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In-house agency, freelancers, contractors

In-house agency or outsourced? That’s a question that organizations of all shapes and sizes will have to wrestle with as the labor market continues to tighten. To explore the question, we sat down with Spencer Brenneman’s Senior Art Director, Kim Vanni. She has been on both sides of the coin, having run in-house studios as well as working as a freelancer. 

Why should organizations even bother with having an in-house creative team? Why not just outsource it all?  

Having an in-house creative resource can be extremely beneficial to an organization in two specific ways: First, an in-house graphic designer will be an expert on your organization’s brand (I’ll have more to say on that in a bit), and second, will save you time, especially when materials are needed quickly. 

Agencies can be expensive, and they’ll likely have other projects in their queue, That may result in longer turnaround times than your in-house creative. Likewise, unless the agency is the same one that developed your brand with/for you, an in-house creative will be the expert on not just the brand’s visual identity but also the verbal identity (aka tone of voice) as well as your organization’s mission, vision, audience, offerings, and goals. An agency can absolutely learn these things, but it takes time…time you might not have if your deadline is looming.

Depending on the size of your organization, an in-house creative may be able to serve a variety of roles and produce a range of work, from website graphics, updates, and landing pages to customized emails, booth materials for events, presentation decks, advertisements, flyers, business cards, and collateral. And when not producing creative work, perhaps their role allows time for other business support that is critical to your day-to-day operations. 

As valuable as an in-house creative team may be for day-to-day support, It’s worthwhile to work with an agency, especially on larger-scope projects such as branding. It sounds odd, but the fact that an agency is on the “outside” is a huge advantage for these types of projects. By its very nature, an agency will approach these projects from an outsider’s viewpoint, one that is impossible for an in-house creative team. The cliche “a fresh pair of eyes” rings true in this case, and that new perspective will help you evolve your brand in ways those on the inside cannot.

If you’re blending in-house and external talent, what types of work are best for each? Let’s start with traditional employees.

The fact that in-house creative is intimately familiar with all the facets of an organization’s brand, mission, vision, etc., makes them so valuable for materials that require that understanding. What do I mean by that? An in-house creative can quickly implement new content into materials (a website landing page, for example) because they know what it needs to look like based on brand standards and previously-designed materials. They also know when content may need tweaking, emphasis, or explanation. The best kinds of projects for in-house creatives are just those: the workhorse, day-to-day materials that your organization depends on, such as flyers or brochures, event support, digital collateral, holiday cards, and materials for doing business (letterhead, business cards, and promotional materials such as tote bags and pens). 

And freelancers or agencies? 

This statement may ruffle the feathers of in-house creatives, but without a doubt, organizations should use agencies for branding/rebranding projects and large-scale marketing campaigns. As I mentioned, agencies have a fresh perspective that those working under your roof (actual or virtual) just can’t have. Agencies take the time to thoroughly and strategically audit the totality of your brand to see what’s working and the expert knowledge to fix what isn’t. An agency’s viewpoint also looks strongly to the future, working with you to develop achievable goals and anticipating what you will need to reach them.

What should organizations keep in mind when selecting freelancers or agencies to do their creative work? 

When deciding which out-of-house creatives to work with, there are a couple of important parameters to keep in mind. First, the agency’s specialty should be appropriate for your work. As an example, a non-profit organization raising awareness and research funding for a rare genetic disease wouldn’t engage an agency that specializes in over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. 

Second, the agency’s website and portfolio should align with your aesthetic preferences. To use the example above of the rare disease non-profit, a creative whose portfolio includes a lot of graffiti art would not be as appropriate as one with a contemporary professional aesthetic.

Once they have selected a freelancer or agency, what can an organization do to leverage their talents more efficiently? 

Before the kick-off for your large-scope project, it’s helpful to the agency if you are prepared with a few things in advance, such as a: 

  • Current brand guide;
  • Synopsis of your organization as it stands today and the goals you have for its future; 
  • Decisive team that will engage with the agency, including one point person; 
  • Collection of your organization’s relevant materials; 
  • List of competitors;
  • List of aspirational brands (brands that you love the look of, even if they’re not in your sector); and 
  • Clear budget. 

Once the work has begun, the best thing you can do to keep things moving in a direction everyone will love in the end is to be open and honest. Agencies know they don’t know your business as you do, and they do have thick skins. Your input is invaluable in not only what an agency produces but how they produce it.

There are a lot of online platforms out there, such as FIVRR and Upwork. What are the risks associated with going with those types of resources? 

The easy answer here is “you get what you pay for.” No doubt, there are accomplished, talented, and qualified creatives available through online platforms. There are also a lot who are under-experienced for the work you need. In either case, they will not know your organization or have the time to fully audit/understand your organization the way an agency will. They may have a full-time job, live on the other side of the world, have language barriers, or any number of obstacles that will interfere with the process of working together and—ultimately—delivering the quality work you need.

And a hugely important thing to remember is that any freelancer or stock-art creative resource can make a logo: At a fundamental level, logos are just small pieces of art. But they’re not just small pieces of art. A logo is a highly strategic, identifiable design that is symbolic of all the facets that make up your brand. It is not your brand. Your brand is so much more than a logo, color palette, or elevator pitch, and you’re not going to find it online for $25/h.

You can reach Kim at

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