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Specialist marketing agency or full-service. Which is best?

1 year ago by Liz Estall

Full service agency, multiple agencies or freelancers: what is the perfect client-agency setup?

And why is it a challenge?

Across industries there are many approaches to using agencies. Some organisations use one single agency, with all services under one roof. Some use multiple boutique agencies that supplement gaps and are integrated into their in-house team. And services like PeoplePerHour and Freelancer.com have opened up the market to freelancers too. Businesses may not need the capabilities of an agency but more external professionals to offload specific marketing tasks onto.

Research shows that there’s no correct setup. In fact, according to recent data, the percentage of businesses using five or more agencies is 17.7% compared with 14.6% employing one. This suggests a fairly even spread of setup and certainly doesn’t suggest that one is more ‘right’ than the other.

Full-service agency

A full service agency, by definition, can cover a wide area of your marketing and supplement your in-house marketing department. For some businesses they might be all you’ll ever need in terms of external help. Some common pros of this route is that the full service agencies are well-resourced as they will possess a full range of professionals and expertise. This will save you time trawling the industry for suitable suppliers of each discipline.

They’re generally a good choice for larger organisations as that experience and reputation comes at a price. It’s worth spending some time trying to sort the genuinely full service agencies from the one who are not. This is one of the biggest frustrations of clients is finding out the hard way that an agency is not truly ‘full service’. It’s a big claim, so make sure it’s true!

Boutique marketing agencies

With boutique marketing agencies popping up all over the place it’s not uncommon for businesses, of any size, to use 5+ different agencies harmoniously with complementary skill sets and good communication (and management).

The advantages of using multiple specialist agencies is the depth (rather than breadth) of expertise they possess. For very niche marketing strategies this can be a better option. For example, if you receive most of your business through search engines then specialists in search and paid advertising will be able to audit, consult and make appropriate changes.

Coordinating multiple suppliers of any kind can be a challenge. Pulling together work from different sources to meet a common deadline is something that will need meticulous project management to pull off. This setup can be perfect but it relies on leadership, transparency and communication.

Freelancers

Recent social media trends have also completely changed the landscape for freelancers, who now have the capacity to listen in, target and work with companies nationally and even globally.

A great option for one off or regular task-based work such as copywriting for content, product description pages or graphic design for ads and banners. Their expertise can often be as good as with specialised agencies with the added benefit of being more flexible with their time. Also, lack of overheads generally equates to cheaper rates.

Working with a one-man band might frustrate many organisations as they might be spread too thin on other client work, in the absence of a team to share workload with and delegate to. Unresponsiveness may become problematic and hold projects up and the reason could be as simple as them being on the road or with other clients. As with the other options, none of the disadvantages are insurmountable but need considering and effectively need you to ask yourself “will this work for me in reality?”

All the above should, in theory, provide opportunity for a solution that perfectly resolves your marketing situation. Typically though, with a lot of choice comes potential for confusion. This blog will hopefully help you find a suitable setup whether you’re about to reach out for external help or evaluate your current agency situation.

Piccadilly Circus advertising

What’s right for you?

So, next you need to ask yourself, what is my current marketing situation? Typically these are the kinds of variables and resulting solutions a business is faced with.

Many businesses will consider budget first and foremost. Broadly speaking, freelancers can be the more cost-effective option and, therefore, a popular choice for smaller businesses. Very specialist and, similarly, full-service agencies may be pricey and therefore unattainable for some.

Time will be the decider for others. Beware of handing over too much control to relieve yourself of the headache of marketing. Remember that you have ultimate control and the final say. So while, yes, you should be open to being guided and taking advice you should always keep a close eye on the direction of your marketing and be prepared to reign it back in when you need to.

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One thing to be wary of, when pursuing in the multiple agencies approach, is that agencies behind the collaborative trend might still feel threatened by working with other agencies and freelancers. It’s a legitimate concern but often one that results in toe trodding and suppliers undermining each other. How well an agency collaborates with other agencies should form part of the selection process.  

