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How to motivate your agency’s freelancers

In this episode, Chip and Gini take a question from the SAGA Community on Slack about ways to motivate freelancers just as you do with employees.

The reality is that freelancers and employees aren’t the same and contractors should treat your agency as a client and produce excellent results — just the same way you do for your own clients.

The real question ought to be how to engage freelancers more effectively, and that comes down to clear communication. As long as both parties understand the relationship and expectations are well-established, both agency and freelancer should be able to prosper from the relationship.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “Agency owners always say, my freelancers are not motivated. What do I do? Act like the client and make them do their job or find somebody else.”
  • Chip Griffin: “The vast majority of freelancers think of themselves more as an employee that’s just being paid differently.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Freelancers are not employees. Not only should you not think of them as employees, but they should not think of themselves as employees.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Like everything else, it comes back to communication, transparency, and honesty.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, I’m, I’m feeling really unmotivated today, so I think we need to fix that.

Gini Dietrich: All right, let’s do that.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

Gini Dietrich: Feeling unmotivated, huh?

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I mean, it’s dark, it’s dreary, it’s snowy, you know, typical winter in New Hampshire. What can I say? You know, cold, mixed in with the snow too, because why not? So, you get it, so unmotivated, very unmotivated, but actually that’s not what we’re going to talk about today because…

Gini Dietrich: Well, kind of. Not your motivation.

Chip Griffin: Not my motivation.

Gini Dietrich: Lack of motivation in general.

Chip Griffin: Lack of motivation in general. And how do you keep in particular, how do you keep freelancers motivated on your team? And this is a question that came to us from the SAGA community. So for a change, we, we went outside of Spin Sucks and realized that there are people talking about things. You know, actually we’ll need to go back to the Reddit, Agency Subreddit pretty soon.

 Gini Dietrich: Oh, we haven’t done that in a while.

Chip Griffin: We haven’t pulled from there in a while. And that has been very, very active of late. So. Oh, I mean, multiple posts, new posts every day. So lots of, of things there. Lots of things that will get our blood boiling if we ever, you know, feel the need to do that. But, today we’re going to, one of the questions that we got was how do you motivate, freelance workers?

Within the limits of the law in particular. And so, you know, we all think about as we’re in this, this hybrid world, or remote world where we’ve got employees who are working remotely, but we also need to think about freelancers and how do we make them feel a part of the team? Well, maybe not going so far that the IRS or state agencies say to us, No, no, I don’t think so.

Now those folks look like employees. And it is a real challenge because so many small agencies are taking advantage of freelancers for either all of their, outputs beyond their own or as a significant portion of their workforce. And so we need to be thinking about that and making sure that we’re getting the most out of them and getting the best results that we can.

Gini Dietrich: So this drives me crazy. I’m going to start with that because if you’re a freelancer and you’re working with an agency, the agency is your client. It is not up to the client to make sure that you’re happy and motivated. It is up to the freelancer to make sure that they are servicing their clients appropriately.

And for some reason, and this is across the board, agency owners always say, my freelancers are not motivated. What do I do? Act like the client and make them do their job or find somebody else.

Chip Griffin: But we both know that not only do the owners not see it that way, but most of the freelancers don’t see it that way either.

There’s a certain class of what I would call the professional freelancer who does, right? The professional freelancer has been doing this a long time. They get the joke. They know that they are the client, you know, that they are servicing you as a client. But the vast majority of freelancers, and I think it’s getting worse these days, the vast majority of freelancers think of themselves more as an employee that’s just being paid differently.

And the owners are thinking of them in a very similar way, which is obviously problematic from a legal and regulatory standpoint. But, but it is the reality of how the relationship is working.

Gini Dietrich: So switch your mindset because really and truly and I have this conversation a lot with my clients, which is You are the client. And you have to not only change your mindset, but you have to set things up differently. So you set up the relationship as a client-agency relationship. You are the client. They are servicing you as the client, and if they’re not doing their job, that’s the nice thing about having freelancers is you can say, you’re not, I’m not getting out of you what I want, so we’re going to go on to somebody else, because that’s how this works.

They’re not employees. Not only should you not think of them as employees, but they should not think of themselves as employees. And I understand there are things like, well, sometimes we want to have one to ones with them, or we want to include them in team meetings, and that’s fine. Like they’re, I have one to ones with my clients.

And my team and I are included in their team meetings a lot, especially when it’s, it has to do with the work that we’re doing. But as the freelancer, it’s up to them to manage their time and their retainer, whatever you’re paying them to include that kind of stuff. That’s their job. It’s not your job.

It’s their job.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and I think part of this comes down to how you structure the relationship from the get go. That’s right. And I think that it’s really important, and this helps you from a legal regulatory standpoint as well, that you structure it such that you’re paying per project that they are working on.

It’s a fixed fee for that project. Just as you are getting paid typically by your client a fixed fee for a project, in most cases, most agencies, and you should be doing the same with your freelancers for a couple of reasons. First of all, it makes it crystal clear that if that project goes away, so does the revenue that you’re paying.

