and I have no idea how a freelancer can do work for a client whom he/she has no access to. Even minor details require many email exchanges between me and a client, an agency as a middleman would only slow the process down considerably. It would only work if you’re doing repetitive commodity work like writing HTML. Any other creative tasks require constant communication.

    Unfortunately shady agencies outnumber great agencies. I have the same worries about being able to put work in my portfolio so when I start reaching out to agencies as a sub-contractor I’ll make sure they sign a contract that states I can take credit for the work I do. Let’s see what will happen. As freelancers we need to be more outspoken about fair treatment.

  2. In addition to being hired as a “silent (partner)”, this practice is also called “white labeling”.

    Please also be aware that NDA’s represent only the most visible document a designer could be asked to sign that will strip his/her rights to claim authorship of the work he/she creates.

    You MUST READ contracts carefully for Non-Compete clauses and Work-For-Hire clauses. Very frequently, rights-restrictive language is repeated from an NDA and buried in clauses within a contract.

    The bottom line is that agencies will rarely, if ever, bring a contractor on as an equal partner. They are only interested in protecting their reputation and their client roster. Always be wary. Your interests are their lowest priority.

  3. First let me preface my comment with the fact that I am not a designer. I am a programmer. So perhaps my experience is colored by that fact.

    I have been a fairly silent sub-contractor for years and enjoyed it greatly. I do take credit for my work (i.e. the fact that I am a sub-contractor is not usually hidden from the client). But I rarely interact directly with the clients directly and I’m even more rarely involved in “the pitch”.

    Here is why I enjoy this setup:

    * Reduced risk – I have long standing relationships with the agencies. They want to have me around for the next project so they pay me on time for the current project even if they are having trouble getting paid.
    * Reduced dependency – I have occasionally had some of my agencies get slow. This doesn’t bother me because I almost always have work I can do with other agencies.
    * Project Choice – Since I have lots of work to choose from I can pick the ones I like the best.
    * Say in Implementation – Although I factor in the clients needs when deciding how to implement a project, I get a lot of say in the method of execution. Agencies hire me because I know how to make stuff work. If they start imposing constraints that reduce the quality of the output or reduce my enjoyment in implementing it then I stop doing projects with that agency.
    * Tremendous Flexibility – Not having to meet with clients means I work when and where I want. I never have to commute. Heck, last year I traveled for six and a half months in an RV. When not hacking code for agencies I was exploring the world.
    * Great Focus – Not having to meet with clients means I can just focus on getting shit done. If I have an issue I pass it up to the agency. They handle communicating with the client.
    * Continuous stream of neatly packaged work – I skip all the song and dance of winning a contract. By the time it gets to me it is a neatly defined package of work. This means almost every hour is billable. I just pump through it and make money.

    I’m not saying it is for everybody. Some people want the glory of being the guy at the top. I’d rather just make money and enjoy life. To me it carries the advantages of being an employee + the advantages of being an independent contractor without most of the disadvantages.

    Probably the only disadvantage to this setup is that I often get too much work. This means I either have to turn down work (which makes me less money and hurts my relationship with the agency if I do it too often) or I have to work too hard (reducing my enjoyment of life).

    Just wanted to offer an opposite point of view.

  4. Acting as a one-man web development shop, my income increased exponentially when I started partnering with local design and advertising firms acting as a development subcontractor.

    This was/is also a double edged sword, as well, for very similar reasons outlined in this excellent article. More often than not, an agency would contact me for dev work with little time left in their client project, asking that development (that would normally take weeks to do) be completed within a week. I would know nothing of the client, their goals, etc. And worse yet, I would ask development related questions their designers didn’t know to ask, and uncover requirements that were not documented.

    Of course, I am learning over time, in how to deal with these situations. And with each new design agency engagement I am more firm with my schedule, workload, and how I communicate. At first I thought it would result in getting called on less, but I’m actually respected more for my experience and professionalism.

    Don’t be a push-over. You don’t want to just be a technician.

  5. “I’ll go back and ask the designer,” or, “I’ll go back and ask the client.”

    This, totally thisy McThis this – it can be frustrating enough dealing with the client directly let alone having several more layers of obstructive crap in between.

  6. Great post, for the most part it blends well with the role of a developer. I personally don’t mind letting the agency deal with the client and me not having to get into the mix. In order for it to work for me as a developer there are a couple things that can be frustrating.

    1. Getting very little detail on a project and asked to give an estimate on completion, then having to do a rush job in a fixed budget.
    2. Scope creep, as the contractor it can be difficult to push back on the client when you see it happening. You can voice your concerns to the agency and charge for the extra time it takes, but most clients when told “you can have this but it’s going to cost, take longer, give up something else…”
    3. Not being able to manage your time well since you don’t know when projects are coming down the pipe. I’ll go weeks without hearing from the agency, then all of a sudden I have 3 urgent projects.