“Agencies need to become better collaborators with other agency partners. Being the partner that makes it easier for the client to better manage multiple relationships will help you stand out.”

Source

If you’re pretty convinced by a multiple agency model then look for suppliers that are demonstrably collaborative rather than ones who claim they can handle all aspects of the marketing mix. Beware of common misconceptions about where strategic decision making should originate from.

There’s no right or wrong answer for this but here’s an opinion that, in our experience, a lot of people seem to share:

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Source

There’s something in this comment. There are certain situations where it’s easier to have the best grasp on core strategic decisions. Freelancers might have this advantage, in the absence of multiple stakeholders with differing opinions.

Usually the reason people engage with external help for their strategic directions is because it’s impartial, educated and in the best interest of the business. It’s a core strategic element but that doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘internal’ strategic element.

Whatever the source - core issues such as overall strategy do need to come from a central point. Whether that’s a marketing manager within the organisation or an agency marketing consultant or brand strategist. Make sure there’s clear leadership to pull everything together and ensure consistency and steps in the right direction.

How do you know it’s working?

The bottom line is that your in-house-outsourcing combination is working (largely speaking) as long as the following is true:

Ask yourself... are you meeting your targets?

Sign ups, sales, data capture - whatever your targets are, ask yourself if they’re being met.

Are you on-brand across all communication channels?

A definite sign that it’s all gelling together nicely. Everyone involved with executing your marketing and promotional activity needs to remain true to your brand.

Has the new setup created nasty work politics?

Stakeholders being happy with the setup is a good indicator of success. Major clashes of opinion will hinder progress and staff satisfaction.

Are you capitalising on business opportunities?

With the correct setup all bases should be covered. For example, PR opportunities (such as awards) won’t be missed and you’ll stay on top of or, better still, be one step ahead of industry trends. Having multiple stakeholders and suppliers should, in theory, mean that changes to macro environment will translate into your overall strategy.

Are people more interested in my business?

You’re getting a consistent amount of enquiries or interest in your business that and are satisfied with the quality. Whether people are filling in your contact form or they’re tweeting you speculatively and referencing you in posts on social media. Really good agencies will pull in data from everywhere and track all this for you to make it a tangible upside to having enlisted their help.

Busy underground station

The perils of chopping and changing

By all means if you’re unhappy then take your business elsewhere but be sensible. There’s huge potential, especially when you’re having a bad day or going through period of doubt, to make a snap decision and replace one or more of your suppliers with a competitor of theirs.

Make sure you have a decision making process for, initially, recruiting an agency or freelancer (to avoid this situation in the first place) and then another for keeping an eye on progress, like the ones we’ve outlined above.

The trouble is that whatever momentum and progress you’ve achieved, with your current agency, will be lost if you stop. This is why agencies will often offer a timeline of what they think they will achieve and when. If you were happy with this from the offset and reality is true to it then give it time to materialise.

You’ve used your precious time, energy and money on the people you’re currently using. Be selfish and think of this first and foremost. If you’re having doubts be very clear about what improvements you expect to see and by when.

Our verdict

Our overall summary is that you should, initially, be prepared to take time and careful consideration to inform your decision on how to allocate your marketing tasks effectively. Likewise, in pursuit of the perfect setup, be prepared to stretch your budget. Don’t be tempted by the cheapest option. Unless the cheapest option happens to also be the best option.

Once you’ve recruited an agency, freelancer or combination thereof, be very clear about what you expect to achieve over the course of the relationship. Document objectives and KPIs from the offset, so that you can reference back to them periodically and keep everything in check.

Track progress appropriately, be thorough and also educate yourself in a way where you’re not reliant on other people’s expertise. And, as with most things in business, make sure there’s a leader or person in charge of marketing - be they internal or external to the organisation - to bring everything together and avoid mess and confusion.

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