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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

To in-house or not to in-house, that is the question.

Updated: Jan 4

As you prepare for your scaling-up mission, working out who to bring with you as your crew on the Rocket Ship is probably the most important thing to decide. This includes what kind of talent you want to hire into your internal team, but also decisions on whether to use agencies or freelancers. As a start-up, the chances are you have mostly been highly self-sufficient building your brand using an in-house team with minimal external support. There are many reasons why having an in-house Marketing team to cover different specialist areas makes total sense – more agility and speed, better value, more control over output and your data. However, depending on your business and your plans for growth, there are instances where it makes more sense to lean on third parties either temporarily or on a more long-term basis.

Every scale-up is different and so the right solution will vary wildly from business to business. However, there will be plenty of consistency in the types of questions and challenges each one will need to get to grips with. I’ve come up with ten killer questions to help you decide where and when you might need outside help to increases your chances of success.

1.    How hard is it to secure the talent you need? Is it highly specialised?

Any team will have to have the right combination of generalists and specialists. Depending on the specialism, talent might be very hard to find and when you do find them, they may have no interest in offering their unique services to just one business full time. For example, at Cazoo, getting hold of great writers for specialised car content was really hard. Getting hold of ones that were willing to work for you full-time to write about used cars and step away from racing shiny new motors around the Nurburgring, even harder still. We built out a network of freelancers instead.

2.    Do you just get better talent working in an agency environment?

In many instances, the best talent are better at what they do because they work in an agency. This is true of advertising creatives. Regardless of what category you are in, any advertising you make needs to compete with, and stand out against, every other advertiser out there including (mostly) ones that are not in your sector. To get the best, most effective work, you really need access to the best creatives working in the best environment for them – a highly creative one that tackles briefs from all different sectors and types of brands and has its finger on the pulse of current culture. In other areas, such as programmatic display, agencies will be able to afford to invest in better technology than you can and attract the right talent to deliver better campaigns for you.

3.    Do you get better pricing when buying more media?

Any auction-based media channel (e.g., paid search, paid social) doesn’t give you big economies of scale or bulk discounts if you have, say £100m to spend instead of £1m. You will most likely get a better-quality biscuit when you visit head office. Maybe a visit to a classy event and early access to new tech but discounts on the cost of reaching your customers? Not really. There are plenty of media owners and channels that do offer better value for greater levels of spend, for example TV, radio and outdoor. In those instances, an agency will have far greater buying power across all the spend they manage for their clients than you would buying directly yourself, which means better value for your spend even accounting for agency fees.

4.    How easy is it to incentivise and manage a third party?

Setting expectations for your internal team and giving them clear objectives is crucial for their motivation and performance. However, you also have a high element of goodwill as they are employees that have committed to your business full time. Setting KPIs for an agency or a freelancer will tend to be more transactional. It works well where it’s straightforward to set a SMART objective that they can be fully accountable for e.g., deliver a certain CPA for your paid search budget over one quarter. But sometimes it’s very hard, even impossible, to nail this with an agency. SEO/Organic Performance, for example. Even the best work in this space can take months to deliver a benefit in terms of improved organic traffic. And plenty of what drives success or failure is outside an agency’s control – the structure of your website, an algorithm change, competitor activity. How do you know if underperformance is not their fault or whether they are avoiding accountability?


5.    How much control do you want over your brand?

This is particularly relevant to organic social media activity. To get this right, you typically need a person or a team to be on hand to manage how your brand speaks and behaves through social channels. They need to test and learn different approaches to see what happens. They need to respond quickly to external events and opportunities in the right way. And the speed and volume of activity might mean you can’t check posts before they go live (don’t even mention compliance approvals…) You might choose to give this job to an agency, but if so, you need to ask yourself whether you can trust them to manage your pride and joy as carefully as an internal team would.

6.    How much are you willing to share your data?

Data is the lifeblood of digital marketing. For success, your teams need to be able to access the right data at the right time. This might be hourly, or even minute by minute. The data might be highly sensitive if you’re optimising to a profit metric or are targeting customer using their personal details. There are ways to manage your data securely between you and an external third party, of course, but this needs careful management and time to set up. You might decide ultimately, the best option is to keep your data – and your team – in house.

7.    How is your activity and spend ‘distributed’?

To get the best out of an internal Performance Marketing hire, they need to be able to focus on one broad category in one market or language. If you have enough spend in that space, then it makes sense to have at least one person managing this and becoming a performance ninja over time. But this isn’t always the case. You might have a sizeable budget but spread across a range of countries each with a different language. The cost of hiring one person to manage each market and language just might not make sense. Instead, an agency could service that need for you at lower cost as they have teams in each country managing a range of clients, including you.

In a similar vein, when it comes to generating creative, it makes sense to have an in-house team if there is a requirement for regular, smaller design jobs that need to be turned around quickly, for example, social media or retail channels. On the flipside, a large advertising campaign that you generate once, maybe twice a year, doesn’t need a full 52 weeks of resource to manage – best to outsource.

8.    How important is it to influence other internal teams?

Even though you might work with third parties, they should feel close to your business and feel part of your team. That said, in some instances, success requires a high level of influence within your business where there are significant dependencies with other teams outside of Marketing. This is especially true for Technical SEO. Even the best and newest websites will need to be optimised regularly for SEO and any new features, launches or integrations should be carefully handled, so that you can protect or grow your organic traffic. As such, there is a huge dependence on your Tech/Product Engineering teams and a need to influence decision-making and prioritisation. Not impossible for an agency to do but certainly easier to achieve if this is led by one of your own team.

9.    How certain are you that you want to expand a new area? Do you want to try it out first?

Imagine that you’ve reviewed your Marketing strategy to explore new and exciting channels that can turbo-charge your growth. Some of those will be fairly simple to add to the scope of your current team. Others will be more of a risk and need more investment up front before you can be sure that this is something that can really work. If that’s the case, do you really want to take the risk of hiring a team of people and then have to let them go when you decide it’s not the right direction to take? A less risky approach would be to bring in a third party to test it out and then if you decide it’s a great option for the long term, you can build a permanent in-house team in due course. If not, you can end the work, shake hands and move on. Just be up front with any agency about your approach when you start out.

10. What’s more important, being able to control spend within each quarter depending on unpredictable factors? Or getting best value for a predictable set of needs?

Value for money is one of the driving factors in building out your internal team and decisions around appointing and managing agencies or freelancers. While this includes the overall cost of running an activity either through a permanent team or otherwise, ‘value’ for you, might be just as much about flexibility and short-term cost control. Especially in the current economic environment, having more control over being able to dial up and down resource at short notice (using third parties) could well be what matters to you most, even if it costs slightly more.

So, plenty to think about before you decide how to structure your Marketing team, including any agencies and freelancers. And the right answer today might not be the right answer in 3 months’ time. Scaling up is fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity and curveballs.. but that’s half the fun, right? Regardless of which third parties you lean on to help you on your way and whether they’re with you for a short or long term, you will always get better results if you treat them as part of your team not just a supplier kept at arm’s length. The closer they feel and the better they understand your needs, the more they will be able to help you when you most need them!

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