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Should You Hire A Digital Marketing Agency or Hire In-House: An Unbiased Breakdown

February 25, 2020

By Greg Finn
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We recently had a prospect meeting with a large US company and one of their VPs was stoked about setting up some Google Ads Campaigns. They were really pumped at the thought, but with little experience, there were many unknown unknowns and they had a lot of questions for us.

What is the value of an agency?

Could we hire in-house?

What do you recommend?

The meeting sparked an honest conversation about whether or not someone should hire an agency. A great bit of dialogue was exchanged and we eventually came to a conclusion (which I will fill you in on at the end of this post). This is an important conversation that we have fairly frequently, so I set out to make the ultimate list of pros and cons of hiring a digital marketing agency.*

*I work at a digital marketing agency, so you probably think my opinion will be biased. Read the next paragraph and decide for yourself.

Before we get into the full comparison, I’m going to go rogue and surprise you. In my opinion, the most impact that you can get is having a rock-star in-house digital marketer on your team.

(cough) Agencies can be great (cough) but having an in-house monster beside you as part of your team day in and day out is priceless.

So why doesn’t everyone do that? It’s hard. Really, really hard as you’ll find out as we break it down.

Should you hire an  digital advertising agency? Or hire in-house?

The Question

Is pretty simple. Many small businesses (SMBs) hit that point of growth where they know that they need digital marketing help. That is non-negotiable.

The real question is how are they going to get it?

On average there are three routes to take:

  • Hire an agency
  • Hire a skilled digital marketer that can come aboard the team
  • Delegate out to an un(or under)skilled employee and have them learn on their own

Removing Unskilled from the Comparison

As we proceed, we’ll avoid the last option above – forcing an underskilled employee to learn.

It just isn’t a fair comparison.

There are many ways to help employees learn (cough, again) like our digital marketing podcast (cough) but it comes down to the will of that employee.

If you have someone that will run through walls, has never left a problem unanswered and has always found a way – you’ve got options. If you do find that person, give us a ring and we’ll gladly point them in the right direction for all required resources to help your company.

Unfortunately, most SMBs don’t have the option or luxury to grow from within, so it’s off the comparison table.

The Reasons to Hire a Digital Marketer In-House

Here is our list of the biggest pros to hiring in-house:

Building Internal Skills

In-house digital marketers build skills that stay within the organization

Instead of relying on an outside firm, you are building knowledge in-house with this resource. By paying to have someone skilled come aboard, you are gaining an asset that will be in the office each and every day to see the inner workings.

Additionally, if you’re looking to grow the department further in the future, you’ll have a building block in place when you hire in-house.

Communication 

In house digital marketers streamline communication

A good digital firm can act like a partner, but still won’t be at each and every internal meeting. Having someone in the mix each and every day has major benefits and time-savings from a communication standpoint. There will be less ramping up on new initiatives and it be will easy for them to get critical answers and insights.

More Working Hours

In-house digital marketers have more available working hours to dedicate to your business

If you hire someone good-to-great, their 1827 possible working hours (7 hours a day for all 261 weekdays each year) is an enormous amount of time to get things done. A lot can be done in that time and a plain hour-to-hour comparison would almost always have a good in-house hire the winner when looking at price per hour. 

A Wider Spectrum Than An Agency In One Person

In-house digital marketers can wear many hats and handle many marketing duties

When hiring an agency, companies are usually looking for help with specific actions. Maybe it is hiring for SEO, or paid search management. When you have someone in house, they can be more flexible to go the extra mile and help with sales pitch decks, customer support, company activities, and other things that aren’t found in a retainer.

A Cost That Could Compound

Hiring in-house digital marketers is an investment in your team and you can benefit from the skills and knowledge they acquire

If you hire someone and continue to invest in them, the knowledge they acquire will stay with your company for as long as the employee does. Instead of paying an agency to run, test, learn the industry and optimize, you have your own employee to do this. 

Numbers

Hiring an in-house digital marketer will increase your employee count

I’ll admit it, I don’t fully understood why some companies are enamored with increasing their employee count, but it’s a reality. Hiring in-house will give you a big ‘ol +1 to your employee count.