  7. Subcontracting for (the wrong) agencies is a double-edged sword, I think:

    – It is unfair to the client, who gets about the same work at a higher price. Are the additional client representative hours really worth that premium?
    – It is unfair to independent consultants as it promotes the idea that only big name agencies are able to handle big time projects, when in reality it’s one person doing most of the work.

    If you can talk directly with the client, I’m all for it and it means that you’re working with the right agency. However, that’s seldom the case from my experience. Most (larger) agencies will typically try and hide you like cat nasty under the carpet.

  8. As you point out, working with agencies is just working with multiple people. There is nothing inherently evil about agencies.

    However, there are a few major “potential problem areas” in working with agencies.

    One is in communication i.e. talking directly to the client. The other is in taking credit for the work.

    The first can be solved by agreeing that you are not a “silent partner”. The client should know about your existence and the fact that you own your separate business – more so they should talk to you all the time since that is part of the designer/client relationship.

    Agencies thinking they can hide the fact that they hire freelancers are on a slippery slope – a simple Google search for your name will reveal that you are a freelancer/part of another agency/studio. I hire freelancers all the time and I am very open about it towards clients.

    For this, I have a simple rule – I will never work with agencies that try to pass me off as part of their agency. No extra e-mail addresses, no different e-mail signatures. No three Basecamp accounts. I’ve been there and it’s no good for your business and for the project iself.

    Because of the subcontracting situation – you as a freelancer have a contract with the agency and the agency has a contract with the client – what is possible and what is not in terms of attribution/portfolio suddenly becomes a very gray area.

    Perhaps the client doesn’t want their work to be featured in portfolios because they are making a highly competitive product in a private space (think industrial engineering). Perhaps the work is something that isn’t even announced internally in the company.

    So for portfolio inclusion, in order to keep a good relationship with the client, one should always ask. This will lead to many ‘No’s, especially since most people don’t really know what it means to put something in a portfolio. One way to remedy this is to make the portfolio piece and send them a private link, explaining why it’s good for the both of you that there is a public portfolio entry.

    Attributing the different roles in the project is always good. Nothing worse than seeing the same project on different agency websites.

  9. I’m sympathetic toward Johan’s sentiment…

    If you care a great deal more about the money than the work, and are comfortable with the prospect of forming a long-term relationship with a dysfunctional organization, then by all means rely on subcontracting.

    If you’re offered a sub as a one-off, don’t bother unless you need the money; that’s the worst of both worlds.

    The second world at issue is this: the agencies that NEED subcontractors (at least in my frontend engineering bailiwick) suck at traffic management and skillsdev, and almost universally are shackled to print conventions at the design end.

    Wireframes? IA? The mere concept of a session? Responsiveness? Ha! The only solace I take is that the analytics people have it worse than I do, because they can bray reccos all day long to no positive effect for want of basic comprehension at the receiving end.

    On the upside, you don’t have to sell. There are months when that’s for the best.

  10. i’m a subcontractor for an agency, but i prefer it that way. i dont WANT to talk to the clients. i just wanna do the work. as long as i can still put publically say i built so and so site, i’m fine.

  11. Hi Laura:
    I spent this year making my living in part as a subcontractor for a few agencies who I developed relationships with. What I’ve found is, the larger the agency, the less likely you are to have direct communication with the client. In the cases in which the agency contact feels comfortable letting you deal with the client directly, things are sped up and communication is much clearer. However, I completely understand the need for an agency to represent itself and its work with one cohesive image.

    This year, I did have my own self-managed projects, where I dealt with clients directly, and handled all the aspects from beginning to end. I can say that is a better way to control your destiny. I have no issues working with agencies so far, but if I did not temper those with my own projects, my portfolio would be awfully thin, which is a large part of selling your competency and process.

    Thanks for writing this article from your experiences; I think many freelancers have been in a similar situation.

  12. I’m very happy for all the people who refuse to work with agencies because of NDA’s and not being able to put the work on their own website.

    It leaves all the more work out there for me. I love working white-label for agencies.

    Let’s be real; recognition doesn’t exist outside your own family (sometimes, not even there) unless you’re a superstar. So honestly, it comes down to money; are you being paid well for what you do? If so, shut up, do the work, and take the weekends off.

  13. As a boutique (aka “small”) agency owner, I found your post most interesting. Like you, we almost never work with “sub-contractors.” Not that I could not use the help, but because it is hard for a sub-contractor to come in and feel personally connected to the work and all the people involved. I believe those attributes are very important in a working relationship.

    The folks who work with me have for a long time, six years, eight years and more. We’ve worked hard together over the years — with some success and recognition. More than that, I truly care about them, and I believe it goes both ways. I care about how they are doing, I love that they can go to every school performance that their kids are in, even if it is in the middle of the workday. And if they are having a rough time, I want them to know that I am there for them (even if it means they need time off). Luckily it cuts both ways, if it was not for them, I couldn’t have spent so much quality time taking care of my Mom at the end of her 20+ year battle with cancer.

    That type of relationship takes time to develop and often there is not a lot of that on a project. And when freelancers are working on making a living, they do not always have the time needed to let personal stuff intermingle with the work stuff. But when it does, as it has a couple of times, it can be wonderful.

