Need Marketing Help? Should You Go With In-House Marketers, Freelancers, an Ad Agency — or All 3?

In 2020, many companies are rethinking their marketing org charts.

Written by Mae Rice
Published on Sep. 21, 2020
Need Marketing Help? Should You Go With In-House Marketers, Freelancers, an Ad Agency — or All 3?

The initial wave of “We’re here for you!” emails was only the beginning of COVID-19’s impact on marketing.

Today, with marketing budgets tightened and most everyone working from home, the coronavirus pandemic has forced marketers to ask existential questions, like: “What does it mean to build a marketing team in 2020?”

More specifically: How do you know if you need to hire a full-time employee (FTE), a freelancer, or a full-blown agency?

Well, first of all, “or” isn’t exactly the right word there. John Simpson, CEO at Chicago marketing and strategy agency One North, said that, often, his organization collaborates with in-house and freelance marketing talent.

“It’s definitely becoming more common,” he told Built In.

Jessie Kernan has observed the same trend. She heads strategy and insights at We Are Rosie, an agency that connects freelance marketers with major brands like Twitter and Hulu.

“It’s a lot less of a versus question,” she told Built In. “It’s more like, how do those things start to layer together to create inclusion, resilience, innovation, creativity and so forth.”

Resilience, especially, is key. For a long time, marketing has been governed by “rigid systems,” Kernan said. “When there’s a lot of pressure applied to a rigid system” — say, a pandemic — “it breaks.”

Right now, marketing organizations need to prioritize flexibility, she said. For some companies, that might mean going fully freelance; for others, it might mean hiring all three types of talent.

Here are pros and cons to consider if you want to build a marketing team ready for whatever’s next — whether it’s the end of Slack, a rise in workplace automation, or a surprise return of the brick-and-mortar office.


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Full-Time, In-House Marketers

The longest-term commitment of the three options.


Pro: They Stabilize Essential Marketing Functions

During the coronavirus pandemic, the term “essential worker” has come to mean specific critical professions: pharmacists, grocery store workers, firefighters, etc.

However, essential workers don’t just exist at a societal level — they also exist at the team level, Kernan said. The people who “keep your aim true as a business and a brand [and] make the tough calls” are a marketing team’s essential workers, and they should be FTEs. (The same goes for anyone doing marketing work for which there’s inelastic demand, or work that rewards long-term relationships and institutional memory.)

A reliable “brain trust” of FTEs focused on this type of work brings stability and continuity to key marketing functions, Kernan said.

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Pro: FTEs Are Great for Spearheading High-Volume Digital Marketing Campaigns

Full-time, in-house marketers can often create and optimize major, targeted digital ad campaigns more cheaply and precisely than freelancers or an agency team. It can require myriad subtly different versions of copy and imagery; when it comes to the optimization process, it also requires real-time attention.

FTEs handle both efficiently. Unilever saved 30 percent and sped up production by “in-housing” some of its branded content creation, CNBC reports.


Con: FTEs Leave a Hole When They Leave

An in-house marketer is a long-term investment, so when one leaves for a new opportunity, it’s worth it for organizations to take their time and find the right replacement. But a rigorous interviewing, hiring and onboarding process takes weeks, if not months. Kernan noted that, often, clients pull from We Are Rosie’s community of freelance marketers as a stopgap measure while they look for an FTE.


Con: FTEs Aren’t Necessarily Thought Leaders in the Field

Companies often can’t afford to hire people with truly creative and ground-breaking marketing ideas full time.

“Those skill sets are much more expensive,” one-time Oliver chief creative officer, Brian Cooper, told CNBC.


Con: They’re Just as Remote as Everyone Else Right Now

Once, an advantage of hiring full-time marketers was that they spent more face-to-face time in the office, building relationships and absorbing cross-functional knowledge.

But now, “we’re all home,” Simpson noted. “I think using external talent, whether it’s agency or freelancer, is going to become an even more pervasive option.”

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Freelance Marketers

Great for one-off or short-term projects.


Pro: Freelancers Can Function as Extra ‘Arms and Legs’ When Demand Peaks

Freelancers can easily help out companies that already have marketing infrastructure and managers, but simply need “more arms and legs to do what they’re already doing,” Simpson said.

It might be that a company needs help handling a certain task, like email campaign execution, when demand peaks; or maybe they need a fill-in for a specific role while a FTE goes on maternity leave.

This can involve a somewhat “reactionary” scramble to staff, Kernan said — but, increasingly, she sees organizations trying to plan for surges and arrange freelance back-up in advance.


Pro: Freelancers Can Offer Niche Expertise You Can’t Use (or Afford) All the Time

Freelance marketers don’t have to be arms and legs. Veteran marketers with strategic insights also consult on a freelance basis.

“There are times when we use freelancers for strategic purposes,” Simpson said of One North. “Maybe providing a skill set that we don’t have, but that we don’t know that we’re going to be really able to offer fully for our clients.”

We Are Rosie clients, too, use We Are Rosie freelancers — Rosies, as Kernan calls them — as consultants for one-off strategic projects, like revamping a dusty internal process. A handful of Rosies might embed with a client to help reimagine, say, how the client handles go-to-market strategy, Kernan said. They develop a “new paradigm,” lead one product launch, and then depart, leaving their host with a playbook for future launches. No need to reinvent it every time!


Pro: It’s a Low-Risk Way to Grow Your Marketing Workforce

Especially during an ultra-uncertain pandemic (will it last until 2024?), many companies come to Kernan saying they have gaps to fill, but that growing a marketing team right now feels overconfident. Can they sustain a larger marketing team long-term?

It’s hard to say, especially because, in a crisis, many businesses scale back their marketing spend — which explains the way ad prices crashed even as media traffic soared at the beginning of the pandemic.

