Should I hire an in-house marketing employee, or work with a marketing agency?

This post is part of our Hiring series. Check out our previous posts here:

“I’m technical, and not experienced in marketing or hiring marketing people. I hired someone who seemed good, realized after a couple of months it was not a fit, and it took another couple of months to let them go. I lost 4 months. I don’t want to do it again.” — Series A startup CEO

“Graduating” from working with an agency and going in-house is an exciting milestone. — Netta Kivilis, CEO of a marketing agency 🙂

As a marketer, I strongly believe marketing should be a core competency of every startup, and something that you should do in-house. But unfortunately, there are trade-offs to immediately hiring in-house. In this post, I list the five factors you should consider when deciding whether to work with an agency or an in-house marketer / marketing team.

Hiring in-house vs. working with an agency: which is better, and when?

 Hiring in-house is preferable when…Working with an agency is preferable when…
Your timeframe is:Unlimited/longConstrained
Your budget is:Infinite/highLimited (better talent – rent vs. buy)
Your clarity of needs (around ICP, go-to-market, etc.) is:HighLow
Your target market is:Local Global (puts a premium on remote/global talent)
Your founder is:Experienced with business hiresTechnical, not experienced with business hires</span

Let’s unpack each one of these factors. 

It is better to go the in-house route…

  • When you can wait and pay for the perfect fit. When you have time and money and can tolerate running a thorough, potentially months-long process until you get the perfect fit, pay them handsomely and give them a sizable marketing budget, and then wait until they build their team and marketing infrastructure. 
  • When you know exactly what you need. When you have already established your ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) and go-to-market strategy, and want to find the most experienced person in that particular space. For example, if you know you’re selling to CFOs of enterprise retailers in France, it makes sense to look for the best marketer with this specific experience.

And here are the circumstances when it’s better to go with a marketing agency:

  • When you’re short on time. A startup’s most precious resource is time. If you just raised a Seed or A round, you want to get to the next milestone in 18 months.
    In this post, we delved into the profile of a startup’s first marketing hire. Many startups are looking for an elusive “marketing unicorn” – a mid-level marketer, who’s hands-on and also strategic, experienced in managing and also willing to get her hands dirty… Finding this unicorn can easily take months or more, and cost a lot of money. The upshot? Oftentimes startups we talk to realize it’s been a year without any significant progress in marketing (and sales).
    In contrast, a marketing agency can start adding value within days or weeks. They have their trusted vendors, and they’re experienced in quickly learning a new company and industry.
    In addition, startups often set out to hire a marketing person, and in parallel hire a salesperson. This makes a lot of sense, as sales needs marketing support. In this case, you should definitely accelerate the process so you don’t leave your sales team fending for themselves.
  • If you’re not experienced with hiring marketing leaders. I’ve heard numerous stories about technical Israeli founders who were enamored with a candidate’s resume and eloquent English, only to find out later that these things don’t always correlate with nailing it as a startup’s VP Marketing. That’s a costly, painful mistake to make. With an agency, you can lower the risk by talking to many references and looking at examples of past work. In case things don’t work out, it’s much easier to part ways with a vendor than a full-time employee. 
  • “Rent vs buy” – you can get better and broader talent if you work with an agency. You’re an early stage startup with a limited budget that nobody has heard of (yet). Let’s face it – your odds of attracting the very best marketing talent out there are not high. An agency gives access to top talent with a broad skill set. A good analogy is renting vs buying, where often you can rent a higher-standard apartment than what you can afford buying. 

“It’s the trade-off between investing resources and the type of person we’ll get. I’d like to hire a VP, but it’s a lot of money that I can’t invest right now. I can bring on a marketing manager, but he’s not going to be strategic.” – Post-Seed CEO

I highly recommend this post from Rand Fishkin, who has a very clear opinion on the topic: Why You Should Hire Agencies & Consultants (for everything you can). This sums up my point nicely (they discuss analytics but everything applies to Marketing, as well):

  • You don’t know what you need yet. You’re very early, and not sure what type of marketing will work. Are you targeting enterprise clients? Just financial institutions or also retail? Is your persona the VP R&D or team leaders? Will you be doing a lot of email prospecting, or are PR and (virtual) events the way to go? If you don’t know the skills and experience you’re looking for in a candidate, it’s going to be very hard to find a good fit. In contrast, a good agency is well rounded, and should be able to pivot quickly as your startup makes progress in its product-market-fit journey.
  • Location, Location, Location. Israeli startups often hire their first business person when the entire company is still based in Israel. The founders know that at some point they’ll need to establish a presence in their target market, which creates the dilemma of whether to hire the marketing lead in Israel or the US. Hire in Israel and you get the benefit of the entire team in one place, but you’re also handicapping your marketer who’s not close to their market. Hire in the US and you get a lost marketer who’s far from her CEO and the rest of the company.
    In contrast, an agency (especially one like Blue Seedling, that’s based in both Israel and the US) is remote and flexible by nature, and is used to collaborating with stakeholders across continents. You may think that now with COVID location doesn’t matter anymore. It certainly matters less now that everyone is remote and works from home. But even seemingly small things like timezone make a huge difference

The Bottom Line

I’m the first to shout from the rooftops that marketing is critical for any startup, at any stage. However, this does not mean that hiring an in-house marketer is the best thing you can do to maximize your startup’s progress. Weigh the pros and cons, and assess what’s the best solution for your startup at your current stage. Hiring in-house is best when you know what you need and can wait for the perfect fit, but short of this, going with an agency can provide you with the talent, experience, and speed you need to accelerate growth and increase your startup’s chances of success.

Whatever path you choose, best of luck. Investing in marketing is an exciting milestone in your startup journey. We’re happy to dispense more free advice — feel free to get in touch for an “office hours” session with me. 

Further reading

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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