Advice How to do marketing

Should you hire a marketing agency or a marketing person?

'No bucks, no Buck Rogers' as the astronauts say in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.

In other words, if you want your sales to take off, you need to invest in marketing to attract new customers, nurture existing ones and beat your competition.

So far, so obvious. But should you hire your own marketing staff or work with a marketing agency?

Why you should hire a marketing agency

Full disclosure: I run a marketing agency. I'm generally in favour of people hiring marketing agencies.

But let me explain why I believe this is the right choice before I look at the reasons for hiring in-house marketing stuff.

  • Do what you do best. You've got a lot on your to-do list already. Luckily, marketing is easy to outsource. A good agency will need your input but they will know how to capture your insight, intentions and uniqueness without wasting your time. The time cost of building an in-house team is surprisingly high: hiring, training and managing good marketers takes a lot of time. That’s all time that you could be spending on running your business.
  • Agencies have efficiencies of scale. Agencies invest in tools, know-how and training in ways that are not cost-effective in small in-house marketing teams. For example, at Articulate we have honed processes like pair writing, open book project management and points pricing. Agencies are tight knit teams who constantly learn and share ideas and experiences on their Slack channels and over coffee in company meetings. That expertise is hard to replicate in smaller, non-specialist teams.
  • Professional outsiders. One of the biggest problems we see with technology marketing is that our clients want to talk about their stuff in their language, rather than their customers' needs in their customers' language. The secret to selling technology is: don’t talk about technology. Customers don't care about it: they care about how it will solve their problems. An external agency can bring this outsider's perspective. We create personas and messaging guidelines to ensure that everything we say is targeted at your ideal customer. Marketing agencies won’t know your product like you do, and that’s exactly why they are good at seeing your business in the same light as your clients.
  • Easier to scale up or down. With a marketing agency, clients can scale up their plan any time and scale down at the end of each retainer period. Articulate and many other marketing agencies offer retainers that run three, six or 12 months. It's very flexible. In contrast, if you hired three or four people to do the same job, scaling up means recruiting new people and scaling down means painful redundancies.
  • No pesky people problems. Managing and motivating creative people takes work. Building a creative, hard-working culture takes work. Each new hire is another person to mentor, train and appraise. To make matters more complicated, small teams of marketers in businesses focused on other things can often feel isolated. You can outsource all of those worries to an agency boss.
  • Multiple skills, one arse to kick. A modern marketing campaign requires a bundle of skills: writing, graphic design, website coding, email crafting, account management, interviewing, social media, analytics, SEO; the list goes on. It's unlikely you'll find one person who can do all of those things to a high standard and, if you did, they'd probably cost too much. If you don't have all those skills working for you, your marketing will fall short of competitors who do. A good agency has to have a team full of all the skills they need to compete, and you can tap into that.
  • It's likely to be cheaper. A monthly retainer should cost roughly the same as the staff cost of an appropriately sized in-house team. Certainly, that's the benchmark we use for pricing our retainers. But in-house staff come with additional, hidden costs such as pensions, perks, holidays, training, hiring and management time.

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The pitfalls of in-house marketing

There are, of course, benefits to having an in-house marketing team. But there are also plenty of pitfalls:

  • Part-time marketing. It's tempting to give someone a marketing role as an add-on to another job. Perhaps it gets assigned to a salesperson or to an office manager. That’s a start, but there’s no way that part-time marketer can ever do everything they need to do to attain strong business growth. Marketing is a full-time job.
  • The only marketer in the village. The next step for many companies is to hire just one marketing person. This an improvement on a part-time assignment but it can be a lonely role, often with relatively low status. We did 18 digital marketing reviews for Microsoft on some of their partners. In many cases, we found that companies might have 10-20 sales people but only one or two people in a marketing role.  For the best results, you need balanced sales and marketing teams who actively work together to grow your business.
  • Buying the tools but not using them. We're HubSpot gold partners and we believe strongly in the power of marketing automation tools as a 'force multiplier'. But buying the book isn't the same as reading it. We often see companies who bought HubSpot but didn’t use it very effectively. We also see business’s that set up a blog and then don't publish to it regularly. Marketing is a journey not a destination, a process not an event: it’s an ongoing investment, not a purchase.
  • Delegating to interns. Don't get me wrong. Interns are great. We learned from our multinational clients how powerful it can be to hire and nurture talent. In fact, most of our staff started work here as interns. But interns alone are not the answer to marketing. Yes, ‘millennials’ may be more digitally-minded and more comfortable with Facebook than many owner-managers, but you can't delegate your marketing to people with limited experience. You wouldn't hire an intern to do your accounts or manage the factory. Marketing is just as important and no amount of enthusiasm can make up for hard-earned experience.
  • Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer. Much of what we do involves writing.  Blog posts, white papers, case studies, emails and landing pages all need copy. It's easy to think that you can get your colleagues to write marketing copy. In practice, it's not so easy. First, they have other jobs to do and even if they enjoy writing they might not have the time to prioritise it. Second, good marketing copy is more than just ‘getting words on paper'. A good marketing copywriter understands how to write in a way that your readers will engage with. At Articulate we work in pairs so there's always an editor's eye on everything. It is possible to train people to become good, rounded marketing copywriters, it takes us about a year or so, but most people aren't born with those skills and most companies don't have the expertise to nurture them.

How big companies manage marketing

We've worked with some very big companies - Microsoft, HPE and Symantec are current and long-standing clients, for example. So how do those big businesses do it?

Companies spend an average of 10.2 percent of their annual revenue on marketing according to Gartner’s research. But, we’ve found that many large companies don't do the work in-house. Instead, marketing managers plan their marketing strategy and then work with a roster of agencies to implement it. These firms have the budgets to fund large in-house marketing teams but they all work with agencies instead.

Companies that grow quickly invest in marketing. Companies with great marketing use great agencies. They know how to select good agencies, manage them, give good, timely feedback to get the most out of them and give them the encouragement they need to do their best work. Anything else, frankly, is a false economy.

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Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.