Let’s face it. We can’t be experts at everything. I consider myself a well-rounded guy but acknowledge there are just things that I’ll never be great at (my wife is reading this blog post and nodding in agreement). Even if I had the brains and the skills to be great at everything, I definitely wouldn’t have the time. Who does?
The challenge isn’t acknowledging that we need help. It’s in finding the right partner to help us. This challenge applies across all facets of building and growing a business, but I’ve found it is particularly true with marketing. Why? Because most founder, particularly technical ones, don’t know if they should proceed with an individual freelancer or enlist an advertising/marketing agency. Here’s how to help you decide:
When it’s best to partner with a freelancer:
Even though I am a partner at an advertising agency, I am a huge proponent of hiring freelancers. We work with several freelancers that occasionally assist with writing, graphic design, media buying and other aspects of our business that our core team cannot always readily address on our clients’ timetables. If you have a very specific skill need on a project that has a definitive start and end date, I would encourage you to consider a freelancer.
For example, if you are building your website but need someone to write the copy so that it not only highlights your products and services but also ranks high in Google searches, consider a freelancer with copywriting and SEO experience.
The pros of using freelancers are that you will probably save money and the project will be completed faster than going through an ad agency. If you select a reputable freelancer, chances are the quality of work will be comparable to an agency.
However, be warned that the initial time you’ll spend onboarding the freelancer, addressing questions and attending meetings and calls will most likely be more significant than if you used an agency. It is also best if you are specific about what you want in terms of a clear deliverable, so if you are unsure of direction and scope, a freelancer might not be the best partner. Lastly, if you have a multifaceted project in which you will need to work with multiple freelancers and pull them all together, it might be best in the long haul to consider the agency alternative.
When it’s best to partner with an advertising agency:
Believe it or not, my answer isn’t “all the time”. Some businesses and business owners are better suited for working strictly with freelancers. However, if you are open to taking a holistic approach to your marketing (i.e. communications planning, marketing strategy, media buying and/or creative asset development) then an ad agency is the way to go.
A good agency can reach a point where they understand your business almost as well as you do. This helps bring about new thinking and ideas you might never have considered but that can have a huge impact on your marketing goals. This is a huge point. It is natural that we know our products and services better than anyone else. As a result, sometimes we make assumptions that people know more than they do. Having an unbiased third party help with your marketing can ensure that what you put out is easily understandable and impactful to your audience.
Advertising agencies can also be single place were all your marketing needs can be met. The time and headache savings from just picking up the phone or shooting an email with a brief description of what you need and knowing it will get done correctly and on time can be immersible.
The biggest downside of working with an advertising agency is often the cost. It would be rare for an agency to be less expensive than working with freelancers. If you select the wrong agency, it can be a costly mistake so I recommend meeting with a few prior to moving forward with any, as charges can start to add up quickly once a contract is signed. Another downside is that agencies typically move slower than you would experience with a freelancer. This is often because good agencies have a lot of work already in the pipeline and might not be able to focus solely on your needs. That being said their exposure to other companies and other industries provides unique and valuable insights that they can bring to your company.
In summary, deciding on whether to use a freelancer or an ad agency really depends on your needs. If your needs are specific and you have the time to handle much of the project management work, consider a freelancer. If you have a complicated project, unsure how to proceed with your marketing, or want an ongoing relationship that might require more frequent communication, consider an advertising agency. You’ll likely save money with a freelancer but energy with an agency. A freelancer can often do the job faster but an agency can often give you different thinking.
One more thing:
A last point to consider is when and if it makes sense to build an internal marketing team. It would seem on the surface that this is the best of both the freelance and agency worlds because costs and timing can be controlled and ideas could flourish among a group of internal marketing team members.
Even when the above is true, remember, that the largest and most successful brands in the world, including Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola and Google continue to use freelancers and agencies in conjunction with their internal teams. Fresh perspective and alternative points of view always help a business.
With this advice, you’re now on your way to becoming the next Amazon or Coca-Cola!
Tom Higgins is a partner at ity Advertising in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania