Editor's Note: This post was originally published in September 2018 and has been updated with new content in November 2020.
In the 15+ years I’ve worked in this industry, I’ve met thousands of business owners who admit to feeling perplexed by a key business decision: “Should I hire in-house marketers or work with a marketing agency?!”
And I get it. Whether you’re a part of a 2-person start-up or manage a growing organization with 50+ staff members, it’s not the simplest of questions to address. Just as there are benefits to working with a digital marketing agency, there are no doubt disadvantages as well.
So, at the risk of sounding cliché, I’ve always told business owners struggling with this in-house vs agency debate the same thing: one size does not fit all!
The key is defining your organization’s marketing goals and weighing them against your own team’s strengths and weaknesses. Now, I realize that truthfully assessing your own limitations isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, but it’s a vital exercise to determine whether your marketing initiatives should stay in-house, or require assistance from outside experts.
Because if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that even we – at WSI headquarters – have done both. We have a talented team of in-house marketers (my department!) as well as a network of external subject matter experts and agency teams to whom we outsource any time we need supplementary marketing execution.
So if you read the title of this blog and thought I was just going to sell you on all-the-reasons-you-need-to-outsource-your-marketing-to-a-local-WSI-agency, you thought wrong my friend!
What I am going to do is lay it all out there so you can make the right decision for your business.
8 key business factors when comparing in-house against outsourced marketing agencies
Factor #1: Your Company Culture, Vision, and Values
I’m going out on a limb here by assuming you’d prefer to work with marketers who align with your company’s culture, vision, and values; most businesses do. And generally speaking, it’s easier to accomplish this by hiring from within. Naturally, a full-time internal employee is much more closely invested in a company’s success and growth than any external agency team would be. Given a marketing agency’s responsibilities to a number of different clients, it’s more difficult for external marketers to fully get a sense of a company’s day-to-day culture and values.
Factor #2: The Need for Wide-Ranging Skill Sets
Depending on your company’s marketing strategies, your team might need access to several different skill sets, like web development, social selling expertise, email marketing, pay-per-click advertising – you get the point. And believe me when I say, building an in-house team packed with all this talent is no walk in the park. Naturally, agencies are already equipped with knowledgeable professionals who specialize in all areas of digital marketing. In other words, agency teams can be your one-stop shop for all things marketing. Expect to dedicate time and patience if you plan to recruit, screen, and hire a full-service in-house marketing team.
Factor #3: The Dreaded Workplace Politics
Rarely will you hear a professional admit to enjoying office politics. But it’s hard to avoid; conflicts arise, distractions happen, and – like humans – the quality of work can suffer when office drama gets in the way. It’s just natural, especially when a talented group of people works in such close confines to each other day after day. But this is a non-factor when your marketing is managed by an outside agency. As third-party marketers, an agency team can focus on one thing and one thing only: your company’s marketing strategy.
Factor #4: Keeping a Competitive Edge with Industry Best Practices
You’ve heard us talk endlessly about the evolving landscape of digital marketing. Tactics and tools that once worked yesterday, won’t necessarily be effective tomorrow. Competition is tough, technologies change at lightning pace and if you’re caught singing the same old tune, your business will eventually get left behind. Luckily, staying on top of the latest and greatest digital marketing best practices is an agency’s bread and butter. Marketing agency teams often get their first crack at the latest, ground-breaking technologies and educational marketing conferences – most of which simply aren’t within reach for in-house marketing teams.
Factor #5: How Quickly Do You Need to Ramp Up Marketing?
Depending on your situation, you might need to jump on your marketing right now. Let’s say, for example, you discover you’re losing sales because your closest competitor just launched an uber user-friendly eCommerce website, and yours isn’t equipped to facilitate online purchases. Obviously, your website needs a speedy overhaul to improve your customers’ online experience. And the speediest way to do this is NOT by posting a job, reviewing resumes, conducting three rounds of interviews, calling references…you get the picture. Marketing agencies are designed to jump in quickly and efficiently so your team can adapt your marketing strategies sooner rather than later. Ultimately, emergencies that affect your bottom line are better handled by agency teams.
