How & when to hire marketing agencies & contractors
Marketing contractors aren't bandaids in a downturn. Here's how to use them successfully.
Startups waste way too much money hiring contractors for all the wrong things, mismanaging agencies, placing blame on agencies when the issue is the startup’s own strategy, and leaving contractors to fend for themselves. I’ve even seen an early-stage startup use an agency to manage contractors, who then managed more contractors—it sounds confusing because it is confusing.
Before cycling through contractor after contractor without an internal marketer to manage them, consider making a full-time hire—you might even save money. It’s simply too hard for early-stage founders to effectively manage a bunch of marketing contractors and agencies without having a single full-time marketer.
If your ratio of external to internal marketers is off, it’s like a team with no coach or an orchestra with no conductor (or as someone said on Linkedin, it’s like trying to eat spaghetti without a bowl).
But when used well, marketing contractors and agencies bring specialized skills to your team, help you with the ebbs and flows of creative and campaign work, and bring you the benefits and insights from working across many clients. Downturn or no downturn, early or growth stage, this newsletter will help you choose the right contractors and agencies and teach you how to set them up for success.
In this newsletter:
When to hire externally vs. in-house
Best practices for hiring any type of marketing contractor or agency
How to hire contractors and agencies in specific areas (SEO, Paid, PR, and Content, etc) — and why having external help in these areas is a no brainer.
Common mistakes when hiring contractors or agencies
More for paid subscribers, including a spreadsheet guide on how to hire external help for 50 marketing activities
But first a quick promo for my course…
Upcoming course for marketing leaders
The 3rd cohort of my “Building B2B Marketing” course for marketing leaders starts Feb 1 for 5 weeks on Wednesdays, apply now. You’ll learn from me and a group of 15-20 peers and become a more strategic, effective, and well-rounded marketing leader.
How and when to hire contractors and/or agencies
Agency vs. in-house rules of thumb
Here’s some general guidance (for early & growth stage B2B startups) for when you should keep things in-house vs hire an external agency or contractor:
For a complete spreadsheet guide to hiring contractors and agencies for over 50 marketing activities, subscribe to the paid newsletter.
But before you start hiring contractors and agencies, you need to make sure you have the systems, process, and internal stakeholders in house. Founders can potentially manage 1-2 marketing contractors, but only if they are able to put in the effort to get results. This may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll most likely need to make a full-time hire marketing before bringing on agencies to handle your website, content, paid, SEO, etc.
Things to keep in mind when hiring all types of marketing contractors or agencies
1. Build most of your marketing foundation in-house
Before you begin hiring contractors or agencies, make sure you have a basic marketing foundation. Creating this foundation requires inside knowledge and participation from founders. This doesn’t need to be perfect or fully built out, as doing these activities will be an iterative process. But you need to be able to provide enough context to contractors or agencies so they can be successful marketing to your audience, for you business model, at your stage.
Here’s the marketing foundation work you need to get done internally:
Understand your audience, market, ecosystem, and competitive set
Define the tenets of your story and topics you have opinions on as a company
Understand and map out your business model, customer lifecycle, and GTM motion
When you leave this research and work to a contractor or agency as an early or growth stage startup, they just don’t have the context needed. There are too many inputs needed from the founder’s and early employees’ brains. You’ll often end up with work that’s unusable at no fault to the contractor or agency. If you do not have a marketer (or have a marketer who lacks experience in these areas), you can use a contractor as a facilitator or copy editor to help you with positioning and messaging, but you can’t hand it all over. The chances of getting expensive but unusable work are too high.
The one exception to the “build your marketing foundation in-house” rule is your brand design system. Often you lack the brand design talent in-house and you can work with an agency or contractor to do this. But before you do this, it’s helpful to have done most of the other foundational work. More on hiring brand design agencies below or in a recorded video conversation for paid subscribers.
2. Only hire “fuel” contractors to produce content when you have a growth and distribution “engine” built out
Lots of startups make a writer / content marketer their first contractor hire. They figure they need to amp up on content production or get going on SEO. Hiring contractors or agencies in these areas makes a ton of sense, but make sure you have an editor in-house (even if that’s a founder) to ensure quality. And also make sure you have a content strategy, so you make content that drives impact and doesn’t just check a box.
And definitely don’t hire external content creators without a distribution plan. You need to be ready to distribute content via email, social, paid, and/or your community. If making SEO content, you need a focus keyword list and you need to make sure your website is optimized for conversion. Usually the contractor or agency won’t do all of this for you. Figure out how you’ll build a distribution engine or don’t spend money on the content.
3. Only hire “engine” contractors when you have “fuel”
You shouldn’t hire fuel contractors without an engine, and vice versa.
Another area startups tend to hire contractors or agencies for early on is paid acquisition, specifically paid search and paid social (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook). This also makes a ton of sense, and I do recommend you have external help on paid (more on that later).