Gini Dietrich: So does the revenue, right.

Chip Griffin: Right, the problem that a lot of agencies have is they go to a freelancer and they say, you know, I’ll pay you 5,000 a month and it’ll be to work on this, this, this, this, and this. No, break it out by project. And so the more work that they’re doing, the more that they get paid. And, and that’s actually a good thing for you because it means, I mean, it’s, it’s like, I always said about taxes, I was always happy to pay a large tax bill because it means I made a lot of money.

If you’re paying your freelancers a lot more money, it should be because you are getting a lot more revenue and a lot more work that has to be done. Right. And so if you marry those two together, that helps to frame it as much more of a client. It doesn’t solve the problem by any means, but it helps a lot versus just paying them a lump sum for whatever you throw their way.

And it really helps you if you’re ever audited and they’re taking a look at it because that looks much more like a client relationship than an employee relationship.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. And as you’re doing that, you’re thinking about, okay, I’m paying them, let’s say it’s 3,000 a month to write 12 blog posts every month.

If they can’t write 12 blog posts every month in the 3,000 that you both have agreed on, not your problem. They can’t bill you 4,200 or 5,000 because that’s not how you bill your clients. That’s not how it works. So when you’re working with a freelancer and you’ve agreed, we’re going to write 12 blog posts every month and I’m going to pay you 3,000 a month for it.

It’s their job to manage their time effectively and to get it done within that amount. If they go over, that’s not your problem. Now they can come back to you and say, You know, we’ve been doing this for six months and it’s more complex than I expected. I expected or it’s taking me longer. Whatever happens to be, can we talk about increasing the rate or the fee?

That’s a different story. But for them to send you a 4200 invoice when it should be 3,000 because it took them more time. N-O no, not your problem.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and this is where it’s important that you have a documented relationship with your freelancer. And so, so you need to have a contract with them again, this protects you from you know, legal regulatory audits, that kind of thing, all sorts of other legal issues as well. But by doing that, you’re also being crystal clear about what your expectations are. Because freelancers are so wildly different from employees that you need to make sure that you are being very direct about what you’re expecting to receive from them in return for that compensation, what those terms are.

I mean, you would never think about going to your client and just sending them a larger invoice because you did more work than you anticipated. You need to have a conversation in advance. Now, in fairness, most freelancers do not just send you an inflated invoice without a conversation first. I haven’t seen a lot of that.

It has happened. I’ve seen it. I haven’t seen a lot of it. If you’re seeing a lot of it, then you probably not getting the right freelancers.

 Gini Dietrich: Yes. Yes.

Chip Griffin: And that’s just bad business. I mean, that’s just bad behavior. No matter what. Right. I mean, you can’t do that as an employee and just, you know, say, Oh, well, you have to pay me overtime, even though we didn’t talk about it.

And actually, I guess, technically, legally, you can, but that’s a whole another. Let’s leave overtime for another conversation. We’re staying complicated enough. You know, and I think a lot of times when agency owners are asking us about how do you make, keep freelancers, you know, motivated and interested they’re losing track of the fact that they are not the same as employees, and even employees yes, you can motivate employees but usually when I’m asked how do I keep an employee motivated, it’s because the owner thinks that they’re going to turn the employee into thinking like them as an owner.

And I think we’ve, I’m pretty sure we’ve done an episode. If not, we’ve ranted a lot about how employees will never think like you do. They will never be nearly as motivated as you are because they don’t own the business.

Gini Dietrich: And so one of the things, right. One of the things my cycling coach says all the time, all of the time is discipline out trumps motivation every time.

And what he’s saying by that is there are going to be days where you’re not motivated. There are gonna be days where you look at your, what you have to do from a cycling perspective, strength training, whatever happens to be, and you’re just not feeling it. But because you’re disciplined, you’re disciplined in getting the results that you’re setting, that you’ve set out to achieve with your goals, you’re going to get on the bike anyway.

And you’re going to feel better and all these things that come with it. But the same thing in business, like you can’t motivate somebody. There are going to be days they’re not motivated. There are going to be days that you’re not motivated and not want to go to work. Like we were talking before about how gloomy and gray and dark everything is right now.

It’s gross. And that affects me. Do I, would I rather be in bed reading a book right now? Absolutely. But discipline is trumping motivation. And that’s where you have to get people is, it’s about the discipline of coming to work and doing the job in the best way that they can. And it’s not about you having to motivate them because that’s not what – you can’t do that.

But you can help them become disciplined.

Chip Griffin: Well, yes, I agree. And I think part of it here is, is trying to understand what is motivation in your eyes, you know? So when someone is asking you, right. I mean, what, what, what is it that, that they are not presently doing that you would like them to be doing? And so then you can evaluate, is that even something that’s within the scope of what you’re paying them to do or not?

Is it something that is realistic to expect or not? And so once you figure that out, then you can start addressing those particular things, and sometimes it may be that you’re simply not communicating with them effectively. It might be that they’re not understanding what you’re really trying to accomplish with the work that you’re passing on to them.

