What Do Ad Agencies Look for in Freelancers?

Freelancing Basics | Jan 19, 2017

Since the advertising industry has a long history of working with freelancers, we wanted to explore what qualities are most valued among potential hires. We made sure to mix it up, seeking a wide range of opinions from a variety of sources. We have synthesized the best points from our talks with Creative Directors, Human Resources, Managing Directors, Senior VPs, Tech Leads and Recruiters from the following companies/agencies:


Why do you hire freelancers and how many do you use each month?

All of the people we spoke with told us that they’re always working with at least one or more freelancer at any point in time. Generally freelancers are hired to fill in holes on the team, help with pitches, provide skills that don’t exist in-house, or add capacity during crunch periods or when the agency wins a new piece of business. None of the respondents expect their usage will increase (or decrease) in the next few years.

What skills and roles do you normally outsource?

Not surprisingly, creative roles figured prominently in everyone’s answers – Art Directors, Copywriters, Designers. In addition, several of the Hiring Managers and Creative Directors said they also hire UX Specialists, Project Managers and Producers, Developers, Videographers, Proofreaders, Marketing Specialists, Strategists and even Account people.

How do you find your freelancers and who decides on the hire?

First and foremost, all of the respondents said word of mouth was their most common method of finding people. They all keep their own contact lists and tap their internal networks as needed. Sid Lee mentioned Working Not Working and a few others said they will occasionally post on Linked In but the broad consensus was that their own database is their go-to source. Only Wattpad mentioned they sometimes use third-party recruiters for engineering roles (although there are a few boutique recruitment firms that do place freelancers periodically).

Often the hiring decision is a collaboration between the department head and HR. Once a freelancer is on the “list,” Operations/Trafficking may make the call.

What do you look for in the freelancers that you use?


  • Can they hit the ground running? (Sid Lee)
  • Can they make a quick impact? (Wattpad)
  • Have they worked in an agency before? Do they understand the basic processes? (John St.)
  • Direct experience – there is no learning on the job. (MacLaren McCann)

 Familiarity with the Category or Industry (e.g. Financial Services, Travel, Sports, etc.)

  • Most of them said that sometimes this can be very important but that it really depends on the work the freelancer is being hired on to do. On some jobs it’s critical for the freelancer to be familiar with the industry, while on others it’s not.


  • Price matters. They all talked about having budgets to work within and standard rate expectations for the most common roles. If the engagement is short and/or the skill set is specialized there is more flexibility on the rates.
  • The good news is that in most cases they want to be fair to their freelancers and the lowest rates are not the deciding factor.
  • Several people mentioned the pressure they are facing on the rates they get from clients, which can be a factor in what they can pay.
  • They expect flexibility for longer-term engagements, such as a willingness to negotiate weekly or even monthly rates.


  • Availability is very important. They will only wait for someone who has very unique skills they can’t find elsewhere.
  • Generally agencies want people on-site to work with the team. Occasionally this is not necessary but usually this is only for people who they’ve worked with before.

What is your best advice for freelancers who want to work with you?

 Make Contacts

  • “Build relationships with a few good shops rather than taking a scatter- gun approach.”
  • Get to know people at the company – the people in your area of expertise, as well as the recruiters and/or operations people.
  • Use your own network to get introductions – you’re more likely to be noticed if you are referred by an employee of the agency.

Perfect Your Portfolio

  • Have a great portfolio, resume, etc. Use Dribble, Cargo Collective, Behance – free portfolio sites that have nice UI. Make sure what you put together is polished.
  • Do your homework. Know the agency, what they do and what’s going on. (Follow industry news to see who just won new work.)
  • “Your portfolio gets you in the door, your reputation gets you invited back.”
  • “Describe your skills clearly and specifically. Make it easy to know what you do.”

 Professionalism Goes a Long Way

  • Ask questions and get up to speed quickly.
  • Be willing to work on anything, especially if it’s a new project.
  • Be easy to work with, own your work and try to be part of the team.
  • Never openly complain. Word will spread and you won’t get asked back.
  • Never leave before your gig is up – honor your commitments.

Don’t Give Up

  • Keep in touch and make your availability known.
  • Ask for feedback if you don’t get called back.
  • Widen your net – for instance, reach out to the other locations of an agency.
  • Never work for free or much less than you’re worth, but be smart about setting your price. Shoot for a win-win.

Final Thoughts

If you are new to freelancing one key take-away from these discussions is that if you want to work as a freelancer in the ad industry, you may want to try to work full-time for a while in order to gain some of that essential experience recruiters are always seeking. If you do make it on to the rosters of some of the many advertising and technology shops in Canada, you have a good chance of earning a decent income as a freelancer. They tend to pay good rates and on-time.

Finally we want to mention that although advertising is a big industry and quite diverse, there was a high degree of consensus among the people we talked to. We also note that much of their good advice is applicable in other industries and much of it could, in many ways, just be called smart freelance practices.