The Reasons NOT to Hire a Digital Marketer In-House

Here is our list of the biggest cons of hiring in-house:

Cost

Hiring an in-house digital marketer is often more expensive than hiring an agency

The initial thought of hiring in-house is that it will save money. That may be true in some cases, but it usually is not. To find someone who can cover the bases in-house, you’ll likely pay a minimum of 50-75k + in benefits depending on market. When you add on the HR extras, equipment, and conference costs, hiring in-house often ends up costing more than hiring an agency. 

All of Your Eggs Are in One Basket

If you hire an in-house digital marketer and they leave your company, you lose all the skills and knowledge they've acquired.

When you hire a digital marketer (and you get a good one), your problem is solved … as long as they are still employed with you. Businesses need to continue to work hard to keep people happy, growing, learning and advancing if they want them to stay. This can be tough for smaller companies with no room for upward paths. Many companies we work with are willing to pay more for that peace of mind that comes with an agency, knowing that a 2-week-notice doesn’t mean catastrophe.

Bad Egg

When you hire a digital marketer in-house, you risk hiring the wrong employee

Hiring a great marketer is phenomenal, but bringing on a bad one can be downright deadly for a SMB. Many folks masquerade as experts but can’t hack it when the rubber hits the road. Firing an agency is easy. Firing an employee is difficult and comes with extra baggage like unemployment, vacant positions and stress. 

Furthermore, it is darn hard to know how to spot a bad egg – more on that below.

Effort to Find & Tough To Hire

It's difficult to attract talent when hiring an in-house digital marketer

Unless you have a solid grasp on the difference in tROAS & tCPA, can explain DSAs or talk about GDN, you’ll likely have a tough time weeding out candidates. Finding the right fit is arduous, even for agencies like us. If you are dead-set on hiring a digital marketer in-house, it may be worth bringing a recruiting agency on to help find that person.

To make matters worse, in today’s environment, you need to compete to land an in-house marketer. What is the upwards growth potential? What office/WFH perks do you offer? Is your culture the right fit? What does the on-the-job training look like?

As tough as it is to find a qualified candidate, it is sometimes even tougher convince them to come aboard.

Hard To Do It All

When you hire a digital marketer in-house, that employee has to master a wide range of marketing skills

Digital marketing has many facets and as hard as you try, you can’t master them all. There isn’t a master at Photoshop Creation that can shoot and cut videos, run your display ads, bolster your SEO and whip up Python scripts to pull custom analytics comparisons. You’ll need to look for someone who possesses the skills and traits you absolutely need, who can get by or team up for the other elements.

An Isolated Ceiling

Hiring an in-house digital marketer means that individual won't benefit from learning from a larger marketing team

When you have a sample set of one, you lack the knowledge gained from working with other clients and seeing what is working for them. Getting multiple minds, experiences and feedback helps spur overall growth, and working on one account doesn’t offer that diversity.

Training

Hiring an in-house digital marketer is a training investment

In order to stay fresh and up-to-date, you’ll either need to train your in-house employee or commit resources to develop growth. Whether sending to conferences or training, that recurring cost is something you need to plan to invest.

The Reasons to Hire a Digital Marketing Agency

Here is our list of the biggest reasons to hire an agency:

Quality

While there are good in-house digital advertisers, the really good ones tend to stay agency-side as pay can be higher and the amount of learning they can do is far greater. As an agency, the only reason that we are successful is that we do great work for our clients and take great pride in it. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll find a good agency (see cons below) but if you look hard enough, you’ll find a company who’s employees will constantly push each other to get better.

A great agency might be on the higher cost side, but the output will return a high value as well.

Ability to Leverage Knowledge From Multiple Accounts

digital marketing agencies work on mulbiple accounts and can leverage their skills and knowledge

As mentioned above, when you have one person in house, it tends to push them to become more of a generalist. Here, for example, we have a variety of talents that we can stack for the best return. If I don’t know something for a client, I can grab an answer from:

Sarah – Analytics & Tracking
Jess – Search Ads
Cole – LinkedIn, B2B & Shopify
Mark – Demand Gen
Christine – Content

Not to mention our design department for ad creative/video and design support.

