On this episode of It Depends, I was joined by Sean Walsh, Head of Marketing at Starpeak Insurance Solutions, who run a number of insurance brands including Protectivity, Sports Cover Direct and Les Mills Insurance. We focused on how to drive high performance during difficult economic times and how the last few years have changed (and not changed) the insurance sector.

Key takeaways

Price is always likely to be a key driver for consumers

Price sensitivity has increased across most sectors over the last few years, particularly in the UK with the shallow recession, inflation and cost of living increases. Insurance is no different but due to the nature of the product, i.e. it's not always a choice on whether you need it or not, consumers can lean even more towards cheaper products. However, even if economic uncertainty continues, this price sensitivity may well remain for the foreseeable and marketing campaigns shouldn't lean away from this completely.

Specialisms can help offset price a bit and drive performance

In some sectors, particularly insurance, specialising or "niching down" can help make you stand out to consumers and potentially offset some of the price sensitivity. This is particularly true for more specialist insurance when consumers are keen to ensure that they get the customised, specialist insurance that covers their particular situation and gives them peace of mind. More generalist, larger insurers aren't always set up for this, so smaller, more specialist providers can stand out more.

Growth needs investment

With many companies either reducing budget, or keeping it the same but expecting growth, it can be hard for marketers to deliver at the expected level. But if you're embracing a growth mindset, then you need to understand that investment is going to be required to deliver this. Of course, things can change over time and a company may then slow down growth and their investment, but if you want to drive growth, budgets need to reflect that.

Budgets and channels are being scrutinised, but that doesn't mean you can't invest in long-term activities

Companies need to look across their activities and clearly understand where ROI is coming from, whether that's SEO, Paid Media, Email or a combination. But sometimes, you may invest in an activity, such as TV advertising and not have the full, immediate picture of what the ROI is. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it, because the long-term brand awareness is likely to have value. This is particularly true in insurance where the consumer may not need a policy right now, but will do in the future, so being front of mind when the time comes is important.

And below is the transcript if you'd prefer to read it. Please note that it's been edited for brevity and to make it easier to read.


Paddy: Cool. I think we are good to go. So, welcome everyone and welcome Sean to the It depends webinar, I'm Paddy Moogan. I'm the CEO of Aira, a performance marketing agency based in Milton Keynes in the UK. Today I'm joined by Sean Walsh from Starpeak Insurance Solutions, so we'll get to Sean's intro in just a second.

For those of you who are joining today, we will be recording this as well and sharing it afterwards. So if you drop your email address into the registration form, you'll get a copy of this afterwards as well, so don't worry too much about copying down notes. And we'll share blog posts with notes and takeaways, as well. Essentially, what I want to try and do on this webinar is answer difficult questions for in house digital marketers, but also try and balance that against the agency's perspectives, freelance perspectives, and things like that as well.

So you've got a nice balance between an in house perspective on a particular topic or question, but then also an agency perspective, as well. So we could hopefully give you some good things to think about, some good takeaways, and hopefully lots of stuff to think about and take back to your day job as well. So, before we get into the meat of the webinar search, it's about essentially how to drive performance during difficult economic times. Sean, do you want to do a quick intro to yourself?

Sean: Yeah. Thanks, Paddy. Welcome everybody. So my name is Sean Walsh, I am Head of Marketing at Starpeak Insurance Solutions.

We are a specialist online distribution, insurance provider, in layman's terms, basically, we sell insurance online.

We service about a hundred thousand customers per annum. And we have three consumer brands in the portfolio. One is Sports Cover Direct. The other is Productivity.

And lastly Les Mills, insurance.

Been with the company for just shy of nine years, and then prior to the employment here. I worked in the non profit and also some other private sector, all marketing, based.

Paddy: Awesome. Cool. Thanks Sean. As I said earlier, we've got a copy that's been recorded, so, we'll kick straight off into the questions.

So as I mentioned, we want to talk about how you can drive digital performance during difficult economic times. It's probably worth preempting this a little bit by saying we're going to steer as hard as we can away from the pandemic era of COVID and things like that. We know how difficult that was for a bunch of reasons. What we do want to try and focus on a little bit more is essentially post that period.

So obviously a lot of companies saw growth during the pandemic, some, saw less growth. Ultimately, 2022, 2023 onwards. Some companies did bounce back, but what we are seeing now particularly in the UK, you know, we had a shallow recession confirmed for the end of last year. We've seen quite tough economic times, you know, regardless of what happened a couple of years ago with the pandemic with cost of living being quite difficult, affecting brands, like, the ones that Sean works for at Starpeak Group.

And essentially agencies try to work with lower budgets too. But ultimately, this trickle down effect of the economy affecting, you know, what we do as marketers is quite difficult at the moment. We wanna really focus on how we can get around that way so we can think about it a little bit differently as well. So I guess, Sean, you work in the insurance industry, as you mentioned there, it would be interesting to hear about how you've seen this affect that particular industry and kind of how the company's kind of adapted a little bit, how it's changed, how it's had to try and ride wave a little bit, which is a difficult one.


Sean: Yeah. It is. Yeah. Look, given the circumstances, we've all faced the last six to twelve months in terms of economic instability and volatility.

That's had a kind of direct effect with with us in terms of our consumers and their demands and needs and it's kind of is is how we've kind of evolved and adapted and and for other businesses, wider than ours, to meet those demands and needs, especially when they kind of disposable income of our consumers or the cash flow of our small business insurance customers, for example, whether that's being restricted because of cost of supplies or materials, and therefore not necessarily having the kind of cash flow as they once did for insurance purposes and let's be honest insurance is not something that people want to buy and ultimately it is heavily driven, by price.

Regardless of recession or not, it's just heightened further when there is economic instability.

We've had to evolve and adapt as a as a business in terms of what we offer the consumer, whether that's our pricing or the ability to to to pay for their premiums over a twelve month period on a monthly basis or go the step further and given them kind of ultimate flexibility where It's kind of like a subscription model where they pay on a on a month by month basis, with kind of no cancellation.

Fees or requirements in and around it. So it has been a period where we've had to kind of evolve and adapt, and like I say, meet the demands and needs of a very price sensitive, driven, industry.

