Marketing is on the chopping block. As businesses seek cost savings, marketing spend is reduced (once again) in favour of what are often seen as more ‘core’ areas like sales and product development.

Although marketing is a vital driver of both short and long term performance, it can be frustratingly nebulous in various ways: how much resource is needed, what skills are most valuable, and most importantly – what ROI can be expected. It is no surprise that Finance Directors usually look at reducing fixed costs on marketing before looking elsewhere.

Building more flexibility into marketing investment is the way forward for most organisations.

External partners, such as marketing agencies, are an attractive alternative to build in this flexibility. But how do you balance and integrate internal expertise with 3rd party support? Do the benefits of working with external partners outweigh the risks? How do you select and integrate an external partner (or more than one partner), effectively, for short and long term gain?


In-house vs (and) outsourced: the structure of a winning marketing function

If you can only afford a single marketer (or FTE) and no – or very limited – agency spend, then a mostly outsourced marketing approach is likely best. A single marketer will not have both the breadth and depth of knowledge that is needed in modern marketing. Expecting one person to handle all strategic, tactical, digital and technical responsibilities is a recipe for failure.

If you can afford multiple in-house marketers (or FTE) and/or have a decent budget for agency spend, a hybrid model is probably your best option. Appoint an internal ‘generalist marketer’ (or have someone in your team take this on as part of their role) and then bring on board external marketing expertise and muscle. This should enable you to extract maximum value from your marketing function (as long as it is done in the right way of course!).

This will allow you to ramp up resources when needed, assuming your external partner has a team of a decent size. Larger agency teams (10+ people) should have the flexibility, breadth and depth you’ll need. Agencies are most effectively deployed when their skills complement what you have in-house, so make sure have access to both extra (flexible) capacity as well as expertise or skills that don’t exist within the business.


The hidden costs of in-house marketing

While you may feel having a fully in-house marketing team is a less risky and possibly more cost-effective solution, consider the myriad of hidden costs involved. Recruitment processes are often lengthy and costly, and ‘maintenance and overhead’ costs like IT equipment, HR, training, management, holidays/sick days, PAYE etc. must all be covered. Consider the risk of a new hire under-performing, and how draining and distracting this could become on the business.

Agencies can remove, or at least simplify these issues. Agencies carry all the recruitment, training, management and overhead costs themselves. They also have to make sure the people working on your marketing are performing well – and if they aren’t, the ‘people management’ issues will not be yours to deal with. A good agency will be able to offer tangible evidence of past performance, often spanning various industries, geographies and specialisms, and will also hold themselves accountable for marketing ROI.

Perhaps most valuable of all is that full-service agencies are the ‘perfect’ marketing team. They can expertly deliver all elements of marketing, constantly honing their skills by being involved in so many projects with a range of clients. Small, in-house and mostly ‘generalist’ marketing teams often can’t match this level of experience and expertise, as they’re usually stretched too thin to develop deeper knowledge and better skills. Some businesses can afford to support these marketers with in-house specialists in more technical areas like data and digital – but this is quite rare.


The case for a hybrid approach

The issue is not binary. You do not have to choose between in-house marketers and external partners; the best approach is probably hybrid (if you can afford more than one marketing FTE). Even if you favour a fully-outsourced model, you will still need some level of oversight of, and support for, the agency’s delivery.

The demand for marketing resources within most businesses tend to vary over time, with some periods where internal teams are not paying their way due to being over-resourced, and other times where they can’t keep up with demand and become over-burdened. A hybrid approach is the best way to maintain the ‘minimum viable’ internal resource while having the option to ramp up capacity and expertise when needed.

The best kind of external partner will work in a transparent and collaborative way, enabling your internal team to gain valuable marketing knowledge and skills while working in an integrated way with your agency.


How to make outsourced marketing work

Employing external resources is not simply a case of signing a contract, throwing some money across the table and watching the results coming in. Careful selection and diligent support for, and management of, your partner will ensure optimal returns. Here are 4 things to always do when outsourcing some or all of your marketing:

  1. Look for expertise and a proven track record. Don’t fall for flashy sales pitches and hollow promises. Look for the proven substance in a track record and clear approach to make an astute decision on who you should work with.
  2. Onboard your outsourced team as strategic partners. A big mistake is to think of, or position, your agency as ‘a supplier’. From day one, treat them as part of your team, enabling them with the same kind of support you would give an internal marketer. Make sure everyone in your business understands their purpose, their skills and how to utilise them. A good strategic partner will see your business goals as their own goals, and will strive to help you achieve them by playing an active role in your business.
  3. Give an internal person overall responsibility for ensuring the partnership is successful. This does not mean this person is the main or only point of contact for the agency. The role of ‘partner relationship owner’ is ensuring the required outcomes are achieved from the partnership. This is achieved via strong, open communication and ensuring each party is delivering according to their role and responsibilities. Both sides need to be collaborative and accountable.
  4. Insist on transparency and accountability. As you would with an internal marketer, make your expectations clear from the start. Set clear objectives and agree specific deliverables to align on desired outcomes. Ask for weekly reports and hold weekly meetings to ensure the required progress is being made and good, visible results are being achieved. This weekly meeting is also essential to ensure the project team is working well together.

In these financially stressed times, the question should not be ‘should we use internal or outsourced marketing’, but rather ‘what does the most effective and cost-efficient marketing composition look like for us?’.

A hybrid solution is – in most cases – the answer. This offers the flexibility of external resource, while maintaining the baseline internal marketing function required. Marketing is a critical function. Maintaining your marketing strength now, and being able to scale up when opportunity knocks, may just give you the competitive edge!

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