Cost (vs In-House)

digital marketing agencies can be less expensive than hiring in-house

The cost of using an agency vs hiring in-house is almost always cheaper for one-off or specific engagements. Hiring an agency to run SEO & Digital Ads would likely come out lower than an in-house resource would – usually with better results.

However, this is not always the case. If more full-service work is needed, hiring an agency may end up costing more than an in-house resource (more on that later).

Flexibility & Reliability

digital marketing agencies are flexible and reliable

The number one reason our clients tell us they have for initially bringing on an agency is that they are worried about the possibility of an internal resource leaving. When all the insight resides in one person, their employer is in a weak position when they decide to leave. Finding an agency that brings at least 3 folks on an account ensures your campaigns are covered during vacations/transitions/sickness/illness.

The Unknown Unknowns

digital marketing agencies have knowledge that you don't even know you lack

Like the specific product you sell, digital marketing has lots of complexity. Having someone that is an expert, has decades of experience, and can walk/explain/educate you through the process is extremely valuable. Performance ad agencies can help track all conversions from phone calls to video views and help you traverse the treacherous attribution landscape. Even an initial call with agencies can help illuminate what you may not know.

Protecting Against Mistakes

hiring a digital marketing agency ensures protection from costly mistakes

This is minor, but when you hire an agency, there is additional protection against mistakes as the onus is on the company you hire. If your employee makes a blunder and spends 2x the budget, that’s on you. A good agency should have processes in place to ensure that this won’t happen, but if it does, they have E & O insurance to cover mistakes.

The Cons of Hiring a Digital Marketing Agency

Here is our list of the biggest cons when it comes to hiring an agency:

Finding a Good Egg

It's difficult to find the best digital marketing agency

If you hire an agency that stinks, it can be very detrimental. We’ve even seen a bad agency hire turn clients away from wanting to invest in digital marketing. It is important to properly vet an agency and call references as you don’t want to pay a meaningful fee for low-value effort.

This is a very tough task, but rely on references and perform a full investigation on a company to see if they are, in fact, leaders in the space.

Cost

Digital marketing agencies can be expensive

This is by far the biggest con if you are looking for help across all marketing responsibilities. As an agency, the only way to get paid is to work, and we are paid for our efforts. For example, at a minimum, a good agency will provide for paid search efforts:

  • Daily maintenance
  • Weekly or bi-weekly calls
  • Weekly dynamic reports
  • Monthly reports
  • Monthly initiatives based on goals

If your budgets are low or gaining a lead online is not very valuable, then the cost of hiring an agency may not be worth it. 

Knowledge Gap

Digital marketing agencies don't know as much about your business as in-house marketers

We aren’t you. Neither are other agencies. We don’t know all the intricacies that make your industry and your business unique. To do the best work, there needs to be a good bit of back and forth and many times there are a few extra calls/emails to get it right. 

Lack of Internal Skill Building

when you hire a digital marketing agency, you miss out on internal skill building

Instead of taking this knowledge in-house, you are relying on an outside firm. This can be fine with a good firm, but if you hire a company with lots of turnover or a company that is shady, it can be a problem.

The Verdict

There are cases to be made for each option, and unfortunately, one size doesn’t fit all.

If you are seriously considering this question – I have a wrench to throw into your process – look for both.

Take the approach of looking for both internal resources and an agency, then choose which one you are most comfortable with. Yes, this is not normal. No, I don’t care.

At the end of the day, there is one thing that is most important – quality.

I can’t give out a definitive answer to what you should do as every company’s situation is different. I can recommend some good agencies to consult with, or some good folks to help you interview candidates. But unless one of the items listed above is a must-have, I would always default to value.

So get out there, look on both sides of the aisle and get weird with it. If you need help, want recommendations, or want to talk, we’d be happy to.

This is an important decision and an even tougher task. We wish you the best in your search for your digital marketing solution.

Greg Finn

Greg Finn

Greg is the director of marketing at Cypress North. He has been managing internet marketing campaigns for more than seven years and is a certified Google AdWords partner in search advertising. Greg has been both a speaker and moderator at SMX, the world's leading search engine marketing conference, and is also a contributing editor and regular writer at SearchEngineLand and MarketingLand.

See Greg's Most Recent Posts

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