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10 marketing functions that brands should keep in-house

10 marketing functions that brands should keep in-house Kent Lewis

As a life-long agency guy, I have a profound bias as to what activities and marketing disciplines are best outsourced. While it may seem surprising, it's not that I believe that brands should outsource all marketing. That said, I do have a strong opinion in regards to how best to leverage marketing agencies and consultants, as outlined in the following article.

Let's cut to the chase. I believe that the ideal use of an agency (or consultant) is for strategic planning and often, the setup and launch of marketing campaigns or programs. Ongoing management can be cost effective when done in-house, if you have the ability to recruit, manage, develop, and retain top talent. Just run the numbers on cost vs. performance/benefit. You will need to know a good deal about your goals, your team's strengths, and available tools and resources to effectively map out a plan.

Due to the complexity of these calculations, most companies feel it is easier and less risky to outsource a good deal of their marketing efforts. Regardless of your ability to plan and execute on building an in-house team, I've outlined the core marketing channels and disciplines, how effective in-house teams can be, and the relative difficulty of assembling a team in each case. For each channel, I'll assess the degree of difficulty of gathering and retaining an effective team on a scale of zero to five, with zero being easiest and five being most difficult. Please keep my bias and your own limitations in mind as you read through the following marketing channels.

Public relations

My marketing career began in public relations (PR) at a full-service Seattle-based agency in the mid-'90s. I was drawn to the complex and challenging nature of persuading editors and analysts to cover my clients. In my next PR position, I also learned that a poorly managed agency team could chew up client budget like you wouldn't believe. I realized that a majority of clients pay a premium for junior talent focusing on grunt work, with little oversight by the senior management team. The internet has flattened the playing field over the past 20 years, allowing anyone to quickly identify and contact editors and analysts. I realized early in my career that PR firms were going to become obsolete. While that has not exactly happened, I still believe PR should be managed in-house, as the relationships should be developed and owned by key company executives. A talented and seasoned in-house lead with a deep rolodex and a supporting junior team can better connect the company's voice and generate coverage than many PR firms. Much of the heavy lifting in PR can be done by a junior level account person in-house (for a fraction of the cost of an agency), and recent graduates provide a deep talent pool to pull from.

Degree of difficulty: 3

Email and print direct response

Similar to PR technology trends, direct response has evolved significantly over the past 20 years. What used to be cost-prohibitive database platforms and printing presses are now affordable to the masses, allowing even the smallest companies to develop, manage, and measure print and electronic direct response campaigns effectively. Email platforms like ExactTarget are both affordable and highly robust, allowing contact databases to be contacted via personalized messaging. The next step after direct response is sales and marketing automation, which is also ideally managed in-house.

Degree of difficulty: 2

Sales and marketing automation

Now that the tools are highly affordable and easy-to-use, it makes sense to ensure your core sales and marketing efforts are managed in-house. This is such a mission-critical element of your business that it doesn't make sense to outsource lead capture and nurturing efforts. As leads are captured via direct response campaigns and other channels, they can be moved into sales and marketing automation programs, which can be easily managed in-house. Platforms like Act-On are very affordable and allow companies of any size to qualify and nurture leads before handing them over to the sales team. The ability to rapidly create messaging and measure effectiveness is quite powerful.

Degree of difficulty: 4

Social media

Social media is a big ball of wax that is constantly changing shape. The most common complaints from brands are effective measurement, planning of a comprehensive social media strategy, and allocating resources. While agencies that specialize in social media can readily guide companies through these challenges, competent companies should be able to wade through available resources online to develop their own program. Most importantly, employees should be the authentic voice of their own brand, rather than someone from outside the company. Since this is often difficult, there will always be a place for agencies to support brands lacking the resources to create content, engage in conversation, and measure overall effectiveness.

Degree of difficulty: 3

Event marketing

Creating a meaningful presence at industry trade shows and conferences is still an effective sales and marketing strategy. While a full-blown event marketing team may include designers, production artists, project managers, and a marketing support team, these resources are relatively easy to find out in the market. That means assembling an effective in-house team is a real possibility, but there are significant costs associated with event marketing that require dedicated budget. Logistics can also be complicated, so it is important to assemble an experienced team. On a positive front, much of the heavy lifting can be done by a relatively junior team, which can dramatically cut costs.

