Here’s a not-so-hypothetical situation to consider:
Sharon is a CMO of a sizable non-profit who has been tasked by her board of directors to build a new website for the organization that is conversion and lead generation focused and which, of course, looks great. She’ll need to keep the project on budget and ensure that everything that’s built works flawlessly. Oh, and it needs to be up and running in the next 60 days to support the end of the year giving campaign.
Faced with this task, Sharon has two options. She can either try to get it done in-house with her existing marketing and technology team or she can hire an agency to do the work for her. We talk with people who have been put in Sharon’s shoes on a weekly basis and we’ve learned a lot from those conversations about why–and when–organizations choose to hire an agency or work on projects in-house.
Why Organizations Choose to Keep Projects In-House
The number one reason that managers and executives cite for choosing to tackle big projects on their own is cost. They have the impression that high-end agencies are expensive and the idea of writing a big check to an outside company every month can be especially painful for non-profits. The truth is, an agency that knows what they’re doing WILL generally charge a good amount for their work–and we’ll talk about that later–but, the bill is often an excuse that’s covering up the REAL reason for choosing to go the in-house route: control.
When you hire an agency, you’re trusting someone else with your vision, your brand, and, to some degree, your income. You’re expecting them to help you meet your objectives and to do so without undermining your authority, disrupting your internal processes, putting up roadblocks to success, or (worst case scenario) sinking the project altogether. When you work with your in-house team, you’re working with people that you know and that you trust even if they may not have the skills, knowledge, or time that you need to really succeed.
The Cost of “In-House”
If you choose to go in-house, you have one of two options:
You Can Hire: You can bring on a new employee (or a whole team of employees) with the necessary skills to get the job done. This increases your team’s capacity and capability but it also means that you’re paying one or more extra salaries every year. You have to support them with health insurance, paid time off, and other benefits, as well as and getting them up to speed on their job duties and your organization’s culture and mission. If you’re Sharon in our example above, you COULD hire one person with a working knowledge of design and basic coding and maybe even some marketing understanding but, to get really great results, you need specialists–not generalists–which means hiring multiple people (at an even greater cost).
You Can Add Work: You can add to your existing employees’ workloads and job duties to accomplish your goals. This has a lot of drawbacks, frankly. The most obvious of which is that it takes time for someone to become proficient in a new skill. You’re also going to be dealing with the fact that this employee is already working on other tasks and these new duties are probably not in their existing job description–it’s literally not what they signed up for.
The Case for Agency
Now, suppose you choose to hire an agency for your project instead. What does that look like compared to expanding your current team? For starters, an agency doesn’t need new-hire training. They also don’t need to learn how to do the work; they’ve been doing the job for years and they’re experts at their jobs. They’ve had the chance to do it day in and day out for a host of clients, honing their skills and learning new tactics without requiring YOU to take on the financial burden of paying for their on-the-job education.
Speaking of cost (we said we were going to come back to this), agencies generally give you better bang for the buck than working in-house. Yes, there is often sticker-shock associated with a proposal from a high-end agency but that cost gets you a team of highly-skilled specialists. Let’s break it down like this:
Your website and marketing proposal comes in at $65,000. That seems like a lot of money, right? But, according to glassdoor.com, the national average salary for a web designer in the United States is approximately $49,000/year. The same number for a web developer is $58,000/year and a digital marketing manager averages $62,000/year. That’s $169,000 to get your project done before you even factor in the cost of healthcare and other benefits.
And keep in mind that these are just AVERAGE numbers. A high-end agency doesn’t usually have average people working for it. When you hire an agency for a $65,000 engagement, you’re not getting one person. Generally speaking, you’re not even just getting three people. You’re getting an entire TEAM of specialists… all for the cost of one person’s salary.
There’s another, often overlooked, advantage to hiring an agency. They are outside of your organizational (or even industry) bubble. That is, they are able to take a look at your organization, your processes, and your needs from an outside perspective. You know that old saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” When you partner with an outside agency, you’re bringing someone on board who is outside of the forest and isn’t blinded by the trees.