Paddy: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And you touched on it before with insurance. Yeah. It's not top of the list for a lot of people to necessarily, you know, go out and buy with disposable income, but I know it's something they often need. So, with that in mind and kind of that, you talk there about the subscription model. How's that kind of affected maybe how you market these products compared to maybe a few years ago? Do you kind of lead with that flexibility that you spoke about a bit more than you may have done previously, for example?

Sean: Exactly that. And probably even on those products where it's not subscription based, but it's just like a monthly zero percent APR kind of model, probably more so than we would have done, let's say two or three years ago. That's nine times out of ten, the kind of primary USP.

Definitely it's been at the top end of our kind of comms in our marketing output, because well, in our industry, our experiences, at least in the last twelve months, there hasn't been a huge amount of fluctuation in pricing. Across the board within our competitors.

And if that probably comes down to the fact that we know and our competitors that if pricing does increase, it has a negative consequence to conversion rate.

So that as just to answer your question, yeah, it's always at the forefront of the way that we market our products and making sure that consumers are aware that that flexibility, and those options are available to them, whereas maybe in the past, we would have driven with with other USPs that we thought were more primary.

So it's certainly evolved and, and has certainly been at the forefront of our marketing efforts now.

Paddy: Yeah. That makes sense. And is that the same? You mentioned, you know, the three brands that you work with at the moment: Protectivity Sports Cover Direct, and the Les Mills brand. Is that kind of, you know, positioning consistent across all of them? Does it differ slightly?

Sean: It differs slightly. So just a quick quick insight on our three brands. So Sports Cover Direct is primarily travel insurance for sports enthusiasts, and Protectivity primarily is small business insurance for the public liability for small businesses. We also do some event insurance and some also, some cover for landlords.

So going back to your point about the travel insurance element, we deal with quite affluent individuals that have got the disposable income to go on, let's say, quite costly, adventures and holidays to the likes of Europe or America to do, whether it's skiing or mountain biking.

So that element of price arguably isn't quite as kind of sensitive if you can call it that whereas on a small business, product lines where We are catering to sole traders, entities that aren't doing in the hundreds of thousands and what we're doing within the tens of thousands and as a revenue. And in turn, have got maybe restricted cash flow issues.

That probably sits more at the forefront.

That's not to say that we don't make an effort to, kind of, sing and shout about our pricing to those travel customers, but they probably aren't quite as sensitive as maybe the small business lines.

Paddy: Yeah. And we're kind of seeing that to some extent as well, I mean, because also we're an agency and actually work with a bunch of different clients across different industries. Mhmm. And whilst all inside the we've got a big chunk of kind of more kind of luxury.

You mentioned travel insurance, you know, some people who might be a bit more affluent to go skiing and things like that and don't aren't quite as price sensitive. Like, the clients we do work with, probably, do fall into that market a little bit where there's a bit more disposable income with more luxury goods. So that seems to be in a bit of a bubble right now. I've been reading various reports that are picked up in terms of high end luxury brands and things like that where that price sensitivity is definitely not being felt, and it's still seeing a lot of growth despite being way more expensive than your average products and things like that.

But I guess with insurance, again, it's something you need, isn't it? So if you're not price sensitive, if you're not, you might just grab it because it's convenient, you know, the other USPS you mentioned earlier might kick in more than price if you are at that end of the scale?

Sean: Completely right. Completely, right. And we've kind of tried to leverage other USPS, whether that's the insurance partners that we work with being kind of like household names, like the likes of that. So we're very much utilizing that as our own kind of, or leveraging it to get the consumer on board to see us as the preferable option.

But nevertheless, it doesn't matter whether it's travel, whether it's public liability, or commercial lines.

Price is a huge indicator or a huge factor for people buying insurance.

It's just I think maybe, as I mentioned, a slightly lower down scale kind of requirement on the travel as it is to the small business insurance lines.

Paddy: Yeah, definitely. And in terms of kind of, you know, with all of that in mind around shifting these, you know, the marketing focus towards, you know, price sensitivity away from those traditional USPs, does that mean that the targets you set within the brands and and individually across the brands and across the group in terms of what good performance looks like? Has that shifted more towards that kind of price sensitivity? We had to take that into account a lot more. How does kind of goal setting and targets work in terms of, you know, Starpeak as a whole and individual brands in light of it being more difficult at the moment.

Sean: Yeah. I think one thing that we've tried to focus on as a business is our retention and our new business acquisition. The reason I say that, especially when we're going into the end of last year when we weren't completely sure what the economic landscape was gonna look like for 2024. It was kind of like, are we doing enough, for the existing customer base to make sure we keep hold of them.

Should there be any instability at the other end of new business acquisition? But what's been really kind of surprising and interesting for us is that actually the volume of people online looking for insurance in our market is growing year on year. Okay. COVID, obviously, everything went to, kind of a flat line.

But at the moment we're seeing a resurgence in growth again, which almost contradicts a little bit to what you would kind of expect given the climate.

So, yeah, it's making sure that we're retaining that customer base with the potential that that new business acquisition might not have been there in abundance as it was, in years gone by, but actually evidently that's not been the case.

Paddy: Yeah. And with kind of, you know, retaining the, well, I guess that focus being more on that retention piece.

Does that mean you do more in lines of, you know, say CRO on that for new customers kind of retention when it comes to email marketing for existing customers, have you found yourself kind of tactically going more towards those kinds of ways of working as well?

Sean: Yeah. And it's it's, yeah, partly, and also about just making sure where possible we can, kind of stagnate, not fluctuate the premiums i.e. increase the premiums for those existing customer base customer base.

That again is a driving factor to why customers gonna look elsewhere, and the majority of our products that are annually based are kind of all auto renewal, so he has to go through the kind of email journey as such, but, the the the pricing is a big indicator and the point that we need to try and focus on to make sure that that is staying in line with their expectations, but it's difficult because we're a business like a lot of business across the country which are facing higher costs, and we try and where possible not to pass those over to onto the consumer, and we're doing that in the majority of our of our products.

Paddy: Yeah. And do you find, or, you know, in your industry at the moment, do you feel like that's the case across, you know, your competitor set as well in terms of because, like, almost every business is seeing rising costs? Have you kind of observed them trying to focus a bit more on the price point, retention, and things like that as well. Have you noticed anything they're doing particularly differently, that you've kind of also done or done differently.

