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The Difference Between Agency and Inhouse Marketing

John Doherty —  February 18, 2014
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Last October, as many of you know, I made the move from search marketing agency Distilled to become the Online Marketing Manager at hotpads.com, the nationwide rentals brand of the Zillow Rental Network. I’ve been at the job for four months now, and a recent conversation with Jonathon Colman (another Bay Area transplant) has made me take some time to reflect on the difference between agency and inhouse life.

Here are the main differences I see between agency and inhouse life.

Access to Decision Makers

In an agency, you are constantly viewed as an external member of the team, or in my least favorite term ever, an external “solution”. Even in agencies that pride themselves on getting close to their clients and working to affect change (two terms used constantly internally at Distilled, and I love them), you are still not able to build the close relationships through serendipitous conversations and lunches that happen when inhouse.

Inhouse, you have much more access to those who are able to make decisions. Even if you are a fairly junior member of the team, you will likely still have access, within one or two steps, to the top of the chain in your business unit. The marketing team at HotPads (which has four people including me, and growing) has direct access to Zillow’s CMO, who is my boss. If they wanted, they could directly email her and ask questions (though they normally will go through me and we will approach together). But that access is (usually) much tougher to come by in an agency.

Now that I’m inhouse, I’ve found that I spend less time trying to simply reach the right people, and more time actually building relationships with the right people and getting things done internally.

Accountability To Results

Agencies are often brought in to fill a gap or to help out the inhouse team when a problem is out of their ability level or the team is too busy to come up with new ideas. The agency will usually be the one to think big and come up with ideas, and then the inhouse team is left to execute most often (and in my experience, agencies are most successful when their client has a strong inhouse team). Because of this, the agency is often not held to achieving results quickly because of the added steps of delivering work to the client, interpreting it for them, and then relying on the inhouse team to implement.

results

Working inhouse, this is not true at all. If I went to my boss and said that it will be at least 6 months before we see a positive impact through my and my team’s work, I’d be laughed at. When inhouse, you are responsible for the results, not just delivering work. You could argue that agencies will not be kept onboard if they are not getting results, but in my experience an agency is rarely let go because of a failure to deliver results.

Kill Your Pet Projects

I’ve always championed content, especially writing. I’ve recommended that clients create and invest in blogs to drive traffic. I’ve executed on large content pieces and outreach. All of this is well and good when you’re an agency hired for these purposes, and longterm I still believe that they work and I will continue to invest in them.

But when I moved to HotPads and soon found myself owning the inbound channels, building out a team, and researching online opportunities for other businesses, I quickly realized that I had to focus on what moves the needle now, while still looking to the future.

I wrote a number of posts on the HotPads blog, but after a month or so I realized that the three or more hours I spent writing a blog post that might get 400 visitors was probably better spent diagnosing a technical SEO issue that would get us an extra 100,000 visitors. The trade-off was easy to make.

At heart, I’m not a specialist. I know a lot about SEO and am very good at it, but I’ve never been the type to be a specialist. It’s a specialist’s job to focus on one area and grow that. It’s a strategist’s job to see the opportunity and figure out how to get there. Inhouse I’m a mix of the two. At Distilled I was a strategist. Depending on your level at the agency or inhouse, this could be true for you as well.

Ways of thinking change when you’re accountable instead of a third party vendor, and if what you’re doing is not getting the desired results then your inhouse career will likely be short-lived.

Depth Not Breadth

Mike Tekula wrote a great post on the Distilled blog in December 2012 about a t-shaped skillset. He illustrated it thus:

mike-tek

I think this is a really helpful way for agency marketers to think about building their skillset, but the inhouse life is slightly different if you are not a head/director/VP level. As an inhouse marketer joining above an entry level position, you are already expected to know your job (and continue growing in your abilities) and continue to go deeper in their area of expertise. Unless you’re a director/VP level, the expectation is that you will be the subject matter expert in your area that the higher-ups can lean on for solid advice.

