Should you hire a single, multi-service agency, or a specialist agency for each channel?

4 months ago

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.

Download our credentials deck.

Pop it in my inbox.

Getting started is as easy as having a conversation.