Sean: What I would say is that there's certainly not been a great deal of fluctuation in or in the competitive space with regards to their rating.

Such early run-in terms that they appreciate like how you do the, the knock on effect that price increases can have, especially the area of the market, which is kind of low value, high volume.

I think, yes, there's probably been a case that they tend to lean towards that kind of pricing push within their marketing.

We know that others have a different pricing model, or business model whereby they might heavily discount upon kind of new business acquisition for those and then upon renewal hike there, their renewal premiums, which we tend to kind of lean lean well, but we don't tend to go down that route. But, to answer your question, it's very much kind of price driven in their comms.

But same time, and they'll still leave with some of their unique USPs, like some providers, for example, we give kind of, added benefits should I say for for buying your purchases or a policy with them, and that will be very much in the forefront of their marketing material when they when they do, publicize that product or policy offering.

Paddy: Yeah. Again, that makes sense.

With, with pricing clearly being so important right now. Again, that almost feels like as a marketer, you've kind of had your not had your hands tied, but the levers you can pull right to grow and to get more customers on board when price is so central to that experience the customer's gonna get and that that decision making process, do you feel like there actually are fewer levers for you to pull now? Because it's so sensitive or you feel like the other levers, yeah, that you can still pull them, but might not be quite as hard as in previous years, if that makes sense.

Sean: Well, I think you're, I think you're right.

I think just adapting and remodeling or evolving as a business as we have done in those last few years with offering those monthly payment plans and given the flexibility, like, two or three years back, maybe we weren't kind of quite so heavy on that monthly premium, communication in our marketing materials. So, yeah, I'd probably say that it is.

Paddy: Yeah. And this is almost impossible to answer, but I'll ask it anyway. Do you think this will change at some point? I know that the again, the UK, was just confirmed to have gone into a shallow recession recently. So we're putting that out of the woods at all yet for the foreseeable, but can you imagine a point where this sensitivity suddenly or not suddenly but starts to ease up a little bit in the future in your particular industry?

Sean: Yeah. Possibly. I mean, if we get if we're two years from now and economic climate is looking more positive, then naturally that has a knock on effect with let's say small business owners and what they are willing to, spend on their insurance premium, that being said, I think price is always gonna be such a driving factor because it is a purchase that, like I mentioned, that majority of people don't necessarily want to buy yes, there is that balance between confidence that they're getting the cover that they need? And we do a good job at that and making sure that we obtain policy offerings that's in line with the consumer's expectations.

So I think it might kind of it might kind of ease, but I can't foresee a day, not in the insurance sector anyway where it's not within within the top two or three, kind of indicators or kind of pull factors that bring a consumer in from being, somebody on the street to be a consumer of ours.

Paddy: Yeah. I guess it's always gonna be there, right, which I guess comes down to, as you said, making, like, your brands, good brands to to be, to be a customer off and kind of that softer stuff that customers want around the experience and things like that. That becomes even more important because, yeah, price is important to them, but if things do start to ease, then suddenly all all those other signals might help a bit more in the future and kind of make people think, well, I could save a little bit money going elsewhere, but actually it's more painful to move. I've gained a good experience already with Know, Protectivity or Sports Cover Direct. So actually, you wanna kind of incentivize them to, okay, you may get it cheaper elsewhere, but actually there's other benefits that might become stronger in the future, I guess if things do start to ease up a little bit that you could play on playing to.

Sean: Very much so. And I think if anybody's listening, it's not necessarily within the insurer space, because as I mentioned, we've come to talk about, length of the price sensitivity of this market. I think ultimately to service the needs, enduring it, the kind of economic difficulty is just listening to or understanding what your consumers' requirements are. If it's whether it's monthly payment plans or whatever it might be or reduction in your in your rates or your your your product kind of RRP, whatever it might be, is kind of just meeting those needs and that's certainly kind of what we've had to do over the, over the last few years.

Paddy: Yeah. Definitely. And without obviously giving away too much about the company itself, but how things are, you know, your Head of Marketing there at Starpeak. How have your budgets been affected?

Because what we're seeing a lot with a lot of our clients is budgets for either kind of advertising spend, you know, media spend, things like that, and or agency fees, freelancer fees have often been kept the same year on year, but targets are still higher. So you're having to do more with less. A lot of clients, they're cutting budgets, you know, laying off teams, that kind of stuff. Some are increasing, so it is a bit of a mix, but generally budgets are tighter than they used to be.

There's definitely more eyes on them. There's more kinds of people who sign them off nowadays than there were a couple of years ago. So what are you seeing from your perspective on that front?

Sean: We are, we are in a growth phase right now, a business.

And for us to achieve that growth is requiring us to spend year on year more money on marketing essentially.

That being said, we are probably more so than ever looking more closely at the return. From our activity and our spend, whether that's from our paid media or whether that's our email or whether it's just from our brand awareness advertising.

So whether we're a bit of an anomaly in the wide picture, I'm not sure, but we're very much intent on growing the business and to do that. We have to put money in the channels that drive it for us.

We've evolved a little bit over the last five or six years where we when we kind of we've been working with you guys with Aira in the past and very much kind of driven by paid media organic, which is still the primary channel for us for selling for new business acquisition.

But try to evolve and adapt into other models where other marketing efforts are kind of like brand advertising, and that brings challenges within itself because when you're being questioned on what the return is from that. And you've got no way really of justifying it other than maybe a few metrics.

It's probably an internal challenge that we have. But no, to answer your question, we were very much kind of on the trajectory or or spending more at the moment, that being said, that could well change in the next couple of years depending on the success of our marketing efforts and also whether our growth rate continues.

Yeah, so there's a few influential factors that will determine what we do in the next twelve to twenty four months.

Paddy: Yeah. And you've actually raised a a good point there and some of the you know, is important to remember, which is if a company isn't that growth that is occupied at the moment, you have to invest into it right, and I think clearly you've got, understanding culture and a company around you who get that and not because they're not just saying we want growth, but we're gonna have your marketing budget. That's not the kind of company you're part of. But if you want that growth, you have to pay for it to some extent, and that's not special to being as opposed to the opposite, which we do see sometimes with some clients.

