At a recent pitch, a marketing specialist told me that her directive from management was to outsource marketing activities…for the time being.
“Then, when we grow big enough, we’ll take it back in house,” she said.
It’s a fairly typical approach, and I’ve seen many organizations big and small struggle with the decision. I’ve also been on both sides of the equation myself.
However, I feel like today’s marketplace makes outsourcing less of a head-scratcher and more of a necessity—particularly for small marketing departments.
Brush this off as a self-serving statement if you will, as we are designed primarily for small marketing departments. But just know that we’re not out to manufacture a trend; we’re trying to meet the needs of it.
So let’s take a deeper look at:
- The biggest challenges that today’s marketing leaders are facing
- The marketing generalist vs. the specialist
- The true cost of building your own in-house team
- The pros and cons of outsourcing marketing activities
- How to determine the best route forward for you
The big picture: Marketing leaders just can’t keep up
In Mark Schaeffer’s book Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins, he recalls facilitating an invitation-only meeting of some of the biggest chief marketing officers in the business.
He asked the executives to name their biggest challenges. Schaeffer writes, “One-by-one, they all exclaimed, ‘We’re falling so far behind … on everything!’”
If you’re a marketing pro in today’s digital age—heck, if you’re a human being—it feels like things are evolving so rapidly that you can’t keep up. You could argue this is especially true in marketing, where we now need to communicate in multiple ways to multiple target audiences.
This has led to the rise of the marketing specialist and created a seismic shift in how marketing departments are formed.
Marketing generalists vs. specialists
With so many different venues in digital marketing, specialists now abound. In fact, Nielsen Visual IQ CMO Wayne St. Amand writes, “Marketing specialists vs. generalists will determine the teams of the future.”
According to St. Amand, marketing departments are reacting to two major forces:
1. The growing demand for “perfectly executed” consumer experiences
2. The reality of a “zig-zagged consumer journey”
Because it’s becoming more and more difficult for marketing generalists to effectively handle multiple brand needs across the consumer journey, marketing leaders are changing the make-up of their internal teams: They’re now turning to specialists.
“By possessing incredible fluency in the channels, content, messages, and offers that resonate with customers and prospects,” says St. Amand, “specialists are able to add more value to each interaction, and create more relevant and engaging experiences that create more authentic relationships.”
The true cost of building your own in-house team
Let’s imagine you really want to keep all your marketing activities in house. But you’re also interested in elevating your digital marketing efforts, so you’re going to need to bring on some of the specialists we just mentioned.
To that end, let’s assume you’re going to build up your marketing team by filling the following positions and paying the accompanying average annual salaries. (based on data from The Creative Group 2020 Salary Guide)
|Specialist||Median National Salary|
|Email marketing specialist||$55,250|
|Marketing analytics specialist||$68,500|
|Social media manager||$59,500|
Add all those annual salaries up and divide by 12, and you’ll see that in one month you’ll be paying about $31,000 in total salaries for that top-notch team.
Of course this is in addition to the cost of their benefits; all the time and expense that went into the hiring process; and of course, your salary and the salaries for any other managers of these specialists.
Okay, those numbers may be laughably unrealistic to you. But they actually speak to an important point: You probably can’t afford to build an in-house digital marketing dream team. Heck, you probably can’t afford to build a mediocre in-house digital marketing team.
But all is not lost. In fact, this isn’t really bad news at all. It actually illustrates why outsourcing can be a great idea for your marketing efforts—provided you’re strategic about it.
The pros of outsourcing marketing activities
Effective marketing demands sophisticated—and specialized—knowledge. But does the need for marketing specialists necessarily mean restructuring your internal teams?
Outsourcing marketing activities, and marketing specialities, can be a great way to plug expertise in where you need it most. Consider the following advantages:
Add needed capabilities you simply don’t have
Successful digital marketing requires SEO, conversion optimization, analytics and other specialties. Can you honestly say you have internal staff with the knowledge, experience and time to take these on?
IT, accounting, and HR tasks are commonly outsourced. So why not marketing?
Make sure tasks actually get completed
Consistency is critical. But when staff are swamped, guess what gets back-burnered? Regular blog posts, social media postings, and similar tasks. Outsourcing can ensure they’ll get done.
Pay only for the support you need
Hiring a full-time marketing staff is expensive. By identifying tasks to outsource, you can hire staff more strategically and run much leaner. And from the numbers we learned above, what you spend on outsourcing can be significantly less than hiring full-time employees.
Get great support thanks to a competitive landscape
Digital marketing agencies know competition is stiff. When you outsource, you’ll not only get high-quality people. Agencies are used to proving their results—it’s how they hold on to clients.
And if you’re not satisfied? You have plenty of choices waiting in the wings.
Gain a fresh perspective from specialists focused on results
When you outsource, you get an outside perspective. More specifically, your outsourced specialists are motivated to create value and results. They’re not interested in sticking to the old playbook because it’s easier.
And don’t forget that collaborating with an agency can breathe new life into a potentially complacent (or overworked) staff.
Ramp up or scale back incrementally—and much more easily
Outsourcing makes it easier to fine-tune your efforts. Want to increase your content output? Just negotiate a new agreement with the agency you’re working with. And the same goes for scaling back or hitting pause.
Much easier than dealing with full-time staff and the HR headaches that come with them.
The cons of outsourcing marketing activities
When you outsource, you’ll need to plan. What specialities make the most sense to outsource, both strategically and financially? Make decisions willy-nilly and you could be in a worse position with your marketing efforts than when you started.
