The Lone Web Designer: Strategies for Competing Against the Big Agency

March 26th, 2008 in Business & Process

by: Matthew Griffin

I don't think much introduction is necessary with this topic. We've all been beaten out of a project by a big ad agency at some point. It's a frustrating and demoralizing; especially when you know you could do a better job. As an independent web designer, I've battled this issue for quite a few years now, and I've decided it's time to publish a list of core strategies based on my experience.

Build a Solid Team
You can't do it all yourself—you weren't created to do it all yourself. And even if you can, no one will believe you can. You need talented allies who can fill in the areas where you are weak or overloaded. You may not want to hire employees but at least link up with some other freelancers that will have your back. If you don't present a confidence-inspiring talent set to your client, you won't get the big projects.

It's Okay to Be a Web Designer
Web design is your area of expertise and that's okay. In fact, it's more than okay—it's a great selling point. We've all been given talents and interests that combine to make our abilities unique. You have the unique ability to build a set of promotional materials whose core is the website. Most agencies will start with print and eventually wind their way out to the web. People are realizing more and more that this approach is completely backward.

Get Involved in Your Community (Your Physical Community)
This is one area where the traditional ad agency has beaten us—hands down. Web designers prefer to socialize in virtual communities and leave the physical world to the mortals. But this is a big mistake and it's the number one reason you don't see the big projects come across your desk. The leaders of local causes are constantly communicating with the movers and shakers in the community. When you form relationships with the leaders of local causes, you build the ideal word-of-mouth marketing (you might even help out a worthy cause).

Know Your Market
You need to be an expert in matters of online marketing in your local area and on the web in general. This means having client-specific facts and statistics ready for every meeting with a prospective client. This is something your ad agency buddies probably won't be very good at.

Study Graphic Design and Layout
Most web designers lack technical knowledge of graphic styles and layouts. Pick up a book and learn a little bit about what's what. It'll go a long way in boosting your image as an expert in all things visual. Be assured, the big agency will be on top of this one as well.

Don't Try to Be Big
If you try to act like you're something you're not, the truth will eventually come out. It's wrong to hold up a deceptive image of yourself to lure in a client. Embrace your smallness and don't be afraid to talk about the benefits of a small team (or individual) with your client. They will appreciate your honesty and be inspired by your confidence.

Don't  Burn Bridges Because You're Frustrated
Even if you follow all my advise, you're bound to get bested by a big competitor at some point. Don't make it worse than it needs to be. Politely bow out and express to the client your disappointment that you won't have to opportunity to work them. This is a difficult step to take but it's vital to your survival and growth. It earns respect and admiration from your lost client and your competitor. It puts you in a position to take over the project in case your competitor fails to live up to the client's expectations. And it ensures that the lost client won't go tell ten friends what jerk you are.

Now you're well on your way to kicking the big agency's butt. I'm sure that there are other tips that should have been mentioned so please comment if you have one.



Posted By: Brad C on 03/26/08

Another strategy is the "If you can't beat em join em" strategy. I work as a freelancer for a couple agencies and there are a lot of benefits to doing so. The other tips are good. I'm a fan of not acting to big. The last thing you want are projects that will bog you down and stretch you beyond what you're good at.

Posted By: on 03/26/08

Good advice, Brad. Thanks.

Posted By: E. I. Sanchez on 03/26/08

Matt, any resources on: Study Graphic Design and Layout? I've been wanting to ask these questions... What's the hottest website layout these days? 3-column, 2-column? are there any magazine style css templates outthere? should people feature user comments on their blog?

Posted By: on 03/26/08

Good question, Edgar. I think this one is worth posting a separate article about. My quick answer is that it really depends on where you ultimately want to end up. If you are wanting to pursue graphic design as a vocation, then you need to start on a good book-based study path. This is something I'm still working on after quite a few years as a freelancer and it's something that I will continue to some degree for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if you just need a good design for your website and you don't necessarily want to put all of your energy into it; it's probably best to model your layout after a trusted website that you personally find pleasing and usable. Like I said, I'll post more in-depth article sometime in the near future.

Posted By: Craig Elimeliah on 03/26/08

Cute... although it seems a bit outdated. The web is a new platform, its is way beyond what it was even 2 years ago. There is so much involved, so much strategy, detail, design, programming, tracking, etc... can one man be a hollywood studio? No. Its not as simple as it used to be. And it shouldnt be that simple either. We have evolved into a complex platform that requires more than a pirated copy of Dreamweaver to develop for. The quality of sites should be going up. The bar has been raised. Not everyone is a web designer.

Posted By: on 03/26/08

Craig, I think we agree. Please see my first heading in the article. I think what's outdated is the idea that we have to form frozen employer-employee relationships to get the job done right.

Posted By: tim nolan on 03/26/08

See: above link for description

Posted By: Jermayn on 03/27/08

Great article. Do not lower your rates to get the job would be my tip....

Posted By: xavier on 03/27/08

Great article and site. Love reading this blog.

Posted By: on 03/27/08

Thanks a lot, Jermayn and Xavier.

Posted By: Mokokoma Mokhonoana on 10/23/08

Good points, your "smallness" can't definitely be used to your advantage, as it allows you to offer a more personal working relationship with the client!

Post Your Comment

Comments are closed.