Sean: Like the commercial direction from those above me, it changes, and there isn't the appetite there for that growth. For whatever reason that might be, or we see reduction in performance from from our kind of current spends, then they say that that that landscape could quite easily change in in twelve months time, meaning that we will be kind of, plateau in terms of our marketing spend, maybe year on year, and again scrutinizing it even further in terms of kind of its its end result and its ability to, perform for us.

Paddy: Yeah. And within that scrutiny as well, or you can imagine as as an agency working across different industries, it's, I wouldn't say it's the same for everyone, but often the vast majority now, they are looking at the different channels that that we work on and kind of asking the perfectly fair question, which is okay, well, what are we getting from, let's say SEO, what are we getting from paid media, and really doing a kind of a like for like comparison. Now they're not it's not the fairest like for like comparison sometimes. But you can see where it's from.

And what we tend to find is that clients and ourselves are more likely to move stuff around than we would have done so it won't move things more quickly. So if it's really clear that, you know, SEO is performing quite better than, say, email marketing or paid media, move the budget across to SEO or vice versa. That feels like it's, like, a quicker decision now that it might have been in the past. Or more time was given in the past to see how things shake out.

Sean: Yeah. I think I think you're right. There's also the kind of conversations that occasionally have whether it's more likely to be a kind of SEO than some of the other channels, where it is such a long term play. It's kind of like, okay. We've gotta invest in X amount for the next twelve months. There's no guarantee whereas if somebody is looking for direct or immediate performance, we can put that money into paid media, for example, get leads or new business acquisition, whatever it might be instantaneously.

I can show that return. Those are the types of internal conversations that I'm sure are being had, kind of even today or across the country, kind of like the difficulties and challenges marketers face with finance teams, or the kind of those on board.

Paddy: Yeah. Definitely. And I'd love to chat for another half an hour or so on that brand awareness budget as well and how you measure all of that fun.

Because actually I was chatting with someone last week whose brand does a lot of TV advertising as well. So they're trying to draw, you know, close that gap between, you know, a TV ad goes live and does X number of spots in a month, you know, in a month. And then while it does their traffic, and you can actually see what it does, but then seeing what it actually does in the long term, it's a bit of a well, we think it's having an effect. We know it's dropping people on the website.

You don't always know if it's gonna drive conversions, but somewhere it's a little bit of a leap of faith. Sometimes, but I know that there's definitely more science to it deep deep down, but it's not the easiest one to pick apart when you're spending that much money on it as well.

Sean: No. That's exactly right. And we, we, operate in quite niche markets where we're not going kind of mass TV kind of publication where maybe this, it's of such a significant impact slash intern volume that has knock on effect with traffic, etcetera.

These are in kind of niche spaces where we're doing advertising within whether it's magazines, whether it's online.

And as a business, we just where well, we can do this at the moment, and feel comfortable with it. Again, this doesn't mean that it would be different in twelve months' time, but if the products are growing in line with our expectations, then there's a kind of argument there that we can't completely directly associate an ROI or justify it as such. However, if the product is growing in line with our expectations, then maybe we take the view that it's doing something and it's aiding it.

So yeah, those are ones I could probably spend an hour on just talking about the pros and cons of brand advertising in itself.

Paddy: Yeah. It's that cumulative effect, isn't it? That you, you know, it almost certainly is playing a part somewhere along the line, and you kind of have to trust it, have to trust it a bit, but ultimately, if things are moving in the right direction, yeah, you're probably right. It is playing a part, even if it's a small part, we're not too sure kind of how specific a part it's playing.

Sean: And that's it. And for us, like, you only need insurance when you need it. It's not like a pair of trainers that you could kind of I don't know, just do some advertising for a day and somebody just does a spontaneous purchase. So, it seems for us, it's a long term play as well. Just making sure that the brand is present within the the right space, or the right areas of the market, so that when the consumer does go online and search, for personal trainer insurance and whether it's our advert or whether it's our organic listing, we are there, and there is some common familiarity there because they've seen us whether it's on magazines or whether it's at events or whatever it might be.

Paddy: Yeah. Actually on that, we, you know, this isn't necessarily about, you know, difficult economic times as search, but I think one thing that, you know, Starpeak have done very well over the years with the different brands is that element of niching down. So you just said there about personal training insurance, for example, and on the Protectivity side of things.

If you look at the group of companies and look at the fact you do niche down into specific target audiences How much do you think that's contributed towards, you know, being in this growth phase in an economic, economically difficult time? Because you're not yep, just trying to sell generic travel insurance or car insurance. I mean, you know, you are niche and more than that. Does that make you more robust do you think at the moment or more resilient? Yeah.

Sean: I think a hundred, yeah, a hundred percent. We will more often than not get feedback from our customers about how they came across us and it's a tailored policy offering for their needs. So we're not, we haven't gone down the route of being kind of a generalized insurer where it's kind of an off the shelf product. For the majority of our products, this is, we haven't gone off the I've had off the shelf driven product that, maybe a variety of bigger brands out there bigger insurance brands will offer. Instead, we've gone down the route of really thinking about what the consumer needs, whether you're a small business or whether you're a sports travel goer and needs travel insurance to cater for cycling in New York for the week and and tailored modified, created a product offering that meets the demands and needs. So when they are comparing our offer against some huge household insurer, which has just gone down the route of having a very generalized product.

We certainly benefit from that and leverage that because it provides confidence to consumers that actually what we're offering is far more, equipped to and built for purpose for them as opposed to being something that's generic. So, yeah, a hundred percent, I think so.

Paddy: Yeah. I know we haven't really spoken about that in advance, but I think that's something that does play a big part in people's mindset when, you know, money is more of a concern. Obviously, that doesn't mean it's already because someone's a big brand. They're gonna be the cheapest.

Some might have more leverage, but generally speaking, when it comes to specialist insurance and specialist products, yeah, the best of the big brands or the big household ones aren't necessarily the best people anyway, are they? So I guess it would play a part in their thinking that you are a specialist, therefore. You could well be well priced, but you're gonna get a better product because that's specialism as well. Yeah.

