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Marketing’s Dilemma: In-House or Outsourced?

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Depending on how they’re defined, literally tens of thousands of marketing agencies operate in the United States alone. If you include digital agencies, public relations firms, event management firms, design studios, and even market research houses, that number could easily climb to more than 100,000.

With so many choices available, could one of them be right for you? And if so, how do you know which one to choose and which marketing activities to entrust it with?

These are questions with which marketing departments continue to grapple, particularly now as they find themselves straddled with ever-increasing workloads, staffing issues, and corporate demands to get the most bang for every dollar spent.

“The struggle comes from whether marketing has the bandwidth to do everything that’s needed internally,” says Andrew Brenits, CEO of Brenits Creative, a marketing consultancy. “In the case of a small business, there might not be anyone dedicated to marketing who can do the work. In a medium to large company, you might have a large marketing team. In either case, the decision is always, can we do all of the work ourselves? To determine this, you have to assess your bandwidth, your capabilities, and your skills.”

If you discover skills gaps or other holes in your department, you then need to weigh carefully whether to hire permanent employees, engage a temporary person to do the work, or outsource.

Although each company has its own unique marketing needs, one approach that seems to be getting almost universally adopted is a hybrid strategy that combines both internal and external staffing.

“In most cases, we see a mix of these approaches in corporate marketing departments,” Brenits points out. “They keep many marketing functions internally, but they also opt to outsource certain tasks. This hybrid model of both in-sourcing and outsourcing seems to work best in a majority of companies.”

“What you [keep in-house] and what you outsource can depend upon how large your marketing department is and on the in-house skills you have,” says Kevin Payne, marketing vice president at Zest Labs, a tech company serving the food supply chain. “In a previous company where I managed marketing, I had 12 people on staff. They addressed a wide gamut of activities, from developing webinars to event planning, etc. Now, I’m in a situation where I am the one person in the marketing department. In both cases, there are instances where you want to outsource, and you sometimes have to make these decisions quickly because marketing needs can change dynamically.”

Once holes in marketing are found, decisions can also be made to build up the internal marketing staff to fill them.

This was the case at Seagull Scientific, a barcoding software provider. “We recognized that we were an engineering company with a strong ‘left-brain’ orientation,” says Elizabeth Sinclair, manager of verticals marketing. “So to compensate, we hired two designers and a video person to our creative team.”

Payne agrees that it’s important to assess the marketing activities at which your internal team excels and the ones for which it’s not well-suited.

“You begin by looking at what you do well internally and also where you are challenged,” he states. “You might decide you are not a website developer, so you outsource that, but then you in-source the knowledge needed to support that website in an ongoing manner internally once the initial website is launched.”

Another area that is challenging for many marketing departments is search engine optimization (SEO) because it is so dynamic. In many cases, outsourcing SEO to a third party that specializes in it makes a lot of sense.

“We outsource SEO to a specialist because Google’s algorithms are continuously changing, and there is just no time to keep up with them,” Sinclair says. “We also outsource technical activity like website development.”

By hiring an outside firm to develop its website, Sinclair’s company gained an opportunity to have another set of eyes look at the project.

“The vendor looked at our website and made recommendations with respect to our tone of writing, our presentations, our collateral,” she says. “The vendor even provided us with some guidelines for our image. Of course, to get this, you have to hire the right firm, but the result was tremendous. Our creative team now has much more flexibility because they have a framework.”

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