In-house marketing vs. a content agency: what's right for you?

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Should you rely on an in-house team to produce your brand’s content, or work with an external marketing agency?

Nick Hardie-Grant

It’s a question on every marketer’s mind: how much do you manage in-house versus outsource to a content marketing agency?

Overall, the current trend leans towards in-house: some corporates have even developed content teams rivalling those of big publishers. While there’s no clear-cut formula, and a lot depends on the size and strategy of the business, here are some consistent points to consider as you work out what’s right for you.

Two people shaking hands while a woman smiles in the background

Developing an in-house team

There are massive benefits to establishing an internal team. It makes your operation more nimble and brings internal brand experts together. Generally speaking, any part of your business that you believe is a differentiating factor or unique selling proposition should be kept in-house.

Here are a few other wins for team ‘in-house’:
  1. Ownership of expertise: As content plays an increasingly important role in a brand’s marketing mix, there is a strong desire to own the strategy, execution and management of all aspects of your content marketing efforts. With an in-house team you have more control.
  2. Alignment: It can be hard to ensure individuals from across a wide range of departments, partners, functions and locations are working towards a shared objective or strategy. Keeping skills in the same building, or just in the same internal team, can remove one of the trickiest barriers.
  3. Future proofing: In his book How will you measure your life? Clay Christensen looks at outsourcing, noting you should “figure out what capabilities you will need to succeed in the future. These must stay in-house – otherwise you are handing over the future of your business”. Setting up an internal content team helps you stay ahead of the curve.
  4. Collaboration: Working side by side with your team definitely has its benefits. The ability to ask quick questions, organise ad-hoc meetings, get a second opinion and a deeper sense of alignment collectively contribute to a smooth operation. As small as some things may seem, a quick conversation in the kitchen between the brand manager and your creative director about an idea for an upcoming video can make all the difference.
  5. Transparency and cost savings: This is one of the main drivers of the in-house trend. When you look at how much you might spend with your content marketing agency it can be easy to think that hiring is a much more cost-effective option. You’ll also get full transparency regarding how strategy, production and media dollars are being spent, plus a 360-degree view of return on your investment.

Outsourcing to a content marketing agency

Whether you’re a large corporate, a start-up, or running your own agency, there are jobs to be done that you’re not always going to be capable of, don’t have time or resources for, or just aren’t what your organisation does best. 

Here’s why working with an agency can be a worthwhile investment:
  1. Experts in their field: A content marketing agency lives and breathes brand publishing, and works simultaneously on a number of clients across a vast number of categories. This means they have rare insight into common challenges, best practice, trends and opportunities. Because of this diversity agencies also attract best-of-breed talent. The landscape is changing so quickly that it can be hard to keep an in-house team on top of the latest trends.
  2. Fresh set of eyes: It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail and – despite the best intentions –you can also lose the outside perspective needed to keep audiences engaged. Agencies will ensure you’re constantly challenging your thinking and looking at problems with a fresh set of eyes.
  3. Varying skills: Content marketing skills and capabilities are vast. From long-form editorial, to low-fi social video, podcasts, magazine publishing, email marketing, and PR – it’s impossible to do everything well. It’s inevitable that you’ll need outside help or you’ll end up building your own small agency in your marketing team. In some cases it can be better to focus on your strengths, which might be customer insights or brand news, insights and stories.
  4. Recruitment: Hiring the best in the industry for a permanent in-house role is difficult. Using an agency can give you access to a larger number of specialists than you can’t afford to hire yourself, and you don’t have to take on the difficulty of constantly replacing them.
  5. Scaling: Content marketing and campaign work is rarely consistent. There’ll be times when more hands are required and others when you’ll be overstaffed. Agencies give you the ability to scale up and down as required without any effect on your business. 
  6. Continuity: We’ve had a lot of long-term client relationships where we’re the most consistent member of their marketing team. Roles change, people move on and so does a lot of your team’s knowledge. An agency can play a long-term, stable partner role, inducting new staff and building on what has and hasn’t worked in the past. Note: with agency roles turning over too it’s important to ensure your partner is documenting the relationship.
Everyone will have their own list, but in my mind these are the key considerations of either model. As you can see, neither approach is perfect. And it really depends on your situation. In the current landscape there’s a definite trend towards in-house content teams, and we’re increasingly finding that we partner with our clients in ways that depend on the phase they’re in with their content marketing operation.

At the end of the day, building an in-house team shows an investment in content that we completely support. But don’t fall into the trap of prioritising cost over creativity: make sure you’re constantly reviewing the output – in the same way you would an agency.

Nick Hardie-Grant is Managing Director of Hardie Grant Media. He’s also the proud owner of Peppa, our office dog.

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