Freelance marketers offer a flexible alternative to full-time marketers, though — they’re quicker and lower-commitment to hire.


Pro: There’s an Ocean of Talent to Choose From

There are lots of freelance marketers out there, and odds are that talent pool is only going to keep growing: “Our research says about 35 percent of marketers who go independent, even by force of a layoff or some other adverse event, decide they want to stay independent,” Kernan said.


Con: You Might Run Into Accountability Issues

Contracting directly with freelancers can lead to accountability issues. “They might disappear into the ether,” Kernan said.

Simpson agreed; organizations can get burned by “somebody who’s on to their next project and really isn’t overly concerned about what they’ve left in their wake at another client.”

Hence the rise of intermediaries like We Are Rosie, which incentivize good behavior. They’ll scout out prestige projects for top freelancers, saving them time — but if the freelancers blow off their work or make egregious errors, the pipelines dry up.


Con: The High Turnover Can Create a Lot of Paperwork

Relying on an ever-changing cast of freelancers can become an “administrative burden,” Kernan noted. Freelancers have to be added to payroll, and get their relevant in-house accounts activated.

We Are Rosie tackles this by handling a lot of freelancers’ onboarding work itself; HR automation tools like Workday and Kalo can also help companies streamline onboarding workflows.


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Marketing Agencies

Thought leadership ... for a price.


Pro: Agencies Offer an Outside Perspective

It can be hard to see a familiar, homey organization with fresh eyes. On in-house teams, “a lot of groupthink can occur,” Simpson said.

So when internal talent gets stumped on a critical project, companies often go to agencies seeking an “external thought leader” with a “multidisciplinary perspective,” Simpson explained.

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Pro: Agencies Often Offer Proprietary Methodology

Most marketing agencies have some kind of proprietary methodology, Simpson said — ways of making decisions, leveraging opportunities and layering in creativity.

Creative agency IDEO, for instance, follows a human-centered design methodology, a process that runs from inspiration through to implementation. McCann Worldwide, meanwhile, follows a Truth About Street research methodology, in which all employees take a day to do man-on-the-street interviews about consumer behavior, brand perceptions and more.

Often, this is why clients hire them — they have a question they don’t even know how to start answering, about anything from their brand positioning to their social strategy.

“Organizations bring methodologies,” Simpson said. “People don’t.”


Pro: Agencies Are Easier to Hold Accountable Than Individuals

Hiring an agency offers peace of mind in a way hiring a freelancer doesn’t, Simpson said. Sure, freelancers can offer an outside perspective, but agencies offer a different level of “overhead protection.”

“If whatever you do goes sideways, you’d much rather say, ‘Hey, I hired [a] brand-name agency, and they gave me this advice,’ versus ‘I hired Joe [Freelancer] down the street,’” Simpson said.

That’s because Joe Freelancer’s failings look like the client’s responsibility, whereas a more trusted, top-tier agency’s failings look like its responsibility.


Con: All This Will Cost You

“Agencies are generally more costly” than a freelancer or a full-time marketer, Simpson said — so you don’t want to hire them to resize images. But they’re less costly than hiring any one agency leader full time; essentially, they let businesses rent thought leaders.

Read More About Marketing11 Things Marketers Need to Know About TikTok


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Image: Shutterstock

What About a Combination?

You don’t have to pick just one.


Pro: Everyone Can Play to Their Strengths — as Long as There’s Alignment

When agencies, FTEs and freelancers work together, it means everyone can do the work best-suited to them — which maximizes efficiency, assuming everyone’s aligned on overall objectives and KPIs.

“When that doesn’t happen, you find that the agency or the freelancer are making decisions in a vacuum,” Simpson said. “They’re going to be not as effective ... because they’re not as close to the ‘why.’”

A lack of alignment can actually make the workflow less efficient, because there’s friction and confusion when work transitions from freelancers to agencies, or from agencies to FTEs. (It’s a risk with any collaboration, really, but especially one that spans multiple organizations.)


Con: It Can Get Competitive

When there are multiple different players on a project — especially multiple agencies — they can end up competing for money and power, Kernan warned. A PR agency, a digital agency and a creative agency, for instance, might end up stepping on each other’s toes.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” she said. “They’re all sort of vying for the biggest piece of the revenue pie that they can get.”


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What About No Marketing at All?

Product-led growth offers a whole new path ... or does it?


Pro: It’s Possible — and Can Save Money

For tech startups bootstrapping their way toward acquisition or IPO, a marketing budget can feel like an impossible luxury. Many such companies have pursued an almost anti-marketing strategy called product-led growth (PLG). Rather than hiring marketers, this involves building “viral loops” — incentives for users to spread the word to new users — into the product itself.

PLG saves companies money on ad spend and payroll, especially in their early stages, and it works especially well with social products, like Zoom or Slack; users have to invite other people to use the product if they want to enjoy it themselves.


Con: You Probably Still Have a Marketing Team, but No One Knows They’re on It

Simpson and Kernan both argue that PLG doesn’t prove marketing is irrelevant. Quite the opposite: It proves that marketing is increasingly relevant to all roles.

If you think of marketing as “just pumping messages out into the marketplace,” Simpson said, “you wouldn’t think it’s very valuable.”

Really though, marketing is about understanding the customer, he said, and every business needs to do that.

“You can’t be an effective product person these days without a marketing skill set,” Kernan said. “You have to be thinking about consumers; you have to be thinking about experience.”

This is particularly true in companies pursuing a PLG strategy, where marketing responsibility is implicitly divvied up among product and other roles, according to Kernan and Simpson.

This can work in the short term, but it’s not always sustainable through later stages of growth.  Even Slack, the poster child of PLG, eventually launched an ad campaign — it just happened to be in 2015, six years after the company was founded.

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