Sean: Exactly that. And it's kind of related to your area because it's a bit like going to an agency that does multiple different kinds of service offerings, whether it's PPC, the SEO, email, etcetera, or going to an agency that just does just one. So it's kind of like the pros and cons of that, bringing it kind of back in for us. It's, yeah, certainly something that we've leveraged. In fact, in the past, we've seen in conversion, our conversion may improve for making modifications where the product it may be from day one has just been, kind of a bit too basic for the demand and needs of the consumer and we've added additional coverage to the product. And subsequently see improvements in performance, conversion rate wise, as a result. So yeah, I think we definitely benefited both one hundred percent from that over the years rather than go and generalize the group.

Paddy: Yeah. Definitely. Cool. We're coming up on time. So if any attendees have any questions, feel free to drop them into the chat at the bottom of the screen. I can get to them before we wrap up.

Final one from me Sean, you actually touched a little bit there around, you know, Aira and the fact that, you know, we do multiple services, but we try not to do all of them. If we're talking about the different brands that you work on, and you've got kind of agencies freelancers. You could, obviously, you do stuff in house as well. What's your current thinking in terms of, you know, splitting those brands in terms of, you know, delivering all in house?

Do you try to get specialists? Just to do specialist things? Do you prefer everything under one roof model? Yeah.

Where's your current thinking and how that thinking changed if you think over the years?

Sean: So we've evolved from being just agency based to a split between agency and freelancer.

And there's a reason. There's pros and cons to both routes.

If you want to go down the freelancer route arguably you're gonna get more bang for your buck just because of the amount of hours that they can do against an agency that's got overheads, etcetera.

But the knock on effect was or the the positive and and and pro of going with a an agency is that with you guys where you've got loads of experts within in house, we could lean on you guys like we have done with other agencies to kind of support us almost like in a in a multi channel, effect whereby you can support us on a paid media as well as well as an SEO.

So we use a mixture of both.

And as I said, there's pros and cons to either or, the negative downside with freelancer from some of our experience has been delivering projects on time because they ultimately haven't got somebody above them that's that they held accountable from, like, a project manager.

And, and therefore, that comes trying to chase individuals for work. It is problematic at times. And also as well, we tend to lean towards or have done in the last twelve months or so kind of, engaging with agencies that are specific within their areas, i.e. on our Starpeak brand for, PR activity and, in a very B2B space. Opposed to the B2C being the Sports Cover Direct and Protectivity facing brands.

We've gone down the route of trying to find a specialist within that area and we could have done a freelancer route. I just think the added air of kind of confidence that an agency can give you if somebody's gone to the effort of creating a business and there's got a large team underneath them, with policies and procedures and methodologies, etcetera in place. There's the additional confidence that that brings that ultimately what you're gonna get from your money is going to be of greater.

Quality than what it would be if it was a freelancer.

Paddy: Yeah. The freelancers who are speaking that he he sounds like he some extent you've done similar to what some customers might do with with Starpeak and your brands, while they go a bit more specialist, that's how that could actually benefit as a benefit of customer as well as benefit of B2B brand as well so we can work both ways.

Sean: Yeah. And also, just the freelancer route is a bit more flexible commercially. So if you've gone with an agency, more often or not, you're gonna be tied in with some kind of commercial agreement, which depending on if you're going through your own a business where you're coming across economic, uncertainty or difficulty, having that flexibility to just kind of opt in and out whether you work with freelancer. Freelancers are certainly advantageous, but, yeah, it's kind of a case by case, kind of scenario, I suppose, you know, depending on what the demands in detail are for us and also kind of ultimately what we want to get from the end product.

Paddy: Yeah, and, we've definitely felt the need to be more flexible on that front as an agency. So I said, typically, you know, our business model is, you know, six twelve, eighteen, twenty four months.


So we've even had to find that those have more flexibility than they used to have. So, yeah, I think it's definitely being felt that way, too. Could we understand that ? You know, we have got downsides compared to freelancers and contractors, but obviously we've got benefits as well, but we've definitely had to be more, I guess, flexible on that front as well in recent years. So you can apply to us all, I think.

Sean: Yeah. It's true.

Paddy: Awesome. Cool. I don't see any questions at the moment, so we'll start to wrap up. For those of you that have attended, thanks again for joining. You'll get a copy of the recording and the notes, in the next couple of days or so. Sean, thank you again for joining us and for being so open and transparent with how you do things at Starpeak as well. Really appreciate it, and I'll chat to you soon.

Sean: Cheers, Paddy. Thanks for your time.

I was joined on this episode of It Depends by Chloe Gilston, Marketing Manager at Vital Energi Utilities. We discussed the pros, cons and considerations of hiring a single, multi-service agency vs. hiring a number of specialist agencies to cover various services. We even ventured towards whether you should hire a freelancer or an agency. The video is below, along with the transcript of our conversation.

Key takeaways

People matter more than services

The conversation led us in a direction where we realised that most of the considerations for answering this question were more about working with the right people, as opposed to where those people worked. Working with the right team, whether they are a team from a single agency, a couple of agencies or even freelancers, is more important than the question itself.

Don't try to be all things to all people

Agencies can often be tempted to take on more services than they are qualified to deliver and should avoid trying to oversell. Marketing managers (particularly those who have worked agency-side themselves) can usually see through this and it will damage the relationship. It can also damage existing services, even those where you've historically done a good job because overall trust is compromised.

Focus on the outcomes and then get people who can help with them

If you're working in-house, be very clear on what success and good outcomes looks like and these should be the focus of your work. Whether you hire one agency, several agencies or freelancers, focus on the outcome you need and resource your work based on that. Once you get your resource on board, get them focused on the outcome too - especially if you have multiple agencies.

Don't be afraid to say what you can't do

Agencies and freelancers should be clear on what they can't do when it comes to services. There will be things that are naturally outside of their specialism and that's okay. Marketing managers appreciate it when they are open about this rather than trying to say that they can do something and then fail. Be prepared to say no, but be helpful in trying to find someone who can help instead.