Factor #6: A (Much) Larger Network of Brainpower
This is similar to #2 above, but reaches far beyond a specialized skill set of your marketing team: you’ll find that in-house marketers generally don’t have quite as robust a Rolodex (yes, I realize I just aged myself) as a full-service agency will. So if you were ever in need of supplementary marketing services – think along the lines of customer service script writing, video production, traditional PR services – your best bet would be leveraging an agency. Due simply to an agency’s structure, they are more likely to have these supplementary sources and resources than in-house marketers.
Factor #7: Easy Communication
Open and efficient communication is vital to keeping any business’ marketing plan running smoothly. And with any in-house team, this is going to be relatively easy. Brainstorming sessions, content approvals and meetings can be executed or scheduled whenever the need arises. Agencies, on the other hand, aren’t able to be as immediately accessible; day-to-day communication will naturally be more sparse because of the number of clients and client needs. Typically, marketing agencies will stick to email or phone communication as needed while also facilitating weekly or monthly meetings to discuss results, projections, quarterly plans, etc. Both methods work – but success depends entirely on what you prefer.
Factor #8: Access to Tools and Platforms
A decent marketing agency already comes with all the bells and whistles when it comes to the industry’s must-have technologies. Many will also test and invest thousands of dollars in annual subscription fees in order to equip clients with the best tools. This is a time-consuming and expensive process that you don’t even have to think about if you work with an agency. Sure, the price is baked in, but the headache and the agony about which tools to use, are not.
Is it better to hire a professional social media firm or employ an in-house social media manager?
Numerous companies opt to outsource some or all of their marketing activities to digital marketing agencies. These agencies are fully set up with the proper staff, expertise, and resources to provide outsourced full-service digital marketing services. If you do not have the budget to hire a fully-staffed marketing team, hiring a digital marketing agency can be a cost-effective option. For the cost of employing one social media manager, you can retain a professional social media firm and gain access to a multiplicity of digital marketing experts.
Many businesses find that a hybrid approach works best. Most may already have at least a core nucleus of in-house marketing professionals; however, their range of expertise or resources may be limited. It can be immensely cost-effective to aid this in-house team by outsourcing key services to agency specialists such as professional social media and marketing firms. When deciding how to structure your in-house marketing team, it is helpful to examine your strengths. Typically, in-house staff live and breathe the company brand and tend to have a far more in-depth understanding of the unique selling propositions, product set, and buyer personas. In-house teams are often better suited to create content, write messages, and develop communication strategies. However, in-house teams might struggle to implement new software or keep up with SEO best practices and paid search trends.
To remain competitive, marketing agencies must stay updated on the latest marketing trends and research. They also work with many different clients and industries, which gives them exposure to new technologies and innovative tactics. Where the in-house team struggles, an agency can help. For instance, the agency can optimize their web pages for target keywords, manage their paid advertising campaigns, and design creative material, like brochures, videos, and ads. Agencies bring an outsider's perspective that can help in-house marketing teams identify opportunities to innovate.
Why is there a perception that in-house marketing design teams are less creative over time than external vendors and agencies?
One of the most significant downsides of an internal creative group is that creativity can begin to stagnate over time, making it harder to infuse fresh thinking into marketing design. This perception often stems from the misconception that all creative work is completed within the company bubble, lacking visibility into what other industries are doing.
Sometimes, internal company leadership wields a heavy hand and doesn't give the creative team the space to take risks and try new things. There could also be some creeping internal arrogance, thinking that no one on the outside can understand the company brand well enough. An external marketing agency can bring a much-needed infusion of fresh ideas. These agencies often work with other companies in the industry, so they have a good sense of what has already "been done" and what is new and exciting. While they may come in without a complete in-depth understanding of the company's brand and history, this can also be advantageous because they can often see opportunities that might have been overlooked or not as readily visible in-house.
Do Fortune500 companies outsource their marketing to an agency, or do they have creatives in-house?
Fortune500 companies usually have marketing creatives in-house; however, they may also choose to outsource portions or all of their creative requirements to external partners such as ad agencies, design firms, and outsourcing companies if and when needed. In such a case, their in-house marketing creative teams focus on directing the creative from the client-side and ensuring that the company's internal stakeholders' requirements have been met.