But to do paid effectively it’s helpful to have compelling content to use and an appropriate landing page for the audience and/or keywords. You also need to have solid ad copy. Often contractors or agencies that manage paid campaigns will say they can write copy for you, but typically this isn’t their core competency and it’s best for you to write at least a first set of copy to help the contractors calibrate.
4. Hire contractors or agencies that fit your business and will give you the A-team
Often when startups hire agencies they go for the big names. They want contractors or agencies that have worked with later-stage startups. This is the wrong approach.
You have 5 options when hiring external help, and typically as an early-stage startup you’re best served by 1 and 2.
Small niche agency
Small generalist agency
Large niche agency
Large generalist agency
If you do choose an agency (over a contractor), make sure you are getting the A-team. Sometimes you’ll meet with the A-Team in the proposal stage, but then you actually work with a different set of people. To avoid this:
Know the exact team of people working with you. Ask for their LinkedIn profiles.
Check that they have previous clients at the same stage. If they’ve worked with startups at various stages including yours that’s fine too.
Make sure they have previous clients with the same business model (marketing is different not only across b2c and b2b, but also for b2b with top-down sales vs. self-serve business models).
Back-channel or check references from the startups they’ve worked with that are most similar to yours.
Know what you’re getting: Make sure there’s a defined scope and a clear process defined for deliverables, check-ins, and communication tools.
5. Be careful when expanding the scope
You want to hire external help for their core expertise. So, I recommend sticking with niche agencies at first. Figure out the core competency of the agency, and don’t expand too far from that. It might seem simpler to hire one agency for all the things, but you’ll end up wasting money.
Brand design agencies aren’t necessarily good at web design
Web design agencies aren’t necessarily good at web dev
Writers who specialize in ebooks and case studies aren’t necessarily great at SEO content–and likely aren’t great at writing short-form web copy
Paid agencies are often great at campaign management, but terrible at designing ads and writing copy
In short, hire contractors who are specialists and then let them specialize.
How to hire agencies for specific marketing activities
These are areas where it almost always makes sense to hire external help—assuming it’s key to your strategy and you’re ready with your marketing foundation and internal management. You’ll benefit from external help in these areas because there are economies of scale in the learnings from working with multiple clients and/or they can help you with the ebbs and flows of your business. Even as you scale to the growth stage and beyond, you’ll still want agencies in these areas because of these benefits.
Creative, brand & web agencies
For your first website and brand identity…
You can likely do a low-cost initial brand design system including logo, colors, font, etc. using a contractor (not a large, expensive agency)
You can build your website based on a Webflow template, by adjusting colors, font, etc. This can be done by a founder pretty quickly or you can hire a contractor here too.
Later on, around Series A, you’ll likely want to update your brand system and website. I recommended hiring 2 different agencies at this time: First, a brand design agency. And second, a web design & dev agency. Here’s how to make this happen:
Hire a brand design agency to build your brand system. To make sure the brand will “work” and can be easily applied long after you work with the brand designer, make sure the agency designs a few pages of the website and creates some core marketing asset templates (like social posts).
Then hire a Webflow designer & developer to use this brand system, design the rest of the website using the guidance from the brand agency, and build the website using Webflow (making it as templatized as possible).
Early marketer(s) can then use the marketing assets and web page templates to produce more marketing assets when needed, and hire a production design contractor when work picks up.
There are other ways to get all of this work done, but it’s helpful to recognize that typically contractors or agencies that are best at the brand design work aren’t quite as good and/or are very expensive when it comes to designing and building templatized, high-performing websites–best to go with the Webflow focused agency here.
Here’s a 5 min adio clip from an MKT1 panel on selecting brand agencies (Video clip here). Speakers are Ashley Kemper (Former Head of Website and Acquisition at Asana; currently Vice President of Marketing at an early-stage startup, Hypercomply) and Jess Strelioff (Former Brand Designer at Asana, Currently founder of brand design studio, Strelioff & Co.), and me.
Subscribe to the paid newsletter to watch the full 40 min video on website management and design.
Paid agency hiring is where I see the most marketing money wasted–when mismanaged you are wasting both agency costs and media costs. Here’s how to avoid this:
Early on, your growth marketing generalist can manage a paid agency and you don’t need to bring this specialty in-house. But, make sure you have someone with marketing analytics knowledge to manage the agency—I can’t stress this enough.
Sometimes paid search agencies are also good at paid social, but typically the agency (especially when you aren’t at the stage and marketing budget to hire a large multi-disciplinary agency) won’t be equally as good both. So sometimes, it’s best to hire 2 different agencies/contractors for these different channels.
Paid is another area where agencies and contractors are beneficial because they work with multiple clients at once. Since tactics change regularly, contractors/agencies (when well-managed internally) can be more beneficial than a full-time hire.
As I mentioned, often paid agencies will want to expand their scope to write ad copy, design display ads, or produce landing pages. Typically they are just outsourcing this to another contractor, resulting in multiple handoffs and a lack of quality control. Typically it’s better to do the creative work in-house or with another contractor or agency yourself—at least for the first iterations.
