Bringing together an in-house digital marketing team is both complex and time-consuming. In this article, we look at how to ensure your team is built on the right foundations, and at how agencies can provide a long-term solution or short-term support whilst an in-house team grows.
Almost every business above a certain size will have some sort of in-house digital capability. Depending on the needs and particular model, this can range from one or two people controlling a swathe of agencies to large, multi-layered departments responsible for everything from data, strategy, design, execution and so forth. Businesses may go through several different versions of this over time as requirements and costs change. Similar businesses may even come to different solutions simply by being based in different locations, making it easier or harder to hire the right people.
In this piece, we’re going to look at the hows and whys of building an in-house team and elsewhere we will look at how to find the right digital agency. This will primarily be focused on building an online marketing team but you can follow the same sort of principles.
The question that always gets asked is “what is better, creating an in-house team or hiring an agency?” The good news is that both versions can and do work. The bad news is that both versions can and do fail. The key with either model is to get hiring and recruitment right - a skill that is often undervalued by businesses. If you are reading this and considering what sort of path to go down, the very first thing to do is to list out all of the requirements your business has. Do you want to grow quickly? Do you want to be more efficient? Do you need to operate in multiple territories and languages? What channels do you / are you going to use? Once you’ve done that, divide them up into Must Haves and Nice to Haves and you have the beginning of a set of priorities.
There are a few different advantages to in-house or agency models that may help you in deciding which direction you want to go in.
Scales quickly: the timescale from search to execution is relatively short and it’s generally easy to add capacity as you need it.
Breadth of experience: because agencies and consultants work with a range of clients, it’s more likely that they will have applied the solutions you need before and so will be able to identify them more quickly.
Flexibility: generally, you are only locked in to paying a particular agency for the length of a contract, so if your strategy changes, it’s easier to move on from them than it is from a permanent member of the team.
Lower absolute cost: if you are adding a new channel, you may well not need 40 hours a week of focus on it. You can pay an agency only for the capacity you need, and while this might cost you more per hour than hiring an in-house person, the total outlay is generally less. This can be especially useful for one off or irregular events, like market research or content audits - you can bring in a specialist skillset for a finite period of time and minimise the disruption to your regular team.
Fewer geographical limitations: if your business is situated somewhere that makes hiring more difficult, you may be better off using an agency model than hiring people who may not have the skills or ability to really make an impact on your business.
Institutional knowledge: as people work for a business and gain experience of how the business trades, the whole process becomes more efficient and improves every time you do it. While long term relationships with agencies do offer some of this, it’s unlikely that they will have access to the same levels of insight that can be gained by interacting with all the different departmental focuses of a business.
Focus: the people working for your business only work for your business, which naturally means that all of their insight and instinct will be applied to finding solutions to the problems that you face. Because the whole team is in this position, it means that conversations between them will share this rapidly across channels.
Competitive advantage: an obvious point, maybe, but if you hire someone really good, it means they won’t go and work for a competitor. Ultimately, it’s people that create value for a company and the more talented people you have working solely for you, the more likely it is that you will produce the products and executions that give you the edge in winning market share.
Hire and develop how you want: building an in-house team means you have full control over the mix of skills, personalities and backgrounds of people that you hire. It also means that you can develop people how you want to do it, so that as people progress and become managers, in turn the culture of the company will be ingrained in how they work (hopefully you have a healthy company culture and this is a good thing!)
Whichever direction you chose to go in, or even if you decide a mix is a better option, you must have someone who understands the goals and executions and is accountable for the performance of whatever resources you have. In very small companies and startups, this means either hiring someone with this sort of experience or learning the basics yourself, in the same way that you need an understanding of operations or product development.
You have decided that you want to build an in-house online marketing team. So what jobs do you need to fill? This comes from the list of requirements that you have created - the tasks, the channels, the supporting collateral you will need to fulfil the overall marketing strategy.
This is a list of positions that businesses generally have in in-house teams. Some of the roles may be blended into one, and frequently there will be multiple versions of the same role. There will be management layers, some businesses may not need all of the channel owners, and of course, some businesses may choose to put responsibility for tasks in other teams. This list is not intended to be definitive but should provide a guide to your thinking.
Paid search team
One of your biggest costs, especially in an e-commerce business, is likely to be your paid search budget (PPC and shopping). The skills needed for an in-house version of this team are largely the same as those at an agency - indeed, a lot of people cross back and forth - but you are looking for people who can understand how these channels work strategically within the business and who can be responsible for a long term plan, including tools, how spend levels influence profitability, and so forth. I’ve put this as a ‘team’ rather than a single role, as this can involve a number of people depending on how many brands, territories and languages you need to cover.
The role of an in-house SEO specialist is quite different to an agency. Much of this person’s time will be spent project managing, working alongside the e-commerce and IT teams, training content teams and most of all, building the business cases that will get SEO work prioritised. This requires someone with strong interpersonal skills who can communicate effectively with tech teams one minute and brand marketers the next. Frequently, companies will hire someone to be the in-house representative for SEO and then outsource the technical analysis on a case by case basis.
Social / Display specialist
As with paid search, you will need someone who is responsible for social media and display marketing. This isn’t just a technical media trafficking role - you need someone to work with the brand and creative teams to execute the broader media and marketing strategy, so some awareness of how the brand side of marketing works is really important, as is the ability to explain metrics and results to less technical teams.
CRM / Data Team
Businesses will frequently put CRM and data analysis in the same team, which makes sense as there is a large overlap in the skills needed. Data analysts will frequently be called on to provide insight across a wide range of different functions in the business, so a strong understanding of what metrics are important for driving business growth is key, as is an ability to communicate key insights to less data literate people. The segmentation, testing and automation parts of CRM flows naturally from this, so all you need from there is coordination with the marketing planning function to ensure the right content goes into actual emails.
Leadership / planning
Finally, you need a leadership team to bring it all together and to lead the planning part of the team’s function. This is a typical business management role, but one that needs insight into the capabilities and possibilities offered by each different channel or role. As your team grows, you should be able to promote people into this sort of position - a great outcome for your hiring and development.
The most important part of this is to have a roadmap. You do not need to hire everyone at once - it’s much better to prioritise the roles and add one or two people at a time and to ensure they are bedded in to the company before adding more people. Frequently, this can mean working alongside any agencies you have in place for a period of time. Even after you have established a team, you can repeat this as you want to add new channels or capabilities - use an agency that offers immediate impact, and as the new channel proves itself, you can bring in someone to manage it long term in-house. Having an agency who understands your business and who you can trust to execute well is extremely valuable if you want to do this.