“You’re getting an entire TEAM of specialists… all for the cost of one person’s salary.”
A Cause for Concern
Did that last “advantage” make you nervous? You’re not alone. Many organizations have had less than positive experiences with agencies in the past or have concerns about hiring an agency precisely because they are outside of your organization’s context. Will someone outside of my industry understand what we do? Will they try to shoehorn me into a DIFFERENT business model? Will they ignore our processes? Will they try to take over our projects and run them their way? Will they undermine my authority, try to go over my head, or completely disregard my vision for the project?
As an agency who has worked with countless clients who have been burned by past agency relationships, we know that these are valid concerns. However, there are some ways to leverage the positives of hiring an agency while reducing the risks.
Mitigating the Risk
The first and easiest way to reduce the risk of hiring an agency who’s not going to work out for you is simple: do your research.
- Look for an agency who has a history of partnering with and assisting other companies and organizations. Agencies who focus on a partnership model will approach projects very differently. They will spend time trying to understand you, your organization, your industry, and your audience in order to ensure that they “get you” before they start a project. This helps ensure that they are focused on results that actually align with your goals and not results that just fit inside of their own business model.
- Find an agency which is characterized by transparency and honesty. These agencies are the ones who will tell you if a solution isn’t the right one and why. They’ll discourage you from costly courses of action–even if it means that they’ll make less money–and they’ll be up front with you about the costs involved.
- It’s often easy to tell an agency’s focus by the way that they write about their clients. If their portfolio talks about their clients–what they do, who they are, why they’re great–as well as the work that the agency did for them, it’s a good bet that they are concerned about understanding their clients and realizing their clients’ visions.
- Of course, none of this matters if the agency isn’t also good at what they do. Look for agencies that do great work and who are willing to share their knowledge. You want to hire experts. Find an agency whose work stacks up against the competition and who is constantly seeking and sharing thought leadership.
Once you’ve narrowed the field of potential agency partners, the next thing that you need to do is engage with them. Be open and honest in those early conversations. Working with a professional agency partner is a lot like talking to a doctor. You have to be honest and open with them or they won’t be able to diagnose your issues and offer effective treatment. If you try to play coy and keep too much back, you’re setting the stage for disappointment and frustration for everyone involved. Be transparent about your financial goals, organizational capabilities, and project expectations. And definitely don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Talk about money. Let your agency know what you can afford without taking too much liberty with the numbers and expect your agency partner to do the same. We find that, without fail, the best agency-client relationships that we have can be characterized by honest and transparent conversations about money and time on both sides.
If you start your agency partnership with honesty, it’s easier for the rest of the relationship to feature open conversations. That kind of frank, back-and-forth conversation is, in our minds, what really defines a true agency partnership. You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your agency when you feel like something’s not going well and you shouldn’t get offended if your agency returns the favor. When open conversation is the rule, issues get resolved before they can become major problems. Communicating timelines, milestones, goals, and expectations clearly and in detail ensures that nothing gets lost in translation. Throw flags when something doesn’t seem to match up or meet your needs. Expect your agency partner to do the same. Yes, you’re the client but remember that you’ve partnered with a team of professionals so don’t try to tell them how to do their job. Trust them to know how to do what they do the best that it can be done. Expect them to extend the same courtesy to you. YOU are experts at YOUR business. Your agency should listen carefully to you and take your experience and vision into account. This is what makes an agency partnership work: mutual respect for the skills and needs of each other. It’s also what makes agency partnerships so very powerful. When everyone involved trusts that everyone else is the best at their job, projects tend to be executed in an extremely efficient and effective manner.
Obviously, we’re an agency. We’re biased. We do what we do because we believe that we can create better results for a wide variety of clients within the agency model. We’ve seen this partnership approach dramatically change the financial and impact trajectory for our clients. We love it. It gets us excited.
Curious what this kind of partnership could look like for you? Give us a call. We’d love to have an honest conversation with you about your organization and our services.