Working with agencies

Emma Parnell
6 min readJul 18, 2022


An arial photograph of people working around a table with Apple laptops and phones on the table. A semi transparent speech bubble is overlaid with the words ‘Working with agencies’ in black, sans serif font. The bottom left has a yellow lozenge with the word Joy.

This year around 50% of my income will have come from working with other small agencies.

When I started Joy I made a conscious decision to prioritise working with smaller, independent agencies. This was because I was more attracted to the work they did but also because I feel more at home working with small, flexible organisations with more autonomy and less bureaucracy. I also wanted shorter, flexible contracts and ideally wanted to avoid Government work for a while.

I have had conversations with a couple of the bigger players but it would have to be the right project for me to go there.

I’ve worked for agencies most of my career. I’ve had plenty of experience hiring contractors and partnering with smaller organisations. So being on the other side has been an interesting experience.

I wanted to share some of my learnings so far. Things that agencies could consider with a view to forming a strong partnership with a contractor or other small agency.

Recognise my business and my brand

For some contractors this won’t matter but for me it does. I launched Joy because I wanted to build a business with a brand people could connect to. The work I do will hopefully become synonymous with Joy as I build my reputation. Some agencies I’ve worked with have allowed me to partner with them and have seen this as a strength, especially if we’ve been pitching together. Others have asked me to come in as a contractor under their organisations brand.

Now I know why agencies do this. I have no doubt that I did it too. Presenting a united front and a strong, connected team to the client is important. But I’d argue it could have the opposite effect from a team perspective.

Firstly I am a very open, honest person so hiding a part of myself doesn’t feel comfortable. This has an impact on how I perform. Secondly I have a weaker connection to the work because the reputation of my own company is not at stake. Obviously I love what I do and am committed to all projects I take on but I do think these things have an impact when agencies are forming teams and selling them as strong and connected to clients.

The agencies that have allowed me to partner with them as Joy are the agencies I want to work with again and again.

Pay the fixed fee you agree upfront

This is becoming an ongoing problem for me. Agencies will offer me a fee usually based on a number of days a week for a set number of weeks.

They then ask me to track my time. As an experienced designer, I’m quite fast. This means I come under the allocated days pretty much every time. I feel like I’m being penalised financially for being efficient.

I recognise the upfront negotiations are based on an estimate but if the contractor has delivered on what was expected of them they should receive the fee that was allocated. It should also be made clear from the start so that they don’t feel worried or pressured.

This is important, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it helps build a trusted relationship.

My advice for contractors on this would be to have this conversation upfront. If you don’t, something I’ve tried recently is suggesting I invoice for the full fee at the end of the project and keep the days in the bank for them to use over the next 1–2 months if the project is continuing or if there is something else you could contribute to.

Don’t haggle down day rates because you need to mark them up

One thing I always hated about working in agencies was marking up contractors day rates. Yes there is work that goes into finding and onboarding contractors but in my opinion the work does not match the mark up.

I’m still learning how to ask for a day rate that is reflective of the value I bring to a project. So sometimes this is on me to go in at a higher rate to begin with. I’ve also been offered rates by agencies that I should have haggled up.

But the upshot it, however the negotiations play out, agencies know what the market rate is and they should be offering this to contractors regardless of the markup they have to add on top.

Pay contractors for bid writing

This is actually something I didn’t expect. I was ready to contribute to bids for free. But it is time, time that could be chargeable for me. So I think it’s great that some agencies are now offering to pay contractors for their contributions, regardless of if they win or lose the work.

Integrate us into your team

Yes contractors are only part of the team for a small amount of time but they are still human beings who crave all the same things your employees do. While it’s not the responsibility of agencies to train up contractors, it is their responsibility to make them feel at home and happy when they are working with you.

I’ve been invited to join parties and after work drinks which has been nice. But I’ve also been forgotten about when the whole team is in the office for the day and I dial into a call from home.

Put time into building a strong team

When I worked at Snook we used to start projects where the team was new to working together with an internal kick off. This session was dedicated to establishing ways of working and most importantly for team members to share with each other how they worked. I used to call on the User Manual of Me for these sessions.

When you’re integrating a contractor this is even more important. They don’t know your companies ways of working and they don’t know the people they’re forming a team with.

I’ve only had one of these sessions so far, and it was initiated by me. Yes I’m experienced and I can figure out how to slot into teams, this is part of the job, but the team will be stronger if you have these discussions upfront.

Talk to us about future opportunities early

The contracts I take on are usually 2–3 months long. I tend to start scoping new opportunities about a month from the end of that. Often agencies will start talking to me about other work the week I’m finishing my contract. This means I’m usually booked up or in the final stages of negotiating new work.

If you see someone good, start talking to them about further work as soon as you can. Even if you don’t have a guaranteed project yet, let them know you’re pleased with their work and you’d like to chat to them about possibilities that are on the horizon.

I hope these learnings are helping for both agencies and contractors and that my experience can contribute to building stronger, trusted relationships in this space.

As I move into Year 2 for Joy I expect my focus will turn more towards direct client work however I would like to keep partnering with smaller agencies if the project and the team is right. It’s a really nice way for me to feel part of a team and provides great opportunity for learning.

Thank you for reading today. If you enjoyed what you read please consider buying me a coffee. The money you donate will go towards funding my development as a writer so that one day I can hopefully get paid to write as well as design. Donate here or click the green tip button below.



Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.