In addition to strategic creative direction, there is both an internal account management and project management aspect to what these teams do. At times, these teams will also manage the workflow from one external partner to another.
What can outsourced marketing agencies do those in-house companies can't?
Agencies are fluent in the best practices of nearly every marketing tactic. They are professionals who have worked on an infinite number of different accounts. Ad agencies are able to work far more efficiently than an assembled in-house marketing team. Because outsourced marketing agencies handle so much work, they have state-of-the-art workflows and processes that are built for quality, volume, and efficiency. Agencies usually know the best talent around.
If you want to find the perfect person to create illustrations for a marketing campaign, they will be able to pull the ideal person's number from their coat pocket, whereas your in-house marketing team may take days to find someone who is competent or good enough. Agencies will have an easier time delivering fresh ideas, both for creative and marketing tactics, than an in-house team. Outsourced marketing agencies may have access to tools and software that smaller in-house teams can't afford.
How do the skills that an agency has compare to the skills of employees that are hired?
A digital marketing agency often comes with skills that in-house teams can't match, especially internal marketing teams at small-to-midsize businesses. These capabilities can range from accessing beta features in Google Ads to data on effective tactics or strategies.
If you can only afford to hire a small number of employees for your internal creative group, you will have to pick which skill sets you hire. For example, perhaps you hire a graphic designer, a project manager, and a direct marketing manager. Suppose that's all you can afford internally. In that case, you'll need to figure out how to cover skills like brand strategy and positioning, poetics and writing, video and animation, SEO, and web development, to name only a few, either through training those same staff members or finding contract resources.
An agency can offer you access to all of those skills, even those you only need for a few hours per week or month. Their work will be more coordinated than if you were to just contract the work to freelancers, with the agency doing much of the project management and communication for you.
The benefits of hiring an agency vs. hiring a person in-house
The extensive knowledge and experience that professional agencies bring to the table is perhaps their greatest advantage. Agency employees eat, sleep, and breathe social media and have an array of experience across numerous industries. They have a thorough understanding of which networks your company would most benefit from, and they know the ideal approach for the execution of your campaign.
For instance, most businesses will typically use Twitter and Facebook. However, an agency might recommend and know how to extract value from sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr, depending on your industry, products, or services.
Since they are an outside party, a social media agency can make an objective assessment of your business and implement a strategy that will give you the greatest chance of success. In most cases, they can also ensure the fastest results because they know what works and what does not. Due to the learning curve associated with social media marketing, partnering with an external agency can help prevent typical "newbie" mistakes. Rather than spending time and effort experimenting with different possibilities, a concrete plan can be put into action straight away so you can get a faster return on investment.
As your marketing campaign progresses, an agency can also use analytics and other tools to optimize various aspects of that campaign. For instance, they may use software like Google Analytics, HootSuite, or SproutSocial to monitor each social media channel. Knowing which software to use and how to use it takes time to master. An agency's skill set will help unearth a wealth of information over time, which will translate into more shares, more followers, and ultimately, increased sales.
Pitfalls of hiring an in-house marketing team instead of an agency
- You will first have to find, interview, hire, and onboard these new employees. Then you will have to manage the overhead of their salaries, benefits, and time off.
- In-house marketers may not have a skill set as deep or broad as agency employees.
- If you need to scale up your marketing program rapidly, you may be slowed down by the process of finding and hiring more and competent employees.
- It's highly likely and very common for in-house marketing teams to get stuck in a rut with creative styles and marketing strategies.
- If a vital member of your marketing team quits, your entire marketing program may freeze until you can find a suitable replacement.
In the end, the answer to the question of whether you should outsource your marketing or keep it in-house is entirely dependent on your situation. When you go over our 8 key business factors of the in-house marketing vs. marketing agency debate, do you find yourself, or your team, leaning one way or the other? That could be your answer.
If the list of pros and cons is equal on both sides, then you could be like the many businesses that do both. It never hurts to ask for help, especially in areas where you don't have an expert on the team, or with new and trending tactics you're trying to gain a competitive edge with.
Outsourcing and going it alone can both be the correct, cost-effective decision that generates the best results for your business. If you're having trouble deciding which way to go, we'd love to discuss your marketing situation with you!