    But until we all know and trust each other, I must insist on things like an NDA to protect our business. I am responsible for the well-being of those I work with as well as my family and I do not want want anyone to screw with that. But I do not want anyone who works with us to feel screwed either. And though I have to give permission for someone to display the work we do together in their portfolio, I have never said they couldn’t as long as they are honest about what they did on the project.

    Laura, I would LOVE for a sub-contractor to be involved in talks with our clients in regards to the work we are doing, even if they have to “pretend” they are more of an employee than they actually are. I want them to talk and communicate with my team and I want them to enjoy the work.

    I gauge success by the qaulity of the work done and if we want to work together again. I would like to think that you feel the same way. If you do, trust me, you will find agency people you like to work with who will not want to keep you “silent.”

    I wish you all the best in your efforts.

  14. This is why I have clear a definition for Freelancer and Agency (or company). If you’re a freelancer you work for other agencies, if you work mostly direct to client you’re an agency, it’s irrelevant if you’re a company of 1.

    Client communication is a skill like Designing or Coding. You obviously have this skill in addition to production skills, many other freelancers do not.

    I run a small agency and in the past have freelanced. As an Agency, as an unwritten rule, I too do not work for other Agencies. Put in these terms it’s an obvious rule, you are working for your competition, you are using your skills to the benefit of another company that is marketing the same services you do.

    If you create fantastic projects for 5 different clients of another Agency you do not have 5 new clients, you have 1. The Agency is your client, as you state you’re a sub-contractor, a short term employee. The Agency has hired you for a skill, to expand their internal team. I’d probably say they’d be wasting an opportunity to use your client relations skill in addition to design, but not all production people are ‘good’ with other people. They also probably have that role covered, they’re hiring you to ‘make’. As soon as you want to communicate directly with the client, pretending to be an employee etc gets messy but not pretending isn’t easy either. When you do you’re still representing the Agency you’re working for, understandably they want to protect the relationship with their client. Freelancers saying, ‘no you can’t have that’, is maybe OK for how you wish to work with your clients but not for the Agency and their clients. Your, ‘tone of voice’, is just as important as the clients. Company philosophy and beliefs now play a part if you’ve become a public face.

    Even if individual members of the team are comfortable and skilled at direct communication with the client, it doesn’t scale well. It’s impractical for an Agency of 30+ production people to deal with client liaison, hence the rolls of Account Handler or Project Manager.

    So, it depends on the focus of your company, if your company is a vehicle to push your own own needs. If it’s an entity to shape your career, working for other companies makes perfect sense. Interesting complex projects for large scale clients is usually out of reach for freelancers and small companies. This is exactly why I freelanced. But if your aim is to build your own company, it will be hard sub-contracting. You’ve already found the right wording, ‘collaborating’ with other Agencies. For my company I use, ‘partnering’.

  15. I just did this, and man, I REALLY wanted it to work out. I’m SUPER selective about who I chose to work with, and I really, REALLY liked this team. I was hired initially because they’re starting to get a demand for Squarespace sites, and I’m one of VERY few specialists in town, but I do a LOT of other things. Before leaving and going full-time at a creative agency, I worked in journalism, so I do print design, branding, I do hard code (was a tech major in college), art direction, illustration, AND I can write compelling copy to sell an idea and write a fantastic “elevator pitch.” And proof the document if i have to. I also do illustration and infographics. I worked doing this for internal communication at a small agency with a REALLY impressive client list. And seriously, I’m not a do-it-all jack of all trades who’s not really good at anything. My work’s been focus grouped and test-marketed all over the US, parts of Canada and Latin America, and performs VERY WELL. I’m solid. I just have a real commitment to growth and what I do.

    I got completely chewed out for supposedly missing an ambiguous deadline, and their entire existence they’ve never actaully had an in-house designer, they’ve ALWAYS used freelancers and just told me they had a really really bad string of luck with them blowing deadline.

    I DO NOT MISS DEADLINE. That is sacred to me after work in the news industry.

    I really hope I can make this work somewhere else in the future, because I really liked the structure and team atmosphere again. But I can’t mind read. “Can we see something by Wednesday?” to me translates as the project for internal review, then followed up the next day with “Actually, we’re hoping now to see something by Monday.” This doesn’t interpret to me as WE ALREADY PROMISED IT TO THE CLIENT BY MONDAY.

    I was supossed to figure this out.

  16. Working with agencies is a tricky one. I’ve had my fair share of terrible experiences working with agencies but there are always a few good ones out there that make it worthwhile.

    One agency I did contracted work for wanted me to out right lie to clients time and time again to make it look like I was an in house designer. I kept telling them I wasn’t comfortable doing this as it goes against everything I stand for, they eventually became increasingly angry with me simply for telling clients the truth. Safe to say I wont be working with them again.

    What I really hate is when agencies try to pass your work off as their own, that’s my real issue with agencies. Just be open and tell your clients the truth.

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