Freelancers (like anyone) will have strengths and weaknesses

We can fall into the trap of thinking that freelancers will be both excellent at day-to-day execution of work, but also be excellent at softer skills such as building relationships, communication or strategic thinking. Of course, some may be capable of this but like anyone, many will lean in one direction or another. We should be aware of this when working with freelancers and try to use them in the right way that leans into their strengths.

You can watch the full webinar (it's about 30 minutes) with Chloe below.

And below is the transcript if you'd prefer to read it. Please note that it's been edited for brevity and to make it easier to read.


Paddy: Awesome. Cool. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to It depends, a performance marketing webinar from Aira. I'm Paddy Moogan, I'm the CEO of Aira.

These webinars are designed to answer difficult questions that are faced by in house SEOs, agency SEOs, PPC, marketers, content marketers, whatever service or specialism you have, you've always got difficult questions that kind of go beyond our services and the things that you do day to day.

So we're trying to really answer those questions in this series of webinars that we're doing over the next couple of weeks or so. Today, I'm joined by Chloe Gilston from Vital Energi, and we're going to focus on a tough question that's faced quite often by in house SEOs around whether to choose a single agency who deliver all of your services for you, or whether you should actually go with specialist agencies for those various services as well. And it's not that there's not really a correct answer as such. Obviously, everyone's a little bit different, but we're going to try our best to get through the next half hour or so without using the dreaded words, it depends.

And even though it kind of does depend, we want to give you more solid answers than that and give you some solid takeaways to really try and give you some some stuff to think about whether you're in house SEO, whether you're an agency, or whether you're a freelancer. So firstly, welcome, Chloe, and thank you for joining us for the webinar today.

Chloe: Thank you for having me.

Paddy: For those of you who don't know Chloe and know Vital Energi. Do you want to give us a quick overview of the company and your role?

Chloe: Yeah. Of course. So, Vital Energi, we're an energy services company, which basically means that we help businesses and organisations on their road to net zero, and that's done through multi technology, projects.

So we have projects up and down the country, and, my role really as the marketing manager for projects North is to manage those those projects overseas, a marketing and communications element, of those projects have been down in North and Scotland.

Paddy: And you work in house now, but you actually used to work agency side as well. So you've actually got that little bit of experience from from both sides. So, starting there, knowing that you've got that background in the agency world, but now you're working in house, where would you say you currently stand in terms of this, I'm not going say argument, but the question as to whether you go with a full service agency or a single agency with key specialisms. Where do you say you currently stand?

Chloe: I wouldn't say that I have a defined answer as to whether you need to do one or the other, I think there's times for both or a mixture.

So I don't really see it necessarily as being you must do this, or you must do that.

I think throughout my time, as you mentioned, working in house and also agency, I would say that, my mindset and my experience, have changed some of those views.

Particularly, I would say, before I worked at a digital marketing agency, I was quite skeptical to the idea that one agency can do everything.

And I felt that as a marketing manager, it was, you know, a kind of marketing ploy to get a manager on board with an agency because it's a case of "we can do everything".

And I've worked for businesses that also do the same thing, who say, we can do everything.

So I think sometimes that can actually get your back up a little bit, because really, that's a lie.

And I think throughout my experience working at a digital marketing agency where we didn't necessarily say we can do everything. But I think it's more of an approach with a client or a customer to say we're here for you and not necessarily that we can deliver everything. But we are here to help you achieve what you need to do, and we'll find the right people along that journey to help to achieve that.

Paddy: That makes a lot of sense. I resonate, obviously, being an agency owner at the moment and kind of being on that side where we've been tempted in the past to say, we do it all. We can do everything because when you've got a client in front of you asking for something, particularly if you got a good relationship, you don't really want to say no to them.

But I get the temptation and going back into the history of Aira, we used to do things like web development, we used to do social media management, and organic social, that kind of stuff. And we could deliver them, but we knew we weren't necessarily the best at those areas compared with others. So we took the conscious choice at various points in our history to say, actually, no, we don't do those. And there's something quite nice about being able to say, no, we don't do that as well. And I think that as tempting as it is to say we do everything, it can be quite powerful to say no sometimes and say, well, actually, no, it's not us. We do this very well, but we don't do this.

Chloe: Yeah. A hundred percent, and I think there is real power in being able to say no.

And I think that actually really builds upon the relationship.

I've been in operations and and customer services roles with with the agency and was very much in those positions in meetings with the client when they've said, can you do this? And we want to say yeah because we want to be able to do that, but we've said instead - do you know what? That's not really our bag. And actually the client's been like, completely respect of that and said that they really appreciate us being totally transparent and honest with them.

I think there's times like those when you can say, we specifically can't help. We can help you to find the right person, and whether that's another agency or whether that's a freelancer.

I think that's really why you start to build that relationship with that customer. And I do actually see, a shift in the agency industry where I think it's not necessarily you versus us. It's actually, a collaboration and they can say that they're specialist at that, but not at this. Let's work together for for that end goal for the client.

Paddy: It's probably more about focusing on the right outcome than opposed to saying, oh, we can do this. We can do that. If the goal for the client is to grow market share or to generate more leads, more revenue, whatever it might be, if you can help them get there, then you still look good to those agencies.

Chloe: I guess there's two risks really. There's one risk that, you're going to try to do it and probably underdeliver and not necessarily meet the outcome of the client and potentially ruin the relationship that you've built so far. And then the second one being the agency might go to a freelancer and ask them to support the agency with delivering that without telling the client. The client gets wind of it and if you've not been transparent with that from the beginning, that that can also jeopardise your relationship because they ask why didn't you say that to us?

Paddy: I'd love to come back to that freelancing point in a bit because I'd like to go into freelancers versus agencies as well, so let's park that and come back to it. But your first point there, we've actually kind of experienced that a little bit ourselves. For example, we do SEO and and paid media and specialise in those services. If we work for a client just on their paid media and we've done a really good job, worked with them for a couple of years, and then we talk about bringing in SEO.

Even though that's a specialism for us, we're still quite careful bringing that in because we don't want to do damage to the the the work we've been doing already by not bringing it in at the time with the right budget, with the right focus, because we may well be specialists in it, but end up still not doing as good a job as we could do if we haven't introduced it at the right time. So even for that, in that scenario, we're quite careful not to to tag something on. If we're not sure that we can do a really good job at it.

