When you’re undertaking a strategic marketing initiative, should you use your internal marketing team to handle the work, or should you hire an external marketing agency?

This is an important question, as the results should last for years. This brief blog post will outline some of the factors to consider when making that choice.

There’s a key word in the previous paragraph: strategic. Marketing can be divided into the strategic and the tactical. Strategic initiatives cover questions such as:

  • How will we differentiate from our competitors? Which answer will give us the most pricing power?
  • What do we want to be known for in the marketplace?
  • What public-facing language should we use to capture these ideas in messages that will resonate with the audience?
  • What look and feel should we use to reinforce our core differences?

These strategic questions typically fall under the name of “Branding” but I must confess that I dislike that word, since marketers can’t typically agree on the definition of the word, or what branding encompasses and what it doesn’t.

Tactical issues cover questions such as:

  • How do we promote our message out into the marketplace?
  • What should the frequency be?
  • What trade shows should we exhibit at; which should we just attend?
  • How often should we add new content to our website, to our LinkedIn pages, to our Facebook page? What should this content be?

Internal resources tend to address tactical issues every day, every week or every month. They don’t (and shouldn’t) deal with strategic questions that often. Organizations should revisit the strategic questions at most once every 3-5 years, or sooner, perhaps, but only if there is a major shakeup in the industry—a major regulatory shift, the entrance of a major new competitor, or a significant merger between major competitors. The answers to the strategic questions (like, how will be differentiate?) will affect the answers to the tactical questions (like, what trade shows should we attend?). So, while the strategic questions don’t come up as frequently, they will guide your tactics. In this sense, it is crucial to get your strategy right.

I’ll reveal my bias right up front. For tactical work, you should follow your instincts to use your internal resources for tactics such as routine blog posts, social media, getting ready for a trade show, etc. It makes sense to use internal resources for tactical work; they know your organization the best and they’re used to doing this type of work, and doing it quickly. In contrast, my experience teaches me that external agencies, if chosen carefully, will deliver superior results for strategic questions, 99 cases out of 100.

I know what you’re thinking: “David is a consultant, so it’s in his own best interest to recommend that organizations hire a consultant.” Well, it might be in my interest, but maybe not. You see, my goal here is not to convince you to buy from Forma. What I do recommend is that you split the decision into two:

  1. Should we use external resources?
  2. If yes, then who should we use?

This post will walk you through the set of factors that will influence whether your organization should use external agencies for strategy, which is a significant choice with long-lasting ramifications. I’ll outline the factors, and you should make the best decision you know how to make.

Only then, once you’ve decided to use external support, should you consider using Forma. At that point, I’d welcome a chance to talk about whether Forma is the right fit for you and your needs. Forma is not the right fit for everyone, and if it’s not a fit for you or a fit for us, I’ll tell you. I’m committed to this honesty and trust that even if the answer is no, we could still shake hands and part friends, with no hard feelings.

As you read this, if you have questions, I’m happy to answer them, but I’m not trying to sell you on Forma. I want to make sure you get the firm that is the right fit for you.

One last point, when I write about “external resources” to handle your strategic work, I’m referring to a specialized firm, someone that understands your sector. You should consider only specialized firms. If your factories make drug product, it won’t help much if the firm has general branding experience, or experience in working with law firms or marketing agricultural chemicals to farmers. You need someone who understands the CDMO sector. Choose a specialist, not a generalist.

Here are the factors to consider when choosing between using internal resources and external resources for strategic marketing initiatives.

1. Knowledge of your specific organization | WINNER: Internal Teams (barely)

Internal teams have an advantage here, but it may not be as big as you think. Yes, these teams know you, inside and out. Sometimes that knowledge be very useful, but sometimes it can get in the way, by preventing the development of recommendations that would be in your ultimate best interest. It might sound like this: “Well, Jen would never let us do this.” Or maybe it might sound like this: “I talked to Inukai about that once, and his facial expression told me everything I needed to know. He’ll never go for it.” In addition, internal teams have their own worldview. They might overlook something that an external agency would find significant.

Yes, external marketing agencies do not know you as well. They’ll take some time to come up to speed. That’s one reason you should use an external agency; they’ll need less training. Because external teams do not know you as well, they have developed specialized diagnostic tools and processes to uncover their diagnostic findings quickly. Here at Forma, we can get most of the information we need quite rapidly, by using diagnostic tools we’ve been honing since we first developed the Quintiles logo back in 1989. Of course we’ll need to talk to some members of your leadership team, but all we ask is that each member set aside 60-90 minutes, scheduled at their convenience. This is a small investment to create a compelling strategy that will allow you to compete effectively and win more than your fair share.

2. Knowledge of your sector and industry | WINNER: Draw

Internal teams are at a parity with external teams here. While internal teams understand your specific situation, external agencies often have a broader view, and understand where the industry as a whole is going.

3. Experience in the process of handling strategic branding | WINNER: External Marketing Agencies

Internal teams handle strategic questions when they arise for their own organization—that is, only one every 5 years or so. External marketing agencies will handle these types of challenges many times a year. Practice makes them really good at doing this well. The breadth of challenges that external resources are tasked with solving makes them good at recognizing the patterns, patterns that internal teams just aren’t used to seeing.

4. Objectivity | WINNER: External Marketing Agencies

External firms have greater objectivity. They can see the situation the way it is, rather than being clouded by internal politics. This is a valuable advantage when tackling strategic marketing initiatives, since internal teams can sometimes be blinded by internal dynamics.

internal team and external marketing agencies

5. Specialized tools | WINNER: External Marketing Agencies

External agencies have developed specialized tools that can be applied rapidly and effectively. Internal teams tend not to have access to these tools. These tools can be used during diagnostics, during prescription, and during treatment.

6. Broader reach and applicability | WINNER: External Marketing Agencies

External marketing agencies have tools and processes that can deliver results well beyond what is typical for a “rebrand.” For example, Forma has a specific way we use archetypes to help define the character of the public face of the organization. This helps with differentiation and articulation (including creating a distinct tone of voice). But as we’ve used archetypes across dozens of clients, we’ve learned that the real value of archetypes is in the gains they provide in employee alignment and team performance. We have several great case studies that demonstrate remarkable results.

In our experience, most internal teams don’t consider issues such as employee alignment, employee engagement and team performance when undertaking a rebrand. This is a lost opportunity with real significance.

7. Size of the challenge | WINNER: External Marketing Agencies

The larger the organization and the larger the challenge, the more external teams will have an advantage. Internal teams have work to do, work that they can’t just put on hold. External teams can bring in the resources necessary to solve the problem, whatever it is.

8. Cost | WINNER: Draw

While your instinct might suggest that it would be cheaper to use external marketing agencies, that’s not always the case. Forbes has crunched the numbers and found that on the whole, it is cheaper to hire an outside agency than it is to build and cultivate an internal team of marketing managers. You have to account for all the costs, including the opportunity costs of having internal teams work on strategic questions, taking their focus away from the marketing that drives the business forward day after day. In our experience, when all factors are accounted for, there is little difference in cost between using internal and external resources.

Again, my goal in creating this blog post is not to convince you to hire any particular firm. My goal is to list some of the many factors that can be used to help you make a decision when answering the following question: Should we use an internal team or external marketing agencies when undertaking large strategic marketing initiatives?