'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, raise your profile and differentiate your business.
So far, so obvious. But should you hire your own marketing staff or work with a marketing agency?
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Why you should hire a marketing agency
Full disclosure: I run a marketing agency. I'm generally in favour of people hiring marketing agencies. At Articulate Marketing we typically work with B2B companies, often in the tech industry, such as MSPs or software developers. These businesses speak tech loud and clear, but they tend to need a bit of help in getting their message across to potential clients.
Let me explain why I believe hiring a marketing agency is the right choice before I look at the reasons for hiring in-house marketing stuff.
1. Owner/managers are not superheroes
The owners of small to medium-sized businesses are usually the founders. They’ve built their business from the ground up and it’s not just a job, but also a labour of love.
For many owner/managers, taking on more and more responsibility seems like a logical, natural part of running a business. Many feel that the skills and experiences of others can’t compare to their own, and that only they know what’s best for their company and their clients.
This is okay in the short term. But in the long term it can start to affect both your mental and physical wellbeing. Studies have shown that people who work excessively long hours were 40 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those working standard hours.
No-one is a superhero. You don't do a part-time law degree to write your contracts - you ask a lawyer for help. You don't do your own tax returns - you ask an accountant for help. It makes sense to outsource roles that require specialist expertise. It's the same with marketing.
If you take all the burden of running a business on your shoulders alone, including the marketing, it might eventually crush you. Don’t allow your business to be your kryptonite. Stay strong and let an agency contribute their expertise and resources.
2. Specialist knowledge
It is impossible to know everything. This is why hiring an agency makes good business sense; you’re explicitly purchasing the services of experts.
An agency will be an expert in their field (e.g. marketing, sales, PR). They will have more collective knowledge than any one owner/manager, and have access to in-house expertise on the finer details. A marketing agency like Articulate, for example, doesn’t just have ‘expert marketers.’ We have experts in the different disciplines of marketing: graphic design, SEO and website development, social media, copywriting etc.
Not only that, but marketing agencies like ours specialise. That means not only do we have experience in marketing, but we have experience of marketing in a specific industry. We can meet you half-way.
3. Savings on salaries, time and training
For a business, controlling expenditure can mean the difference between success and failure. Cost control and proper expense management is essential for ensuring liquidity, employee accountability, more accurate financial records and better budgeting.
One of the most common expenses in business is recruitment. Most companies underestimate the cost of recruitment by between 90 to 95 percent and this is because of the tendency to think of the cost employing someone simply in terms of their basic wage. But there’s also payroll tax, pensions, employee benefits, training and more to account for.
Once you've hired them, you have to pay them. An experienced marketing manager would cost you, on average, between £60,000 and £120,000 per year in salary. That’s excluding costs for learning and development, pensions, perks and all of those other necessary expenses.
Of course, you can hire more junior staff, but will they have the experience and skills to guide your strategy and deliver high-quality work? And who will mentor them? What happens when they leave? Or go on holiday?
And though the average retainer for an agency should cost the same as the staff cost of an appropriately sized in-house team. there’s a catch. Hiring an agency doesn’t incur ‘hidden costs’ and it means you spend less time and money on onboarding, training and developing employees.
This is a key difference between internal employees and an agency. Employees require training. An agency was born ready. From the second you hire them, they are ready to get started.
When businesses should call an agency
The reasons why you should hire an agency are clear. For less than the cost of an in-house team, you get access to expert knowledge and a team whose only remit is to focus on what they’re good at.
But, you shouldn’t hire an agency too early. Here are some indicators to help you decide when you should call an agency.
1. When nothing is getting done
The world of work is a busy place. More often than not, there are multiple things that need doing at the same time. It’s only natural that something might slip, or worse, remain incomplete. When the important jobs are not getting done, it’s time to get some help. As agencies are specialists in a single area they can get on with the job easily.
2. When sales and growth are stagnating
If a business is stalling, growth is slowing and you spend most of your time putting out fires rather than being productive, something’s got to change.
There are many things that can stall sales and growth. It can be ineffective marketing, poor customer service or mismanagement. No matter the symptom, you can find the cure with an agency. Outsource failing sections of a business can revitalise and kick-start growth. Sometimes all it takes is a little outside perspective.
3. When your ambitions exceed your capability
Sometimes, businesses can have ambitions for the future that they cannot achieve with their current capabilities. It can be as simple as not having the requisite manpower or an inherent lack of knowledge on how to achieve these objectives. Regardless, if you don’t have what you need, an agency can either provide or find it for you.
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 Platinum 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 businesses 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 one-time 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 and they understand the demands of SEO and readability. 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 technology companies - Microsoft, HPE and Symantec, 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.
Edited and updated in 2020.