Should you hire a marketing agency, freelancer or employee?

Apr 13, 2019

All growing businesses eventually hit a point where they need some sort of expert advice or special skills to promote their company more effectively, but it’s not obvious where to turn for support.

You basically have four options: teach yourself, or hire either an agency, a freelancer, or an employee.

Since you’re already reading this, you’re clearly interested in self-educating to a certain extent. And there’s no doubt that marketing isn’t rocket science for relatively non-complex businesses, so teaching yourself can go a long way.

That said, there are surely some technical skills that takes years to learn and master, like writing and web design. Other marketing techniques simply require being constantly aware of changes in technology and trends, like search engine optimization and social media marketing, which entail following and responding to major changes by companies like Google and Facebook every year.

In our experience, entrepreneurs whose expertise is outside of marketing, but who are willing to hustle and manage their own marketing, often get lost in the sea of potential marketing tactics. They will read a few articles or watch a few videos, and latch onto a couple ideas that sound good but don’t perfectly fit the context of their situation. What they wind up doing is certainly better than nothing, but usually involves a lot of wasted effort.

If you’re fine with taking the time to learn, and don’t mind all the trial and error necessary, then acting as your own Chief Marketing Officer is fine to get started. The one thing we’d caution is to be careful about your sources of information, because there are countless bad sources out there. Sources that don’t provide empirical evidence for their claims, or heavily advocate for one particular tactic without emphasizing how it should be part of a larger strategy, should be avoided.

If you’re not OK with a long learning curve, then hiring a professional is the answer. But how do you decide what type of professional? For most businesses, it boils down to a matter of cost and strategy.

Cost of agency vs. freelancer vs. employee

From strictly an expense perspective, hiring someone full-time or part-time is always going to be less expensive on an hourly basis than contracting with a third-party. In the Philadelphia job market, you can hire a competent, full-time marketing specialist starting at $50,000. That translates to between $25 and $30 an hour with total compensation.

By comparison, a decent freelancer will want $50 to $100 an hour, while an agency will likely charge between $100 to more than $300 an hour, depending on the experience of the person or people doing the work. So, that’s two to 10 times as expensive compared to having someone do the work in-house.

Why so much more? It’s partly due to the fact that, just like anything else, you’re paying to avoid a commitment. Hiring someone part-time or full-time is more involved than simply hiring a contractor for a one-time project or brief period of time. You’re also paying for their overhead – office space, benefits, etc. – rather than your own.

But most agencies and freelancers do bring additional value over a young marketing professional. Even a small agency will likely have multiple people with different skill sets, e.g. a project planner, a graphic designer, a web designer and a copywriter. You get a package of abilities at your service, as opposed to an individual who might only have a couple core competencies. Indeed, unless whoever you hire is a rare well-rounded creative marketer, you may wind up needing an agency anyway for additional speciality services.

As for freelancers, you may only want specific specialty services on a project by project basis, like copywriting or graphic design, and you may be able to find someone with lots of experience who would be prohibitively expensive to hire full-time. So, you’re paying more on a hourly basis, but you’re paying less on a yearly basis than it would be to try and get that level of expertise on a permanent basis.

But marketing shouldn’t be purely looked at as an expense. It should be considered an investment. Marketing is only effective if it generates revenue for your business, and investing in solid marketing today should generate awareness and consideration that leads to future sales. In other words, cutting marketing entirely might mean you have more money today, but lessens the potential of future revenue.

For that reason, your business strategy should be a major determinant in deciding whether to hire an agency, freelancer or employee.

Strategic value of agency vs. freelancer vs. employee

What are your business goals? Do you aspire to great heights and want to scale your business quickly? Do you just want to sustain a nice living, and maybe bring in a little extra business? Are you simply in the discovery stage of launching your business, and need some help starting up?

If you don’t have an answer to this question, it’s going to be impossible to know you’re making the right decision, and much more likely you’ll make the wrong one. Marketing is ultimately a means to an end, so you need to know what that end should be to determine what level and extent of marketing support you need.

For instance, if you know you want to grow your business relatively quickly, hiring an agency makes the most sense. For around $10,000, you should be able to get all the basics you need to build a compelling brand for your business, and necessary assets to promote yourself for years to come, like a website, signage, sales materials, etc. It’s a hefty upfront investment, but in a relatively short amount of time you’ll have the key elements for building a successful company.

On the other hand, if you already have a sustainable business and just want to improve incrementally, hiring a full-time employee may be the best option. Someone with a relevant bachelor’s degree and few years of experience should be able to craft a strategy and manage the suite of tactics necessary to execute that plan. The advantage there is that, hopefully, this person would eventually understand more about your company and its market better than any agency, and therefore be a solid long-term investment.

Similarly, if your business is doing well, but you need to a fill a couple specific gaps in your promotional mix that require special skills, you may be able to find a decent, affordable freelancer. For instance, if you just need to refresh your website with a new design or better copywriting, there are plenty of web designers and freelance writers in the South Jersey and Greater Philadelphia market. Many of these people are full-time professionals who do work on the side, so you’re potentially getting very experienced talent on a contract basis.

The bottom line is, there is no golden rule – the right answer is highly specific to where you’re at and where you want to go. Before you pay anyone anything, clearly think through your ultimate business goals and the timeframe in which you want to achieve them. If you need a straightforward, albeit oversimplified answer, here’s the most we can boil it down:

  • Hire an agency if you want to grow significantly in the next year or two, and need a broad range of high-quality support.

  • Hire an employee or employees if you want to grow steadily and need a professional to plan and manage a variety of activities.

  • Hire a freelancer if you have a specific task or set of tasks that you know will bring immediate value to your business.

Is it possible to get all the benefits of an agency, freelancer and employee?

If you can find it, it’s possible to get agency-level support at a price point that isn’t wildly more than you would pay a full-time employee. That would combine many of the pros of an agency, a freelancer, and a full-time employee without many of the cons.

In fact – and without making this whole article sound like a bait and switch – that’s exactly how we structured our offering here at Mountwell. We specifically aimed at making our hourly rates in line with what an experienced, salaried marketer would earn, which is a fraction of what other agencies charge, and even far less than many freelancers. That way you get the expertise of an agency without paying dramatically more than if you put someone on your payroll.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our Pricing page, or just reach out by emailing us at Hi@Mountwell.Marketing.