Marketing Agency vs. In House: Thoughts from an In House Marketer

In today’s article, I wanted to take on the age-old question of whether you should be in an in-house role or at an agency when it comes to building your marketing career. All of this is going to be from the perspective of someone who spent his entire career in in-house roles. However, I’ve talked to as well as hired enough agency-based marketers to know exactly what the distinctions are between the spaces.

Ask yourself this question

So the first thing that I’ll share with you when it comes to answering this question is that you need to figure out where you’re at in your career. And the reason why I say that is because most of the time, that is going to determine which way you answer this question of whether or not you should work at an agency or go in-house.

Pros and Cons of working in-house

When it comes to being in-house, I’ll tell you right off the bat from personal experiences that you’re going to have a lot of great responsibility. You’re going to get a lot of ownership over your work, because in most situations when you’re in-house, it means that everything from start to finish, when it comes to the marketing lens of things comes from your department.

So what that often means as well is that you get to work on ongoing initiatives. Say for example, your startup is working on building up its case studies where you’re not only going to make the first case study, but you’re also going to make the 15th or the 20th. And that’s something that isn’t always the case when you’re working in a marketing agency.

Another nice thing about working in house is that you get to really understand the product or service that you’re marketing and the reason why that’s helpful is because it means that you’ll have a really deep understanding of the customers you’re trying to serve as well.

You’re going to know the exact phrases that your customers or prospects are using on a regular basis, because you’re going to be so in the know, in terms of having talked to enough of them, as well as just understood your space to a deep enough level. That’s something that only comes from spending hours and hours working on the same problem, which is again, a big benefit of working in-house.

What I’ve appreciated personally from in-house roles is being able to really go deep on the different initiatives that I’m running. I’m able to keep it going for more than just one quarter, but in some cases for multiple years.

Pros and cons of working at a marketing agency

On the flip side of things, when you’re talking about agencies, there’s also some pros and cons there. Some of the pros include things like the fact that you’re going to get a ton of exposure to a ton of different industries. Many digital marketing firms and marketing agencies are going to have a wide slew of clients. Even if they’re focused on a particular niche, you’re still going to have different exposure points in terms of the different sizes of customers and things like that.

And that’s something that you’re not going to experience as much if you’re working in an in-house role. What that means is that if you’re getting a lot of exposure to different types of industries, as well as customer types, it means that you’re going to be able to pick up on how to market for tons of different products and services.

So if you’re trying to build up your generalist skillset, it can be a great place to start because you’re able to get exposure to all different types of projects. If for example, your digital marketing firms serves law firms, you’re going to probably get a good feel for big law versus medium sized firms versus small private practices, and they’re going to have different needs. And so what you’ll be able to learn are the differences in terms of marketing approaches of a big company, as opposed to a small company and what that budget size actually entails.

Another great thing about a marketing agency is that some of them are going to give you a broad generalist skillset that you’re going to be able to take on in many different places later on in your career.

So in many situations, these marketing agencies are going to have very generalist roles where you’re going to be tackling a ton of different things, whether that’s social media management coupled with some keyword research, organic SEO paid placements as well. And this will give you the wide taste of the rainbow that you might be craving at this point in your career. Again, this is why it all goes back to how you first answered that first point that I told you about, which is considering where you’re at in your career.

On the flip side of things, if you’re in an in-house role, it might be a little bit more scoped for you in which your marketing role is going to be just in the context, for example of being an email marketing manager, or maybe it’s just in the context of creating content because you’re the content lead. And so this is something that you’re going to have to factor into consideration is how important is it for you to have that broad breadth of skills in the list of responsibilities that are ongoing for you?

The last thing that I’ll say about working in an agency is that more often than not, the pay is going to be less than working in-house. The reason why in most situations this is the case is because agencies run on a churn and burn model. What I mean by that is they love to hire people fresh out of college that have no skill sets, just train them up as generalist, and then gradually pay them a little bit more. But for the most part, whenever you’re working for a consulting firm, you’re never going to extract the maximum amount of value that you’re actually generating for your clients. And the reason why is because your marketing firm or your marketing agency is getting the bulk of that value creation that you’re giving to your clients.

Whereas on the flip side of things, when you’re in-house, you may be able to dictate more close to market terms in terms of digital marketing rates and things like that, just because everything in terms of accountability starts and ends with you. It really goes back to that point of you’re able to tackle the problem, head on, go deep on it as well and work on it in terms of start to finish execution.

Sometimes with marketing agencies, you’re actually only contracted to in the scope of getting it ramped up before then passes into the in-house team. So your mileage may vary, but generally speaking, what I have found from interviewing as well as hiring past folks from marketing agencies is that after a while they get tired of getting under comped for what they’re actually doing and so they start to look for in-house roles to get closer to market.

Why I’ve chosen in-house?

The first reason why I’ve chosen to always be in-house is because I love the autonomy of not being on someone else’s time. When you’re working for a marketing agency, you’re going to be having a number of different clients and workloads that you’re going to have to balance.

And what that means is that when you’re not working on one client, it’s taking away from the other time to work on your other clients whereas when you’re working in-house, you’re working on the same core problem. And so that sort of prioritization issue is not as big of an issue. I love being able to know that our goals are our goals when we set them for our quarter and not someone else’s where it’s a client that has really unrealistic expectations or no basic understanding of marketing to be able to set a reasonable goal.

Whenever you’re working in a business like an agency model, it means that there is a client relationship that also has to be maintained. It also means that you’re providing some consultative services, which are always going to be subject to different standards from the client. Whereas in the flip side of things, when you’re in-house, again, your goals are your goals, and as a result, you don’t have to deal with the stress of meeting a ton of different client’s needs, as well as the potential Karen here and there that might come up in the wild.

The other two reasons why I’d say I’ve always liked to be in-house is because I’m able to own all of our wins and losses full hardly as opposed to sometimes in consulting engagements or like an agencies, it’s not something in which the outcomes are truly always directly tied back to the agency. And then also I’ve been able to go deeply into each problem. So if, for example, I’m doing an entire rehaul of marketing pages, I’m able to go from start to finish and also continue to iterate on that six to 12 to 18 months later.

My recommendations

Something I want to make sure I cover today as well is my general recommendation for folks, for which one might be right for you. If you’re early on in your career, I might suggest you check out an agency or at least explore joining another agency if you don’t have the generalist skills that you need to be a good marketer. That’s just because it’ll give you the exposure that you need to just get a baseline understanding.

So after you spend 12 to 18 months in an agency, you might get a good sense of exactly what the upper limit of that skill set is going to. But it can be a great building block for foundational skills. The reason why I say this is because a lot of in-house marketing situations are not going to have this sort of structural support or regiment that an agency might have because agencies are so used to working on multiple projects and multiple industries and clients at once that they’re going to modularize you in terms of the sort of work that you’re doing.

On the flip side of things, if you have a little bit more experience, definitely keep an open ear to in-house positions. The main thing that I’d say here is to make sure that you’re lying on the actual product or service that you would be marketing because you’re going to be marketing a lot. And so that’s a big thing that I think people have disconnect on sometimes when it comes to in-house roles is they realize after six months they don’t actually care about XYZ construction app company that they’ve been working for.

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