One of the defining characteristics of a startup is that you never seem to have enough people to get everything done. Marketing is no exception. The desire for extra marketing help is always going to be there, whether you’re a team of one or one hundred. While recognizing that you need to add manpower is simple, deciding whether to hire more employees or bring on a marketing agency isn’t so straightforward. There’s no answer that works for everyone.

I recently went through this dilemma myself. And to help you learn from my experience, I wanted to share why I decided to consider a marketing agency and what questions I asked myself to make the decision.

When Things Get Complicated, It’s Time To Ask For Help

Early on, we scaled our business mostly through Facebook and Instagram ads. Our campaigns were pretty straightforward, and our small in-house marketing team could manage pretty easily.

But as we grew, things got more complex. First, we decided to go after some new markets. The copy and creative that worked initially would not be effective with these new audiences, so we soon found ourselves allocating at least twice as much time to creating and managing Facebook ad campaigns.

Secondly, between 20014 and 2016 it got far more expensive to advertise on Facebook and Instagram. More advertisers competing for the same ad inventory directly increased our CPMs (they more than doubled for the audience we were targeting!). To hit our benchmarks, our ads had to perform twice as well just to get the same results. That meant even more planning, split testing, and campaign monitoring.

Finally, as our business grew, our internal team needed to spend more time on product messaging, website development, lead nurturing, and customer communication. While the time required to run a successful campaign continued to increase, the time we had available to do so only shrank.

Justifying The Cost Is Easier When You Can Measure The Results

Just because you need help doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it. So I couldn’t just hire a marketing agency (or an employee) because I wanted to; the numbers had to make sense.

But it wasn’t hard to calculate: based on our monthly ad spend, the agency we were planning to hire could pay for itself if it improved campaign performance by just 17%. In other words, if we could spend 17% less on our ad campaigns, use that money to pay for agency fees, and get the same results, we’d be good.

I actually shared this number with the agency before we began the relationship. They knew what numbers they’d have to hit in order to keep the contract alive, and they were confident they could deliver. So we agreed on a 3-month trial period and moved forward.

Could I have hired an employee instead? Maybe. But here’s why that didn’t make sense for us at the time:

  • The agencies we looked at all charged management fees of about 17-22% of ad spend. Based on our ad budget, we could hire an entry-level employee for that amount, but not a more experienced marketer that we’d actually need.
  • Finding an employee can take a while. And you never want to rush a hire just because the need for help is pressing.
  • An agency will likely get up to speed quicker than an employee. They only need to focus on the job you’ve assigned to them, and don’t have to deal with on-boarding, coming to meetings, understanding the culture, etc.
  • If an agency didn’t work out, parting ways would be pretty straightforward. But doing the same with an employee is much tougher on both parties.

Did It Work Out? Yes And No.

I’ll skip to the end of story. We ended up parting ways after a few months. But not for the reason you’d think.

The marketing agency we hired actually did a decent job of improving our Facebook and Instagram campaign performance. But shortly after we engaged them, we made some core business changes that took us away from marketing on Facebook and Instagram. The agency didn’t do anything wrong, we just no longer needed their help in running campaigns on social media. Fortunately, they were really understanding. Ending the relationship was pretty easy, no hard feelings.

Even though we only worked with the agency for a short time, having an outside perspective was really valuable. They taught us quite a few things about campaign structure, how to set up tests properly, and using Facebook’s ad units in different ways.

Not only that, but having to teach an agency about our own brand forced us to clarify own messaging. We thought we had pretty clear guidelines, but when we started to explain them to an outsider, we realized they could use quite a bit of improvement. Having someone ask you a bunch of questions about your brand is a great way to find out where all the holes are.

Takeaway: if you end up hiring an agency yourself, I recommend finding one that’s willing to share knowledge back and forth. Both you and the agency will benefit.

Should You Hire A Marketing Agency For Your Own Startup?

There’s no right answer for every startup. So to help you come up with the right answer for your own company, here are a few questions to consider as you ponder the decision yourself:

Do you have clear branding and messaging guidelines?

Asking an agency to create marketing campaigns without clear brand guidelines is setting them (and you) up for failure. These guidelines can’t just live in your head, they need to be documented in a straightforward and accessible way, so that everyone on your agency’s team can have a clear idea of how your brand should be communicated.

Don’t have guidelines yet – not even in your head? If building these isn’t your strong suit, you might actually consider hiring an agency on a project basis to help you craft them.

Are you trying to scale a proven strategy or are you still looking for something that works?

Many startups acquire their customers primarily through one or two channels. But finding out which channels those are is going to take some experimentation. If you’re still in that experimentation phase, ask yourself if you’re able to move faster than an agency.

If you think you are, then you’re probably better conducting those experiments yourself. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend a lot of time just figuring out the basics of some new marketing channels, partnering with an agency who already has experience may help you get moving sooner.

Are there specific gaps in your team’s talent that you can’t fill otherwise?

Agencies can be really valuable if there are skills your current team lacks and (a) you can’t afford the time it takes to learn them; (b) it will take too long to find someone who already has them; or (c) adding these skills doesn’t require a full-time hire.

For example, your own team might be great at paid advertising on social media, but doesn’t know left from right when it comes to PR. If PR needs to play a core role in your marketing strategy, then maybe it makes sense to hire an agency that specializes in that.

Is your time being taken away from the core business?

If you’ve established a marketing strategy but find that managing it day-to-day is taking you away from actually running your business, a marketing agency might be a good choice as well. You’ll still need to provide lots of direction on marketing campaigns, but freeing yourself from managing the details may give you time to look at the big picture.

Are you stuck?

If you’ve tried “everything” but can’t seem to get traction with any marketing strategy, having an outside perspective can be really valuable. You might consider hiring an agency on a consulting basis to give you a more objective assessment of your business.

Is there a special project you need help with?

Perhaps there’s a big campaign you need some creative horsepower behind. Or maybe there’s a video you need to create that’s beyond the capabilities of your own team. Marketing agencies are perfect for this type of work. Your employees should handle the work that requires ongoing effort, but when you need to deliver a special project that requires skills that your own team doesn’t possess, an agency can be the perfect partner.

What are your expectations?

Don’t think that hiring a marketing agency abdicates you of your responsibility to grow your business. An agency can help you execute something that doesn’t make sense to do in-house, but don’t expect to just write a check and see your business to grow on its own. It’s up to you to get the fundamentals right. Once those are in place, your next job is to find the right resources to get the job done. Whether that’s through employees, freelancers, or agencies is up to you. Chances are that as you grow, you’ll make use of all three.

Still considering an agency? Do this first.

If you think that hiring a marketing agency makes sense for your startup, don’t start making phone calls just yet. Before you go down that path, get your team on board first. You all need to understand why you’re considering bringing on an agency – what they’ll be helping with, what they won’t be helping with, and how your team is going to engage them.

If your team doesn’t understand how an agency fits into the big picture of your marketing strategy, it will decrease the chances of everyone’s success. Once everyone’s aligned and you know exactly what you want out of an agency, begin your search. Good luck!