There’s a ramp-up time with paid agencies and launching new channels—switching agencies is often expensive due to this. There are also typically diminishing returns on each channel as you expand your budget. Remember this when evaluating performance.
Make sure paid agencies have access to full-funnel analytics. You can’t measure success based on clicks, web visits, and leads alone.
There are 4 core parts of SEO: Keyword research & strategy; content production; on-site or technical SEO; and backlinks. Startups often mean different things when they say “I need an SEO agency”, so be specific when asking for recommendations.
Many content agencies will do basic SEO keyword research for you.
Typically, these same agencies won’t make technical SEO updates on your website for you. But they may provide recommendations to increase your website’s performance so you can do the work yourself.
When you get to a certain scale, it’s helpful to have an agency that can help you with overall SEO strategy, keyword ranking monitoring, etc.
It’s key that your SEO agency and SEM agency are aligned, but often the same agency isn’t great at both.
It is beneficial to use specialized SEO agencies because there are tips and strategies that you learn from working across clients. For this reason, I very rarely recommend hiring an SEO-dedicated specialist as one of your first 10-15 marketing hires, but instead someone that owns inbound, web, and/or content can help manage an SEO agency. The exception is when you're considering doing programmatic SEO early on (think Zapier’s strategy).
The best PR agencies typically require an expensive retainer ($20-25K), so make sure PR will be key to your strategy and right for your audience before going this route.
It’s possible to hire contractors for one-off PR announcements, but it’s not always necessary for getting press around your first fundraise—assuming you have a compelling, opinionated story beyond the fundraising itself.
Note: This is a long topic that requires its on newsletter (someday I’ll make it happen)
To make this happen without a contractor, write a relevant and opinionated, origin story in blog post form, not traditional press release format.
Send a summary of your story and fundraising news to relevant reporters as an exclusive (don’t share the blog post or exact fundraising details until they agree to write).
Before you can be successful at PR, you need to make sure you have your brand story figured out. Having strong opinions and key storylines helps. And typically it’s best to partner with an agency on PR strategy, not outsource it completely—your PR strategy needs to be tied to your content and product marketing strategy as well.
At growth to late stage, media relations is a specialty it makes sense to outsource. Because PR agencies work with many clients, they can build these relationships at scale. If you hire in-house, you typically won’t get you the same advantages here.
Having writers, video producers, tools/template creators, and case study creators in your back pocket is a helpful way to augment the ebb and flow of content needs without having to hire too many people in-house.
All content contractors and agencies need get strong creative briefs from the in-house team, I recommend using the GACCS creative brief framework.
All external content creators, no matter how good, need editing to ensure the quality and consistency of your content. It might take a few projects with heavy editing to help them calibrate.
All content types aren’t the same, even when it comes to writing, so don’t assume you can use the same writers for all mediums.
It can be helpful to use content agencies to refine rough drafts or to repurpose content you have. For example, use a video editor to take webinars and edit them into usable videos. (You can do this yourself with tools like Descript or Reduct but it can be a time suck).
Similarly, you can take customer interview notes and have a contractor turn these into usable case studies. I don’t recommend having the contractor do customer interviews for you though.
Mistakes when hiring contractors or agencies
Here’s a summary of the common mistakes I see startups make:
No one internally to manage the contractors/agencies. To properly manage agencies and contractors, you need:
Someone to project manage
An editor or someone to check for quality
Someone who understands marketing analytics to review results and optimizations
Hiring contractors/agencies before you know what you need and/or have a basic marketing foundation in place
Missing “fuel” or “engine” - More context in Fuel & Engine newsletter.
Hiring “fuel” contractors without an “engine” for distribution and driving conversion
Hiring “engine” contractors without the right fuel to drive efficient performance and quality leads.
Hiring an A-list agency and getting the C-Team. Typically happens when hiring a contractor/agency that’s not a fit for your stage.
Picking an agency with the wrong experience for your startup. Right for your friend’s startup, doesn’t mean right for your stage and business model.
Wrong scope: Letting the agency do things they aren’t great at. Focus the agency on what they are best at.
Not following early-stage marketing hiring guidance: Hire marketing generalists in-house, hire agencies as specialists
Hiring agencies for the foundational or strategic stuff that’s better done in-house.
Not hiring agencies for the specialized project stuff where there are advantages to using an agency that works with multiple clients.
Avoid these mistakes and you’ll get the balance of contractors, agencies, and in-house marketing help right, and you’ll increase efficiency and save money overall.
Quick note on MKT1 Job Board
We are currently in the process of moving and updating our job board. We’ll have a new and improved job board this month. In the meantime, if you are a B2B marketer looking for a new role at an early or growth-stage startup, please fill out our form and we’ll reach out if we have a great fit.
Subscribe to paid newsletter for more resources on hiring contractors and agencies
Complete spreadsheet guide on how to hire all types (50+) of marketing contractors and agencies
Over 25 recommended contractors and agencies - coming next week
Full video from MKT1 panel on website management and design and agency selection with Ashley Kemper and Jess Strelioff