Degree of difficulty: 2

Mobile/web design/development

Unless you are in the development or publishing industries where you are dependent on interactive talent to move your business forward, it doesn't usually make sense to have a deeper talent-base in-house. It does make sense, however, to have one or two junior interactive designer/developer types that can manage and evolve a presence created by an outside agency. When it comes to mobile, this approach is more amplified. Like web development, it rarely makes sense to have a dedicated mobile team, unless it is core to the business. A reasonably talented developer can help maintain a mobile or web-based application more cost-effectively than the firm that typically creates it.

Degree of difficulty: 3

Search engine optimization

I'm the first to admit search engine optimization (SEO) is not rocket science. This does not detract from the reality that very few people spend the time to truly understand SEO at a strategic and tactical level. That means it is exceedingly challenging to recruit and retain quality SEO talent for an in-house team. I can speak from experience from an agency perspective: in-house SEO professionals are easy recruits, as they are often bored, alone, and largely ignored by corporate marketing. Being surrounded by like-minds where clients are much more likely to value your opinion and experience is an enticing offer agencies can provide. Unless your company has Google-like benefits, you may be challenged to hold an SEO team together.

Degree of difficulty: 4

Analytics and measurement

While it makes sense to manage the data you create and own, there are many factors that influence how to best leverage data to create actionable insights. For larger organizations or ones that create large amounts of data, having a second set of experienced eyes can be invaluable. Big data, attribution modeling, predictive analytics, cross-device and trans-media tracking, and lifetime customer value are all challenging components of measurement. If you are able to attract and retain data wonks in-house that truly understand these evolving measurement techniques and challenges, however, break out the Champagne.

Degree of difficulty: 5

Advertising creative/copywriting

It is exceedingly rare to be able to build an in-house creative team that is sufficiently talented to produce consistently fresh, relevant, and memorable work, and stay engaged and inspired over a long period of time. Agencies provide high value in this area and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Unless your business is creatively-focused or brand-centric, it is unlikely an internal team will be up for the challenge of developing truly remarkable work. That said, it makes a good deal of sense to keep a team of junior designers and copywriters busy with internal work, and to help update and evolve creative provided by agencies.

Degree of difficulty: 3

Paid media/planning

Once the creative team puts together the award-winning advertising, it is essential to make sure it is seen by the intended audience. In the days of Mad Men, it wasn't uncommon that the media planner was the most powerful person in the agency, as this person owned the relationships with the few large media outlets of the day. That is no longer how business is done, as there are far too many channels to manage. Relationships fall in importance as tools and vendors streamline media buying, from programmatic to real-time bidding. Brands will have to wait for the technology and marketplace to catch up in affordability before an in-house team makes any sense. Even in the world of paid search, the bid management tools can be cost-prohibitive to smaller companies. Another factor to consider is that media outlets still prefer to partner with savvy agencies, and still offer agency discount rates that companies cannot receive. Unless media buying is core to your business, it may be years before building an in-house team makes any sense.

Degree of difficulty: 3

Whether you already have an in-house team, are committed to building one, or will continue to rely on outside vendors, I hope the above summary has shed some light for future planning. I've also included a handful of related articles below that may provide additional insights and direction in your journey. Good luck.


Kent Lewis is president and founder of Anvil Media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Business team working on their project together at office" image via Shutterstock.

With a background in integrated marketing, Lewis left a public relations agency in 1996 to start his career in search engine marketing. Since then, he’s helped grow businesses by connecting his clients with their constituents via the...

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Commenter: Allan Finkelman

2015, April 08

Very good analysis and review Kent. I agree with most of your points, but disagree with one statement regarding in-house creative and copywriting. You state "... keep a team of junior designers and copywriters busy with internal work, and to help update and evolve creative provided by agencies." My experience, as an agency guy, is that this translates to "help water down or ruin creative provided by agencies." After agencies deliver work by senior creatives, the last touch is by junior in-house creatives who by your own admission are not likely to provide the same quality as an agency creative team. The exceptions I've seen are when brands have successfully developed high-level, senior in-house teams.