In-house v marketing agency: A simple guide to making the right choice

What’s the secret to building your own marketing dream team? Is it better to outsource to a specialist marketing agency (whether full-service or a specialist digital, social media, SEO, design or content marketing agency), or to build a team of in-house marketing experts?

Having spent 15 years client side, and a further 15 years agency side (where I now head up a multi-function, integrated marketing agency in Birmingham with a sister agency in Dubai), I’ve seen the marketing industry bend and adapt – time and time again – to meet the demands and trends of the moment. I’ve also witnessed shifts in organisational structures, attitudes and working cultures. But what has never altered is the division of opinion on the matter of agency-v-in-house.

Marketing directors continue to be polarised on the issue. For every director who understands the value that agencies can bring, there’s another who would prefer to build and invest in internal teams.

For my part I see the value of both. Keeping the marketing function in-house may be perceived to give benefits of control, responsiveness, brand immersion and brand loyalty, yet at the potential expense of flexibility, specialist marketing expertise, cost-effectiveness and other subtle benefits that come with working with a marketing agency. Of course, it’s never that clear-cut, but this is my take on the industry landscape.

Good reasons to keep marketing projects in-house

Control

Keeping the work in-house means you can keep a track of what’s being done, when it’s being done and how it’s being done. Even how much is being spent to get it done. If control is important to you, keeping things in-house gives you greater control over your campaign activity than if a third party marketing agency is involved. That said, any marketing agency worth its salt will commit to giving you regular updates, so that in theory you should have full visibility of the effectiveness of the work being done.

People immersed in the brand

You know your brand. Or at least you should know your brand. You and your teams live and breathe your brand and nobody is more expert in it than you. You know your history, your brand values and have a sub-conscious understanding of the nuances that make your brand special.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to find an agency who will ‘get’ your brand and think just like you – after all, any agency truly committed to brand marketing will make it their mission to absorb your brand culture like a proverbial sponge. You can help with clear and detailed briefings and by acting as gatekeeper to communicate only those nuggets of brand culture you want the outside world to see – and keeping any brand monsters (internal sticky issues) hidden away behind office doors. There’s a lot to be said for communicating cultural awareness on a need to know basis.

Brand loyalty

Your only loyalty is to your own brand. Your time isn’t divided over a range of clients, each with differing priorities, challenges and budgets. When something needs to get done your time is focussed 100% on helping your brand succeed. For some agencies it may be harder to stay motivated and passionate about the brand after the initial honeymoon period excitement has passed (but find a good one and they’ll understand the value of relationship building and always working above and beyond to make sure you feel loved and valued).

Domain knowledge

Whilst specialist marketing agencies provide expert support in copywriting, creative planning, graphic design, social media and PR, nobody knows your business or sector better than you – or at least they shouldn’t. If an agency doesn’t truly get it, consumers will easily see through weak and tenuous copy. At best they’ll call you out for lack of sincerity and domain knowledge, and at worst you’ll lose their respect and trust. When this happens it’s easy to want to take the work on in-house – if you’ve got the capacity to do so.

Perceived to be cheaper

Sorry, your fees are HOW much? On the face of it, agency fees can seem extortionate and it’s easy (and natural) to do a quick calculation to work out how many full-time members of staff you could have on your in-house dream team if you weren’t splurging the budget on the fancy agency. But, once you rack up the additional costs of employing staff as PAYE, and you’ve worked out how many staff you’d need to hire to cover the breadth of skills offered by a full-service agency, the ‘in-house is cheaper’ argument certainly has its flaws.

Good for your ego

It’s always good to see your campaign succeed. It’s even better knowing that it was all down to you and your team. Growing a strong internal team and having a squad of good people pulling together to build successful campaigns works wonders for any marketing director’s ego.

Good reasons to work with a marketing agency

For those who like to stay in control it can be hard to let go. But find the right fit – a marketing agency who ‘gets it’, combined with strong working relationships based on trust, honesty and mutual respect, together with a strong internal manager who can take control and nurture the relationship, and you may never look back.

Creativity on demand

Although I have come across exceptional marketers client side (Specsavers is a great example of a multi-award winning internal creative team), it is rare to find exceptional designers and creatives in-house. Talented creatives often get bored working on just one brand and want the challenge of working on variety of brands.

Flexibility on staffing resources

Marketing agencies give you the flexibility to grow and shrink your virtual team to meet the ebb and flow of project demands that an employed team of staff cannot.

Campaign projects can mean intense, but short-lived episodes of activity, often requiring teams to be assembled at short notice. You may need a copywriter for a few days here and there, or an artwork designer this week, but not next, and then again the week following that. Whilst it’s impossible to recruit (and drop) permanent in-house staff at short notice to meet this type of sporadic workload, agencies can fill the gaps as needed.

Cost-effective

Managed well, agencies can be more cost effective than having a full team on board. There are hidden costs of hiring permanent staff, including recruitment, benefits packages, training and HMRC obligations.

Integrated response

Agencies bring experience and technical expertise that in-house teams often lack. Internally managed campaigns may float down the safe communication channel that the marketing team is most comfortable with, whereas an integrated marketing agency can bring fresh thinking and new approaches.

Learning and expertise

Full-service marketing agencies are exposed to a variety of brands, media channels and marketing innovations and typicallyboast broader marketing experience and expertise. As businesses focussed purely on making campaigns succeed, agencies spend their time focussed on identifying what’s worked well across their entire client list, shaping, tweaking and adapting tactics and strategy to make it work even better next time round. As a client you get the benefit of the agency’s experience and insight of what other brands are doing to succeed.

Industry trends

Whilst brands are specialists within their brand sector, marketing agencies offer specialist expertise in marketing strategy, trends and tools. Agency staff can focus all of their energy on keeping their marketing knowledge and skills sharp – without getting bogged down in industry admin and detail.

Industry connections

Agencies have contacts. They know who to talk to – the bloggers, influencers, celebrities and journalists who carry the most sway, and those connections and relationships can prove vital when seeking to make an impact in noisy environments.

Or why not try a hybrid

In true creative style, a number of hybrid ventures are starting to emerge which seek to bring out the best of both in-house and marketing agency worlds.

Spark 44 is an agency created by Jaguar Land Rover, which, according to its website is, ‘the first global client/agency joint venture model radically transforming brands and businesses.’ You can read about the model here.

Another new venture is Oliver, an agency that builds in-house agency teams for clients – “It allows us to operate at the speed of your business. Giving you better work, faster, to help you drive your business forward.”

Both Oliver and Spark 44 demonstrate that creative thinking can influence not just the work that gets done, but how the work gets done too.

Using agencies may not always be appropriate, it depends on your product and business. But don’t be driven by ego or empire building – be driven by what is right for your brand and its consumers.

If you’re looking for a full-service marketing agency in Birmingham or Dubai who will integrate with and work alongside your marketing team, get in touch.

John Wilford, Managing Director, Rave Communications

T: 01675 467 462
M: 07748 114444
E: jwilford@rave-communications.com

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