Man-eating alligators, poisonous snakes, and blood-thirsty bears--they all pale in comparison to the deadliest creature known to creative freelancers. It’s not scaly reptiles that freelancers should fear, it’s the dreaded in-house designer. They, more than a hungry alligator, can cause freelancers the most harm. Well, okay...an alligator can is something you should have a healthy respect for, but if you’re considering a project for a client that has an in-house designer or “creative” person, you need to be on your guard.
Before we tackle why an in-house designer can cause a freelancer problems, I’d first like to share with you that I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve been a freelancer working with clients who had in-house designers, and I’ve been the in-house marcom manager who worked with an outside creative agency (freelancers). I’d also point out to you that neither the freelancer, nor the in-house creative person, is right or wrong. They just have different objectives when it comes to the project, and these different objectives, coupled with their similar skill sets, and sometimes big egos, can cause a great deal of friction.
For example, the freelancer’s objectives are to maximize the amount of revenue he makes, and at the same time reduce the amount of time, effort, and hassle he has to invest with the client. Yeah, I know, freelancing is more than making a profit. I am all about taking care of the client and broadening my creative horizons as well, but freelancing needs to be run as a business. Anyway, don’t send in hate mail. It’s not all about time and money, but freelancers need both to survive in business.
Conversely, the in-house designer has a different agenda. She isn’t concerned with the freelancer’s time or money in the slightest. In fact, her objective is often to exhibit her expertise through the process by providing advice, creative direction, and guidance. She’s not looking to make the freelancer’s job both easy and successful. She’s looking after herself, and she wants to make sure her employer knows that she’s a valuable expert (even though a freelancer’s been brought in). At the very least, the in-house designer won’t let the freelancer get away for any shenanigans, e.g., over-billing, taking way too much time on a project, or using jargon meant to confuse the client. Beware of any of these approaches--especially when your client has an in-house designer. They will call you out. At worst, the in-house designer will actively try to sabotage the process in a selfish attempt to make the freelancer look bad, and them look good. Keep in mind that an in-house designer may feel some jealousy or may feel threatened by a freelance designer.
In neither the freelancer nor the in-house designer’s case do I see someone at fault (unless one of them is secretly trying to undermine the other). For the most part, these are just two different creatives with naturally ulterior motives.
From the freelancers point of view. I offer the following insider tips on working with clients who have in-house designers:
- Unless the in-house designer is the decision maker, avoid directly or solely replying, communicating or negotiating with them. Without being overly obvious, try to make your primary contact in the company the decision maker. If you email the in-house designer, always copy the decision maker.
- Avoid being overly friendly or rude with the in-house designer. Be respectful, kind, and professional. Keep your communications with them friendly, respectful, and concise.
- Do not argue or get into a “pissing contest” with the in-house designer. If you have an issue with her/his feedback or communications towards you, speak to the decision maker.
- In regard to creative direction, be flexible...at least a little bit. Inevitably, the in-house designer will want an opportunity to express their opinions about your project. They probably can’t wait to do it! Be respectful of their thoughts and opinions.
- Before you send an invoice over, have a conversation with the decision maker. Let him know what will be in the invoice. Avoid overcharging, padding your time, or anything else that the in-house designer may call you out on. Charge for your time (you should always do this), but bill fairly. If you try to over charge the decision maker, the in-house designer is going to call you out.
- Last, but most important. Have a conversation with the decision maker at the beginning of the process. Do this without the in-house designer being present. Explain to the decision maker how you work and what he/she can expect in terms of processes, revisions, etc. Be gentle, but get them to agree that while feedback (at least some) is welcome, you’ll be working on this project alone, rather than a collaborative effort with their in-house designer. Ask the decision maker if having you work on the project on your own...or even having you work on the project at all...will cause any friction with the other designer. As is true in so many other aspects of freelancing (pricing, deliverables, turnaround times, etc.) if you address and manage expectations before you begin working, you can avoid the majority of problems other freelancers right into.
In closing, to say that I haven't met some great freelancers and in-house designers isn't true, and I don't advocate that you have a overwhelming distrust of the other party--just be careful when you're dealing with them. They probably have a different agenda than you do.