It might be that, you know, you haven’t been providing feedback on past work, right? So making sure that you’re providing accurate direction at the beginning. Consistent and effective feedback over the course of the engagement. Those are things that will help Improve what you’re receiving typically from freelancers as well as others. And so that may be depending on what you what the specific questioner is asking about when they’re thinking about motivation That could be a piece of it.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. Absolutely. And the other thing I would say is have consistent communication Because there, there may be times where they’re completely motivated and they want to do more good work and all of the, all of the things that you have done are in the right place and the structure’s in the right place, but there might be something else going on.

And I, I’ll use this as an example, about a year and a half ago, I have a writer that is top notch. She’s probably the very best writer I’ve ever worked with. She’s so good. She delivers on time. She delivers great content. We never have to, like, change much. You know, we might just edit for, like, typos and small grammatical errors.

But that’s it. She’s so good. And all of a sudden, her, everything went off the cliff. She started missing deadlines. She stopped showing up for meetings. She stopped responding to emails and phone calls and texts. And finally I scheduled a meeting with her after about 10 days of this. And I was like, what is going on?

And I discovered that one of our clients was abusing her, like verbally abusing her. And she sent me some examples and I was, I had no idea this was happening. I was horrified. So of course she wasn’t motivated to do any work for them because they were treating her badly. So I immediately removed her from that account and, you know, put her somewhere else, but the, I, if I hadn’t continued to follow up with her to figure out what was going on, I would have never discovered that.

And I would have just assumed she was unmotivated and things just went to pot and we had to move on. So consistent communication as well, especially within a situation like that, where things go off the cliff without any real explanation, you have to figure out why. Because there could be other reasons.

There might be personal reasons, there could be other reasons that it’s happening. So Don’t avoid conflict. Have conversations. Do it on video chat or the phone if you can, because email and Slack, things get lost. And make sure that that’s part of your process. And just like we have one to ones with our employees, you want to have one to ones with your freelancers, too.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. I mean, a lot of the same things that work for employees will work with freelancers. The other thing I would say is, you know, going back to what you were saying earlier, you need to be thinking about this from the standpoint of you are the client. And so ask yourself, what are the things that demotivate you when working with your own clients?

Gini Dietrich: Fair. Totally fair.

Chip Griffin: And make sure that you’re not doing those same things to your freelancers. Yep. Yep. So, you know, if we think about it as an agency, what demotivates us with clients? Well, I mean, it demotivates us when they don’t listen to the advice that we’re giving them. It demotivates us when they keep us in the dark and surprise us with things.

There’s a lot of things like that that are demotivating as an agency with our clients. So look at yourself as the client and say, okay. If I were, if I controlled the behavior of my own clients, how would I want them to behave? And then behave that way towards your freelancers. Make yourself the ideal client for them.

And that will help improve the relationship and the results that you’re getting in all likelihood.

Gini Dietrich: Love that advice. Yeah. I think it’s really like setting up the expectations at the front so that they understand this is a client relationship. You’re the client. demonstrate what that looks like, what a good client relationship looks like, what a good client looks like. And then always find ways to help them become disciplined in the process.

And some, some cases, you’re, you know, you may be working with a, a solopreneur or freelancer who’s just a couple of years into their gig or brand new at their gig and you have to teach them. You have to coach them just like you would coach an employee and that’s okay, but they have to understand what those expectations are to be able to do that.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And, and so, you know, like everything else, it comes back to communication. It comes back to, to transparency and honesty. It comes, it comes back to treating each other as you’d like to be treated yourself. If you do those things, you will, you will get as much as you can. But you also need to, to check yourself and make sure that what your expectations are, are actually reasonable because often that’s where they’ve gone off the rails, right?

You cannot expect employees or freelancers to care as much as you do to contribute voluntarily outside and above and beyond what you’ve actually agreed with them to do. And to the extent that you want them to contribute, I mean, if you want your freelancers to contribute to your annual planning process.

Great. By all means, invite them in. I’ve been, as a consultant, I’ve worked with plenty of clients on annual planning processes. If, if it’s within the scope of work that you’ve agreed, great. If it’s not, pay them some extra to be part of it. Pay them to come meet in person. If you’re, if you’ve got an off site, you know, that you’re doing with team members and you’ve got some freelancers, pay to bring the freelancers in.

Again, I’ve been brought into plenty of clients over the years, including larger agencies that I’ve worked with. And they’ve brought me into these kinds of strategic planning meetings. But they’ve paid me to do it.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. That’s exactly right. So if you’re not willing to pay for it, then the problem is not them.

Chip Griffin: So hopefully that gives folks some ideas of how they can, you know, work with freelancers more effectively, get better results. And if it’s a question of motivation, figuring out what the root cause of that concern is and go from there. So with that, I’m, I’m motivated to bring this episode to a conclusion so that we don’t go on for too long.

I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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