The executive’s guide to hiring a digital marketing agency: How to Know if You Need an Agency or an In-house Team

How to Know if You Need an Agency or an In-house Team

To hire a marketing agency or in-house marketing staff—that is the question at hand.

If you are hiring in relatively senior positions or are looking for a very specific skill set, then the hiring process can drag out for months. That’s in the best-case scenario—if you have a recruiter supporting you. And much longer if you conduct an in-depth search yourself.

There’s a very thin line between great and terrible decisions about when and who to hire, so let’s talk about when you need an agency versus when you need an in-house team.

As you may expect, the answer is usually a combination of both—but we’ll get to that.

When You Need to Partner With a Digital Agency

Before we proceed, it’s important to know the three main ways an agency provides value:

There are certainly more intricacies and instances where an agency can help support your brand. But these bullet points form a simplified umbrella under which most tasks will fall. 

Story Time: A Clear Example of When a Brand Needs An Agency

As John tells it, he once received a call from a head of marketing who was tasked with growing her software business. The problem was that she was told by the brand founder and their investors that she could not hire any more full-time staff until key metrics improved.

She had identified that a specific channel was already wildly profitable and effective for their brand, but her team of three did not have the expertise internally to capitalize on that data. They had the budget to hire but not enough to bring on another full-time staff member.

In this scenario, her brand met three of the four following criteria that suggest when you should bring in an outside agency. Those criteria are as follows:

  1. The brand’s need is specific and it does not make sense to hire someone full-time (yet) to fulfill that need because it is a one-off project;
  2. You have taken a strategy or channel as far as you can and need an expert to work alongside your existing team who are not experts in that channel;
  3. You have the skeleton of a team in place and cannot hire more internally to execute the strategies you have in place;
  4. You have in-house teams dedicated to that channel but do not have a large backlog and need to determine your future plans for that channel and build out your backlog.

Now, let’s be clear. There’s no written rule that an agency will always save you money over a full-time employee. Realistically, agencies often end up costing about the same as a part or full-time employee—but with stark differences in what’s rolled into that price.

You’re paying for expertise and the ability to scale the number of bodies on the project so that you can save time. Short term? You will likely end up paying more than hiring one full-time employee. If for no other reason than to speed up the process of hiring.

But it’s worth noting the important difference between an agency and a full-time employee. When you hire an agency, you’re effectively hiring a full team for the cost of one full-time employee. And generally speaking, the team will be ready to hit the ground running. 

Costs aside, if your goal is to save time by launching campaigns and channels in less time—as well as maximizing a limited budget—then hiring an agency is your best route to success.

When You Might Need to Partner With an Agency

Unfortunately, your situation may not always be as straightforward as these four scenarios above. That’s when the decision-making process becomes a bit more complex. 

Some scenarios where you might consider an agency—short term—are as follows:

  • A channel owner just quit or is taking leave and you need someone with the same skill set to operate and manage the channel;
  • You have the budget to hire full-time employees, but you don’t have the time to go through the laborious hiring process with interviews and reference checks;
  • A team member has tried to learn a channel but they still need to improve their skills. An agency gives them time, and a possible mentor, to learn from.

As a decision-maker, these are some of the toughest scenarios. After all, one wrong hire can be the difference between your brand’s ultimate success or unfortunate downfall. 

To avoid any major setbacks, you can hire an agency first to work alongside you and your team to get projects off the ground and heading in the right direction. Then, you can bring in someone more senior to own the channel and tweak the strategy if required. 

If you need to choose between hiring an agency or stepping in yourself to fill a gap (on top of your managerial duties), you should absolutely hire an outside provider to get the work done—if your budget permits. You don’t need to heap any more jobs onto your own plate.  

As an executive or decision-maker, stepping in yourself to straddle an individual marketing role is almost never the answer. In most cases, you won’t be able to manage the role with all the focus and attention that is required. Metrics will suffer as sales slow—and stress grows.

When You Don’t Need an Agency

There are occasions when you either do not need to work with an agency at all or you might not be ready to work with one just yet. If you’re not sure if this is you (or the exact scope of your project), our team can help get you to get to the bottom of that—fast and for free.

In any case, here are some examples of these scenarios:

  • You have in-house teams with a large backlog of tasks or deadlines and no end in sight for when they will have additional bandwidth;
  • You do not have an internal team member—other than yourself—who has the channel expertise to get it done right;
  • You have a very small budget or want to start with a “test project”.

The first two bullet points above are self-explanatory and have also been previously touched upon above. But let’s talk about the third bullet in further detail.

Many brands come to Credo that have a small budget to start with or who want to run test projects to test the waters first. To clarify, a test project is when you use a small portion of your budget before committing to a longer, more expensive agreement. 

In either of these cases, we recommend that you should probably not hire an agency at all. Why are we so firm in this belief? Marketing strategies—especially with cornerstone elements such as SEO—often take at least six months to get (real) results

However, there is one caveat to consider—explained below.

Why “Test Projects” Don’t Work

Why do we say this—especially as digital matchmakers that would benefit from more clients signing on with more agencies through the Credo platform?

Simply put, we care about helping you succeed and that’s why we created this guide. 

Beyond that, short-sighted, small-ball-type approaches like test projects just don’t serve anyone in the long run. We say short-sighted because quality marketing—especially vital aspects such as SEO—takes time to see true results

To echo from above, you will usually not see results for 3-6 months, depending on what you need and the speed of execution. A short-term “test” project is already set up to fail if you are looking for marketing services that make an impact on your bottom line.

Now, you may be asking: “But… what’s the worst that could really happen if we hire an agency for a limited engagement and it doesn’t work out?” 

Realistically, the worst that can happen with a test project is that you waste time and money and your business decelerates in the process. To avoid this, take the time upfront to find an agency you feel comfortable with and commit a budget to let them prove themselves. This is much preferred to wasting your time, your money, and potentially your business opportunity.

Here’s a helpful mental model to simplify our main point:

  • Don’t have expertise? It’s going to take time and money.
  • Don’t have money? It’s going to take time and expertise.
  • Don’t have time? It’s going to take money and expertise.

So, if you have a limited budget, you will need to spend time learning how to prove a channel’s value. Then, when you’re ready, you can knowledgeably engage with a digital agency that has a time-tested blueprint of how to grow your brand through that channel.

[Related read: Where To Start with Marketing if You Have a Limited Budget?]

If you have a good size budget but want to start with a test project, you probably are not ready to engage with an outside marketing provider either. 

When businesses come to us and tell us that they want to “start with a small engagement”, this is generally for one of two reasons:

      1. They are not convinced that the channel will be profitable for them because they have not defined their goals or do not understand how it works;
      2. They are not convinced that the agency or consultant they are thinking about hiring will be able to get them the results they are looking for.

In both cases, this is a lack of clarity problem—not a budgetary problem.

In the second case above, this is also a vetting issue. If you want to play it safe because you still have questions, you should dig deeper into those questions with the agency to make sure that you feel comfortable with them. We are happy to streamline this process for you

Otherwise, you should walk away until you know precisely where and why you need help.

A Marketing Audit Is Not a Test Project

First off, here’s what you learn from a professional marketing audit

And here’s the caveat mentioned earlier: if you have a limited budget, you can hire an agency to do a marketing audit and put together a strategy and recommendations document for you.

A small budget for direct marketing services won’t get you any tangible results, but a limited engagement for an audit and strategy provides outsized value.

To summarize, test projects with an agency will slow down your progress and hinder time to channel viability. For this reason, you’re better off allocating a limited budget towards an audit, which can provide valuable, actionable insights without breaking the bank.

This page last updated on January 17, 2023 by John Doherty

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