When it comes to marketing, many companies have the same problem: a great big to-do list, but not enough manpower to make it all happen. Is the answer increasing your head count? Or calling in some outside help?
Whether to rely on in-house marketing or hire an agency can be a stressful decision for any marketing director, particularly for a small operation. Both choices have their benefits and their drawbacks, and which option is best for you depends entirely on your goals and situation.
For insights, we talked with Matt Wolfrom of Bridge Marketing, a digital media firm, and Lynn Zimmerman of WellRight, a provider of corporate wellness programs. Both Wolfrom and Zimmerman are marketing directors who went through this process recently themselves. Here is how they made their decision to keep their marketing in-house or hire a marketing agency.
Reflect Deeply on the Starting Point
Both Wolfrom and Zimmerman began their decision-making process with a thorough internal assessment of their company’s current needs, assets, and goals. These are the questions they recommend you ask yourself to put your needs in context:
- What are your revenue goals?
- What are your business goals?
- What skills will you require to achieve these goals?
- What skills do you have in-house? Are there any gaps?
- Will you struggle to achieve these goals if you only rely on in-house talent?
- Or, is there an aspect to these goals that only an in-house team can achieve?
If the answer to that last bullet is yes, then your direction is clear, Wolfrom says. However, if your answer is negative or even tentative, then supplemental support from a marketing agency may be the better fit.
Mind the Gaps
Identifying gaps in your in-house team’s skills and how those gaps affect your business goals is a significant consideration, say both directors. As part of a small startup, Zimmerman is careful to keep her costs down to maintain her business’s financial agility. Although adding a new team member can bring important new skills to a team, it also means additional salary and benefit costs. The question to ask, she says, is whether you need to keep those skills in-house or whether you could leverage an agency’s expertise instead.
Another factor in deciding which resources to leverage, notes Wolfrom, is the project’s expected return on investment. He likes to ask whether the project can translate dollars invested into dollars returned. Work likely to produce internal results rather than monetary ROI is work he prefers to keep in-house.
Consider Insider Expertise vs. Outsider Perspective
Both Zimmerman and Wolfrom consider industry expertise something that must be brought in-house. Wolfrom believes that staying up to date with industry changes is critical in a constantly adjusting, complex industry like his.
“Our business is extremely complicated,” he says. “We're not selling widgets. We’re working in a soon-to-be highly regulated market filled with misperceptions, and it's very fast-moving. We needed somebody who’s going to be deep into our business, who’s close to how quickly our business is evolving and who’s immersed in it versus being outside of it.”
His need for an industry expert was so fundamental to his overall business, Wolfrom decided to add an internal position, despite the hassles of hiring in a tight labor market.
Zimmerman also keeps work requiring industry expertise in-house. “Developing webinar topics, identifying the thought leaders we should connect with, and even completing speaker submissions and award applications for trade shows — keeping those kinds of things in-house is good because that’s how you enable your team to become experts in your industry.”
But industry immersion comes with its own problems, Wolfrom acknowledges. “The advantage an agency can provide is outside perspective. If you become too insulated, you become part of the problem. My job as a marketing leader is to question that status quo — to rise above it and ask if we’re thinking about things the right way. So, the biggest risk is being too immersed — so hooked on the Kool-Aid that we're not thinking of a different perspective to try.”
If you’ve been working on an initiative and aren’t seeing the needle move the way you expected, it may be time for an outside perspective.
Build a Positive Work Culture
Zimmerman, who ultimately decided to hire an agency to support her in-house team, views her agency relationship as an essential tool to meeting her business goals. She regularly outsources her more freestanding tasks, particularly ones that demand specialized skills, such as web design, or time-sensitive and time-consuming tasks, such as content writing.
“As marketing gets more and more technical, there's a division of what people are good at. Some people are good at writing; some people are good at the technical database management and have a real mind for analysis and technology,” said Zimmerman. “I think that technical skills are much different than writing and creative skills. If you're a hundred-million-dollar company, you can build out the team to have all those different skill sets. But when you’re a startup, it’s unlikely you’ll find one person who’s equally good at all those things.” Partnering with an agency allows Zimmerman to keep her overhead low and supplement her team’s efforts on an as-needed basis.
She also sees her agency partnership as key to in-house retention, because it provides breathing room for employees to grow in a direction that suits them. “Make sure you know what your employees’ aspirations are for the future,” she recommends, “so the needs of the organization and the employee can be aligned, and then assess what more is needed.” Tasks that don’t align with employee satisfaction or that aren’t needed daily are good candidates for an agency partnership.
Evaluate for Size and Speed
When it comes to keeping work in-house or hiring a marketing agency, Wolfrom says, another consideration is the size of the project compared with the size of your team. Can the work be split into reasonable portions, or is this project bigger than the team can reasonably accomplish?
Projects where you can start small and ramp up are ideal for a small and/or growing in-house team. Projects that rely on being launched simultaneously from all sides, guns blazing, require more support than you’re likely to have internally.
On the flip side, some projects and industries move so fast that it’s just not realistic to work with an outside team, a situation Wolfrom laughingly describes as “garbage in, garbage out.”
“I have been on the agency side,” Wolfrom says, “and have had a lot of client engagements where the clients want the world, and then they complain, ‘Why aren’t things happening?’ It's because we're not working together, and things aren't being solved. So, from our side, if we’re not a good client, and not able to help our agency partner get up to speed, do we have the focus to manage you remotely? That's a big, big consideration.”
Keep Your Options Open and Your Eye on the Future
Whatever you decide about hiring a marketing agency for your next step in your marketing journey, both Wolfrom and Zimmerman recommend keeping an agency relationship in your back pocket as part of your overall navigational strategy. “Things change and businesses grow. Or you move places and you want to have those relationships that you can tap into for the future,” remarked Wolfrom.
“People get caught in the now and don’t look down the road,” adds Zimmerman. “Treat people the right way and you’re going have a network that you can tap into. And all of a sudden, you find that you're working on something very successful.”