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Should You Staff up Your In-House Marketing Team or Hire an Agency?

In a perfect world, we would all be great at everything. Play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Joni Mitchell? No problem. Sing like Whitney Houston or Robert Plant? Easy peasy. Act like Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep? Of course. Write like William Shakespeare or Margaret Atwood? Please. Understand marketing like Mary Kay Ash or Steve Jobs? Sure, but what about after breakfast?

The truth? No one is good at everything. And yet when it comes to marketing and communications, this sentiment seems not to have permeated the popular thinking of many of the profession’s gatekeepers (recruiters, company HR staff, vice-presidents, CEOs, etc.). It could even be argued this trend is getting worse, not better, as marketing becomes an increasingly complex web of segmented audiences requiring increasingly niche specialties to reach.

Have you read a corporate marketing job description lately? While some still seem within striking distance of reality, others are so fanciful their authors might as well spend their time writing the next Game of Thrones. For the thrill of being given a salary that in some cases barely crosses the poverty line, all you’ll need to do is be awesome at every aspect along the marketing and communications spectrum: copywriter, content creator, social media guru, graphic designer, pay-per-click advertising expert, public/media relations master, analytics maestro, website developer. You get the idea.

Setting aside the curious reasons why companies float these kitchen-sink descriptions in the first place, the real question is this: what should small, medium, and even large businesses do when they realize, either after hiring someone or before, that their all-in-one saviour didn’t materialize?

Perhaps the starting point is to look at how marketing agency job descriptions differ from corporate ones. Typically, agencies are very specific in what they look for: a traffic person, a copywriter, a graphic designer, a web developer, a market researcher, a branding whiz, a pay-per-click expert. It’s a list that’s startling like the earlier one but with one crucial caveat: each specialty gets its own expert. Graphic designers aren’t expected to build websites, and copywriters aren’t expected to know how to manage media campaigns. And so on.

It’s unwise to deny the importance of covering the bases in these categories, but it’s equally unrealistic to assume an in-house marketing team is the best way to maximize each subject area’s contributions to a company’s success. For corporations large and small that choose to hire marketing and communications talent, there’s a sensible list of skill sets to look for first, second, third, etc. But even after they’ve hired a great writer, an amazing graphic designer, and a savvy online marketer (in that order), there’s still lots of gaps left along the marketing spectrum that should be addressed—and not by those filling other roles if getting top-notch results is the goal, as it should be.

All companies except those with the fiscal resources to hire lots of marketers specializing in vastly different areas (a very rare scenario) would be well served to consider two distinct marketing budgets annually: an in-house budget and an agency budget. The degree to which one budget or the other will be tapped depends on the size and compositional expertise of the in-house team. The more in-house marketers there are who can demonstrate enviable competency levels, the less an agency is needed.

Perhaps the real challenge ahead for company decision-makers and related gatekeepers is to accept that a “marketer” is like just many other professions in that the word itself doesn’t automatically indicate those who practice it have mastered every possible angle or avenue.

Think about it like this: as an executive building your business, let’s say you’re essentially playing the role of a contractor building a house. Sure, you might have a framer and roofer on staff, but what about a plumber, an electrician, an HVAC expert, an architect, an interior designer, a flooring specialist, an audio/video technician, a drywaller, a painter? Obviously, you’ll need to hire those skill sets on a temporary basis to ensure your house stands the test of time. So why would leaders hiring “marketers” be any different?

Welcome to marketing in the 21st century.