The busy 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


This section is going to help you begin to figure out if you are ready to hire an agency, or if the right move for your business is to hire an internal team first.

Hiring is exhausting and can take up most of your time while doing it (trust me, I’ve been there). If you are hiring relatively senior people or are looking for a very specific skill set, then this can drag out for months in the best of times with a recruiter supporting you, and longer if you must conduct the search yourself.

An agency can be a shortcut to getting programs started, but only if done right. I’ve seen companies make both 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 inhouse team.

As you may expect, often the answer is “a combination” but we’ll get to that.

How to know if you need to work with an agency

I once received a call from a head of marketing who was tasked with growing their software business, but they had been told by their investors that they could not hire anyone else full time until they had improved their metrics.

The head of marketing had two other employees, but they were all generalists who were great at getting things done. They had identified that a specific channel was already wildly profitable and effective for them, but they did not have the expertise internally to take it to the next level. They had the budget to hire, but were not allowed to bring someone on full time.

This company needed an agency, no questions asked. They met three of the following four scenarios in which I counsel a business to bring on an outside agency as soon as possible:

The need is specific and it does not make sense to hire someone full time (yet) to fulfill that need because it is a one-time audit;
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;

  • You have the skeleton of a team in place and cannot hire more internally to execute on the strategies you have in place;
  • You have inhouse 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.

Before we go further, there are three types of work that agencies can help you with:

  1. Defining your strategy for the channel;
  2. Execution/services upon the strategy that you already have;
  3. A combination of the above.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that an agency will save you money over a full time
employee.

Realistically, agencies often end up being more expensive than a part or full time employee. 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 a full time employee simply to speed up the process.

If your goal is to save time by getting campaigns and channels started quicker, as well as scaling your limited resources, then hiring an agency can be very much the right move.

You should hire an agency if:

  • The need is specific and it does not make sense to hire someone full time (yet) to fulfill that need because it is a one-time audit;
  • 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;
  • You have the skeleton of a team in place and cannot hire more internally to execute on the strategies you have in place;
  • You have inhouse 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.

When you might need an agency

Unfortunately, the decision is not always as easy as simply looking at the four areas above. Your decision making becomes more difficult.

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

  • A channel owner just quit or is taking a sabbatical or maternity/paternity leave and you need someone quickly to keep operating the channel;
  • You have budget to hire full time employees, but this process will take potentially a long time;
  • Someone on your team has tried to learn a channel, but they have not been able to gain the skills quickly enough. An agency will give them time and potentially a mentor to learn from.

These are the toughest situations to be in, and tough calls have to be made.

Normally I default to finding an agency first to help you get the programs 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 into their preferred direction.

One great way to make this setup work is to hire an expert-level consultant or agency with the understanding that in a period of time they will help you hire someone full time internally.

If you are wondering if you should hire an agency or step in yourself to fill a gap (in addition to your managerial duties), you should look at your budget and see if you have the budget to hire an outside provider to get the work done. Stepping in yourself to straddle an individual contributor/manager role is almost never the answer as one of those will not be done well enough.

You might be in the position to hire an agency if:

  • A channel owner just quit or is taking a sabbatical or maternity/paternity leave and you need someone quickly to keep operating the channel;
  • You have budget to hire full time employees, but this process will take potentially a long time;
  • Someone on your team has tried to learn a channel, but they have not been able to gain the skills quickly enough. An agency will give them time and potentially a mentor to learn from.

When you don’t need an agency

There are absolutely occasions where you either do not need to work with an agency at all or where you are not ready to work with one yet.

Those times are:

  • You have inhouse teams with a large backlog and no end in sight for when they will have additional bandwidth;
  • You do not have an internal point of contact other than yourself who has the channel expertise;
  • You have a very small budget or “want to start with a test project”.

The first two bullet points above are rather self-explanatory and have also been covered in other areas here, but let’s talk about the budget point for a minute.

I have spoken with many companies who either have a small budget to start with or who want to “test” the waters with a small budget before committing to investing in a channel.

In either of these two cases, my recommendation is that you should probably not hire an agency at all because you will not see results (there is one caveat here that I have put below).

You should not hire an agency if:

  • You have inhouse teams with a large backlog and no end in sight for when they will have additional bandwidth;
  • You do not have an internal point of contact other than yourself who has the channel expertise;
  • You have a very small budget or “want to start with a test project”.

Why I’m against test projects

Why do I say this, especially as someone who runs a business that helps you find the right provider to work with depending on your budget and needs? Because I care about the long term and about you seeing success with your business engagements and the channels you invest in.

If you have a very small budget, then you will need to spend something else (time to gain expertise) so that you can prove out the channel and grow your business so that at some point you are ready to engage with an expert/group of experts to expedite your growth.

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 I hear from businesses that they want to start with a small engagement, this is for one of two reasons:

  • They are not convinced that the channel will be profitable for them because they have not defined their goals or started testing it;
  • 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 and not a budget 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 (Credo helps here as well as you get close to making your decision) with the agency to make sure that you feel comfortable with them. Otherwise, you should walk away.

Sometimes I hear “What’s the worst that could happen if we hire them for a limited engagement and it doesn’t work out?” Realistically, the worst that can happen is that you waste time, money, and your business moves backward instead of forward.

It is better to take the time up front to properly feel comfortable in an engagement and put real budget towards it than wasting your time, your money, and potentially your business opportunity.

I am quite opposed to hiring someone for a “test” project, as I wrote about more in-depth here. Good marketing, especially SEO when you do not have an existing SEO program, takes time to make a meaningful impact on your business. You realistically will not see results for 3-6 months, depending on what you need and speed of execution, so a short term “test” project is already set up to fail if you are looking for marketing services.

Caveat: if you have a small budget to begin with, you could consider hiring a small agency or consultant to do an audit and put together a strategy and recommendations document for you. A small budget put towards services will take forever to show you any real forward movement, but a limited engagement for an audit and strategy can provide outsized value. Check out the companies on Credo who offer SEO Site Audits here.

“Test” projects with a small budget working with an agency will slow down your progress and time to channel viability. Thus, it is better to take the time to answer all of your objections before committing to a project with an agency. Testing with a small budget when you have more available is a vetting and planning problem, not a marketing problem.

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