It's even more risky because if you end up losing the whole lot because you got a bit greedy, that's not good for anyone because the agency loses a client. The client then has to go and find another supplier, which isn't the easiest process to go through sometimes. It could take a lot of time. No one really wins when you're trying to oversell something.

Chloe: Yeah. Absolutely.

The most important thing is delivering the outcome for the client.

Paddy: To go back a bit. There's times when we may say we can't do this, but we can bring someone else in to do it and because you've got that strong relationship, they trust you and take your recommendation.

What things are really important to building that kind of relationship to the point where clients do trust your recommendations if you are going to bring someone else in.

Chloe: Yeah. I think it's a good question. I think building the relationship in time is obviously important.

And if you don't necessarily have that. I think it's a crunch moment in the relationship where you can probably either lose them or build that trust. So Certainly for me and from my experience, I would always go with transparency.

I would always be honest with them. And if that results in you not getting the work, then that's fine. But you've built that relationship. They know who you are, what you can deliver, and it might not be that the project or that campaign fits your agency at that time, but they will leave that meeting and know who you are, what you do, and I guarantee they'll come back to you.

I think that's probably a key learning from me because as you say, sometimes you probably can get a little bit greedy, can be a little bit like yes, yes, yes. We can do that.

Ultimately I think really explaining that process and working with the marketing manager or whomever stakeholders, to say this is our plan and to get them on board with it.

Paddy: If you've got a single agency doing multiple services for you, but then they bring in someone else to do organic social media, but they don't do it themselves, but they're going to bring in a freelancer to do that. And then that works quite well. Then they bring in someone else to maybe do email marketing. So you end up with a few different people involved in the project from different agencies or freelancers.

How would you bring them together and make sure that they are all on the same page that they are kind of moving in the right direction? That they understand the brief you're giving them? Do you do annual or quarterly or monthly strategy meetings or brainstorms? How does that look if you are going to bring multiple people together?

Chloe: I'd probably say it's a blend of that. And, I think we can hopefully say it depends now. Because we've got past the five minute mark.

And that it kind of does?

In this instance, I think it does depend on the campaign project, whether it's something that you're working specifically toward on a campaign or whether it's part of a wider strategy.

But yes, very much saying everyone should be on the same page. So that does need to be bringing everybody together.

And I also think it's important to understand those roles and responsibilities. Is it down to the client or down to the marketing manager, to be able to manage those agencies and freelancers, or is it down to one agency to manage that project management and kind of just keep the client more up to date on how things are progressing.

I think that kind of understanding and transparency is quite key.

Really understanding the roles and and those specialisms, but very much bringing everybody together.

Paddy: Essentially it comes down to really good communication, which isn't easy, the principle is easy, but doing it isn't isn't that easy necessarily.

So in terms of that, the central piece of communication, whether it's face to face, whether it's over Zoom, you'd expect an agency or a freelancer that you work with just to be open with the communication, be very open about working with people.

I’m wondering what prevents agencies from doing that. Sometimes you think of freelancers because, again, from our perspective, the last thing we want to do is tell a client, oh, yeah, we're doing it ourselves, but there's actually someone else being kind of brought in to do it. We're not telling the client about it. 

But why do you think agencies might do that or freelancers might want to not be open with communication or want to cover it up. You know what I mean?

Chloe: I think there's an element of, if they do see this, are they going to run, you know? And I think that comes back to whether you have actually been open with them from the beginning about whether you're bringing somebody else in or not.

And I also think from a communication perspective, it's managing those expectations, and managing what the communication levels look like, what channels you're going to be using, how often the marketing manager should be receiving updates, and really getting that read from them.

I think sometimes agencies will have their own processes, their own account management processes, and that they're kind of stuck in that way. And so when a new client comes on board, it might be a sense of It's a new client. We need to, you know, obviously do what we can to get them to get them, like, on board really quickly and that kind of thing.

And so your communication levels are probably going to be higher at that point. And then I think as you start to run through that relationship, if your communication levels are going to naturally start to drop, is that okay with the marketing manager? Are you still checking in with them? Are you still understanding if they're happy or not?

Because there might be a lot of communication upfront, which is probably more natural, but then how does that look in three months, how is that looking in six months? How is that looking in twelve months? And I think it's really important for them to understand that as much as you. You need to ask them what communication they want and how often via what channels.

Paddy: And from an agency perspective, it's absolutely fair. I think what we struggle with sometimes is that every client is completely different, which is how it is. It's fine and expected.

But then sometimes the way we try and work is. Okay. Well, this works very well for this client. We can make the mistake of thinking that it will work just as well for another client with no changes or tweaks.

A reporting template for one client, you think it's going to work for another one and that gives you some comfort, whereas if you need to change it for every single client, it makes you a bit more uncomfortable, but I think it's the nature of what clients expect, where clients expect to be communicated with in a certain way. And I think again going back to the question here and building that relationship, most relationships will start to fail. If I have to say six months, you start to take your eye off the ball. And it's kind of like most agencies that work with a client for a longer amount of time, you kind of have that peak at the start, then it can plateau a little bit, and then naturally things can go backwards when the agencies start to not put as much effort into communication.

And that's a really difficult thing to break out of. And so trust goes to the heart of not letting that happen and communicating all the time.

Chloe: Absolutely.

And I'm not necessarily saying that  what works for one client won't work for another one because it quite possibly will. And we can certainly take learnings from what's gone well or what's not quite gone well with one client and then, you know, obviously carry that across to another client, and their reporting.

I mean, gosh. Yeah. That's a whole other topic that I don't wanna necessarily get into in today's webinar!

Paddy: We need over half an hour for that.

Chloe: But what I would say again is just managing those expectations and just having that clear and open communication from the beginning,

Paddy: Definitely. We've been talking for about twenty minutes now, we've we've barely spoken about the skills themselves of SEO, paid media, content it's all been the stuff that kind of almost transcends that right. We've probably said, you know, transparency, a lot of communication and relationships being really important.

We've not really gone towards things like hiring the best SEO agency or hiring the best paid media agency. Instead, what we focused on quite a bit, is the softer side of that relationship. So it kinda feels like, you know, trying to get to us somewhat of an answer here a little bit. I wouldn't say it doesn't matter, obviously, they need to know what they're doing.