Additionally, you may be outsourcing certain responsibilities, but you’re also creating new ones for yourself. Will it ultimately be worth it? Consider these cautionary notes when it comes to outsourcing:
Pay for something you could (in theory) do internally
An agency’s monthly invoice makes it real: You’re paying for an outside service. So what is their ultimate value? You’ll need to justify and quantify your spend, both for your own department’s benefit as well as the execs who’ll be asking about the ROI.
Create work (and risk) for yourself
It takes effort to choose an agency that’s right for you. How rigorous are you going to make the selection process? How many options are you going to explore? And then once you make a commitment, your outsourced specialists will be turning to you regularly for a lot of critical input.
Sacrifice knowledge and familiarity
Who knows you better than you? From your culture to your products and services, employees arguably understand your organization best. An outside agency has a huge learning curve to surmount, especially when it comes to something as close and personal as your marketing.
Choose outside experts over creating a smarter staff
When you outsource a specialty, you’re committing to someone else doing the work—rather than your department learning about it and doing it themselves. Is that the right decision in terms of improving morale, encouraging growth, and developing smart internal best practices?
Get used to sharing the love
A dedicated and highly responsive internal staff can move projects forward efficiently. But will that be the case when working with an agency? They’ll likely have numerous clients and will have to divide their time among them all.
Lose control of your brand
Outsourcing marketing tasks can mean giving someone else the reins to your brand. And that can be scary, especially when you think of how much work has gone into building it. Yes, when it comes to things like content, you can always have the final say. But you’ll need to make more time for a thorough review process.
What’s the right strategy for you?
The best way to solve the outsource/in house conundrum is to approach it this way:
Outsourced tasks. Rely on specialists to understand new technologies and marketing methods to help you achieve your marketing goals.
In-house tasks. Spend your time knowing your customer, your industry and your company.
Let’s elaborate on this strategy by listing the respective functions.
Top marketing activities to outsource
Outsourced activities generally fall into three buckets:
- Tasks that aren’t office dependent and can easily be accomplished off-site
- Temporary activities that don’t necessarily require hiring an employee
- Responsibilities that demand specialized knowledge related to the latest tactics and technology
It’s that last bullet point that’s become a leading area to outsource. Why?
According to Sara Eide, Vice President of The Creative Group, there’s a premium on marketing specialists who bring the kind of valuable internet expertise needed for businesses to stay competitive. And there’s also a shortage of them.
The Creative Group 2020 Salary Guide reports that 75% of creative/marketing leaders said they have difficulty getting and keeping candidates with the digital skills they’re looking for, with specific areas like the following the hardest to find:
- Marketing analytics
- Web design, user experience design, user interface design
- Content strategy, writing and marketing
- Search engine optimization, search engine marketing
Note how these skills overlap with the positions listed above in our hypothetical in-house marketing dream team.
“Candidates who are really good at these skills can essentially come in and help increase revenue. That’s why they’re so highly sought after,” Eide says.
If you lead a small marketing team at a manufacturing company, for example, you’re probably a generalist with one particular area of expertise and are supported by a couple of other marketing staff.
With the demands on a small marketing department, there are just too many skill sets to cover internally.
Because of the expense and the scarcity of specific marketing skills like those above, you’ll likely benefit from outsourcing them. It’s also worth noting that you don’t necessarily need these skills 100% of the time.
“You can bring on people when you need them, and then when you don’t need them, you don’t have to pay for them. That’s why a lot of smaller marketing departments have really gone the way of working with an agency,” Eide says.
Top marketing activities to perform in house
You’ll make smarter outsourcing decisions when you pinpoint what really makes sense to handle in house, such as:
- Frequent, routine tasks that are important but don’t require a specialized skill set
- Activities that need an onsite presence
- Responsibilities that demand vision and leadership of your department’s mission
- Specific internal domains like your budget and overall strategy
Let’s take a closer look at two of these areas.
Top level strategists and communicators at the C-suite level
You have to own the big picture. And that can only be done from an internal position. Your marketing executives and managers not only manage critical areas like your budget and marketing strategy, but they also serve as a key liaison with the sales management team.
Marketing leaders need to be the visionaries and lifeblood of your overall marketing approach. A well-defined and inspiring vision of where your marketing is going can be a powerful thing, and it’s up to your marketing leaders to be the full-time champions.
Executors of the routine-but-vital marketing activities
I’m not going to call this “busy” work. These are the routine, ongoing tasks that are vital to a successfully functioning marketing department.
My wife is a nanny for a couple of doctors, and they often refer to her as the “one who keeps the family together.” She handles the tasks that have to be done every day—like cooking meals and bringing the kids to their activities—to maintain order and create a degree of happiness.
And if she didn’t do these things? It would cause a significant household traffic jam when the doctors came home at night.
Back to your marketing department. It’s a smart move to hire internally for the equivalent of the “one who keeps the family together.” There is likely a mountain of work to be done in terms of:
- Managing your social media accounts
- Handling basic design work
- Sending out emails
- Loading up blog posts
- Running special events
You want the people who do these tasks to be familiar with your internal protocol, as well as any other rules, regulations, and restrictions.
Sure, you could outsource these on the cheap, but when you have loyal, reliable internal staff to carry out these necessary tasks, they can be invaluable.
The big question: What would you like to do?
For small marketing departments, there are only so many resources to go around. So it’s customary for a marketing director to fill the generalist roles mentioned above and also dip a toe into one of the roles ideal for outsourcing.
If you’re a marketing director, you might decide to choose a specialized function that’s tailored to your skills.
For example, I’ve worked with a marketing director who liked to design, so she filled in with content creation. Another loves analytics, so he handled that end of the spectrum. You have to decide on your strength.
Overall, your outsourcing choices should depend on what fits your organization and your role. But make no mistake, the split between generalist and specialist should make pinpointing the right activities to outsource an easy call—and a necessary one.