It feels like what matters more is their ability to communicate their ability to be open and honest with you as an in house marketer, and it's kind of like the softer side of the agency client relationship that matters as opposed to the skills. So do you think that's fair? Because it feels like we've focused very much on that as opposed to the channels themselves?

Chloe: Yeah. I do. Well, I do think that's fair, and it's a very good observation.

And actually, I did have it as a note when we kind of touch more on freelancers that I think there's a time and place hundred percent for freelancers. And there's many of my friends who are also freelancers. So I'm certainly not kind of going all negative on freelancers, but I think some freelancers and not all, do some do sometimes lack those communications and softer skills, and I think that's really where they will fit into a team, whether that's multiple freelancers, single agency, or whatever that looks like.

I think from my experience it's good to have that specialist freelance within a wider team because they might often not be up for those communications or those reports or those face to face meetings, as much. So I think understanding those skills and those people, you know, are they happy to be quite task driven, you, such as we want you to do this, we want you to do that. That's fine. There's a time and place for all these people. We need those people. So I think it's getting the right people in that room and around that table to help you. You know, you want somebody that is going to be able to communicate and whether that's from one agency or multiple agencies off by freelancer, that's fine.

Paddy: Yeah. I'm so glad you guided us towards a freelancer conversation. So we talked about it a little earlier. Like, because it's just as valid a question, isn't it to say, should we hire an agency or freelancer, or agencies and freelancers or combination of both.

But it's not very often we think of a range of freelancers. So some of them are more like, just head down. Here's a list of tasks: crack on and get it done versus someone who they've got more skills around sitting in the room with you and brainstorming for a couple of hours and come up with a strategy or they'll come out with a new way of thinking.

It's sounds funny, but maybe we expect freelancers to be both sometimes or we expect them to be able to do both, but it's like anyone, and we all have strengths and weaknesses and things that we enjoy more than others, but with, for some reason, freelancers, it's never really, occurred to me immediately to think we're this person might not be the best person to come to an all hands agency meeting, for example, that may be someone just who can crack on and get things done. And I guess that's also changed a lot or grew a lot during the pandemic as well, right, in terms of the growth of freelancers, similar to yourself, who have got friends who freelance.

Because the new ways of working that we've all kind of been forced into in some ways, but a lot of us are embracing it and it is a freelance world at the moment. So I guess, when it comes to, say, your current role of Vital Energi, if you are looking at freelancers versus agencies, what might tip you one way or the other in terms of where you may go for certain tasks or certain types of work, whether it be the the day to day task stuff or the the more bigger thinking, bigger picture stuff?

Chloe: If I'm honest, I don't see it as, as you're a freelancer, you're an agency.

I very much see it as are you people that I want to work with. Do I think that you're gonna be able to do the job for me? Do I trust you?

And that's pretty much it. If I'm being completely honest.

I want to kind of understand, you know, a bit about what you've done before, some of your case studies and what some of those specialist skills might be, what you can bring to the table.

What I will definitely be asking those questions around are things like: what can you bring? How are you going to be communicating with me? How often can I see you, when are you available?

And it is the kind of question really on those softer skills that I think would outweigh any sort of decision.

Paddy: Yeah. Which, again, feels like that's similar to the single service agency or multi service agency question. Right? It's less about the skills. I guess we could say at this point that the skills are kind of a given. You have to be able to do the job, but it's beyond that that your decision making goes into, as opposed to, yeah, you're a good SEO, a good PPC person etc.

So it's kind of a similar kind of outcome, I guess.

Chloe: I think that's probably where you're looking at. Well, what do we actually need to achieve here? Who's the right person? Can we trust them?

And seeing it really from a what are we what are we trying to achieve perspective.

Paddy: Yeah. And again, it comes back to that, the basics of working with people. I love the idea that, something you said there around it's about the people not freelancers or agencies. If you have a call with someone, if you just click with them, if you think, yep, I could work with you.

That's more important than whether you happen to be an agency or happen to be a freelancer. So obviously there's going to be some kind of budget considerations and things like that. But ultimately it's about the people that you work with.

Chloe: Yeah. I've worked with people that have worked at an agency.

And then, you know, they've left that agency and gone to another agency.

And sometimes we've followed them because it's the person that you want to work with. Not necessarily the agency. Or another example, I've worked with, you know, worked with someone before and they've then gone freelance.

And I've continued that relationship with them.

I think it's more around asking those questions on who do you want? Who do you want to work with?

Paddy: Yeah. That's a great answer without using the dreaded words.

I know we're coming up on time, so to start to wrap up a little bit, but I think that the point is there around as well following people around agencies or freelancers.

It works with us as well. Sometimes we work with a client who might be the Head of Marketing or the CMO, then they leave and go somewhere else, and they bring us with them. And again, I think, we've had that sometimes with clients. So they’ve taken us to three or four different brands that they've worked with across five or six years.

And it's more about that individual relationship. And when they go somewhere else, we're like, oh yeah, let us know how you get on. We'd love to work with you again because once you know how to work with someone you don't want to lose that. If you can get a new point of contact, they might not be quite the same. So, yeah, it can definitely work both ways for sure.

Chloe: Yeah. Agreed. Yeah. I think ultimately, people do business with people. So that's I'd say that's probably the key message.

Paddy: I was gonna say to you, I think you've just done a great job wrapping up all the key points there, and do my job better than I would have done it. But, yeah, I think it's all about that really, that we've not really talked about the skills of SEO, PPC or anything else. It's about people working with people. So I think when it comes to that question, do you hire a single service agency for different things, or do you hire a multi service agency? I think ultimately it sounds like it comes down to, it does depend, but it depends a lot on the people who you're going to be working with. Their ability to be transparent, open, and build a relationship. If they've got those things, either option can work, I guess is what we're saying there. So it's different for everyone.

But it does depend on the people, ultimately, because people work with people.

Chloe: Absolutely. I agree with that.

Paddy: Cool. Awesome. So thank you everyone for joining. And thanks, Chloe, for joining. For the very first, it depends webinar. Thirteen minutes is currently the record, in terms of saying it depends for the first time.

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