Work/Life Balance

Agencies are known for less of a work/life balance than an inhouse job, and in my experience this is true. Most of my agency friends work at least 60-70 hours per week. I had weeks at Distilled where I worked 80+ regularly, and probably did that at least once per month during my whole time there.

Inhouse life has afforded me more of a work/life balance in my new home of San Francisco. While some of this may be attributed to moving from the 9-8 New York workstyle to the 9-5 San Francisco style, I still see my agency friends in San Francisco working (at times many) more hours than I do.

I’ve credited a lot of this with the difference in how a day at my inhouse gig is from a day at an agency. When managing multiple clients plus team members, the interruptions come fast and furious in an agency. According this Gallup poll from 2006 (http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/23146/too-many-interruptions-work.aspx#2), it takes over 20 minutes to get back on track after an interruption.

Working inhouse, I find I have better planned days, fewer frantic moments of diagnosing issues, and thus I am able to concentrate and get my work done quicker than in an agency. Because of that, I work fewer hours and have more time in my evenings.

This isn’t to say that inhouse life is any less busy. In any given day I’ll be helping other team members with their job, communicating with internal stakeholders, giving SEO recommendations, and chatting with other managers about the office and teams. The difference lies in how frantic the day is and if you could be called upon any second with an issue. That happened all the time in an agency. Inhouse, this happens way less.

So What’s Better, Agency or Inhouse?

There is no “better” in my mind. Rather, I’d encourage you to think along the lines of “what’s best for me at this point?” I think everyone should work both at an agency and inhouse during their career,because you learn different skillsets that will help you out down the road. Without my years at Distilled, I would not have been prepared for the challenges of working inhouse, and vice versa when I went from inhouse to Distilled in the first place.

Have you worked both inhouse and in an agency? What do you find to be the main differences?

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

21 responses to The Difference Between Agency and Inhouse Marketing

  1. Hi John

    Normally I’ve very open about who I am when I post comments on things, with this one for obvious reasons, I’m not going to be

    Interesting read and I definitely agree with a lot of what you’ve written, but I would like to add a few more things about the frustrations I find working internally (and this is purely from my own perspective, obviously it might be very different in other organisation)

    Often it is the case that an agency is seen as a consultant, someone with superior knowledge than someone in-house because that’s what they do all day and more to the point, they’re being paid to give that advice. I’m paid too of course but as an internal resources, I’m not seen as actually costing any money.

    Whether they know what they’re talking about or not is open for debate, there are good in house people as much as there are good agencies, but for an in house person to find that management are bringing in an external agency to basically tell them stuff you’ve been telling them for the last 6 months and then all of a sudden we’re acting on it because the agency have said it’s the thing to do is very very frustrating.

    As a paid consultant, agencies again are given more leeway with regards to budget as well. I can have the best content ideas in the world, I go to the appropriate person to get sign off and am told

    1. we don’t have time
    2. we don’t have budget
    3. I have other things that are higher priority right now

    Again, very frustrating. I also find that when I ask for budget to do things whether it’s a content piece, or follow up seeding to get links, I’m told “Well that’s what we pay you for” – I’ve become very good at creating something out of jack all in my time working in house, because if I didn’t…nothing would happen.

    Also everything I recommend gets argued with. As part of a larger marketing team, even though I obviously have a lot of knowledge that my colleagues lack, I’m still only one voice among a group, so I recommend something and the whole thing is dissected, argued with, discussed, sent out, back, signed in triplicate before being filed at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

    The other thing I come across when you’re in house is you are more subject to the whims of internal management than you are as an external agency. You get a lot more of the “I typed random keyword into Google last night and we don’t appear…why not” inquiries.

    lol, I appear to be using this comment to whinge…I’ll stop now

    There is a bright side to working internally though, you are fully committed to one thing, you can see it succeed and get huge satisfaction about that. Plus I get to go home to my family at 5.30

  2. Nice post. I’ve been in agencies my whole career bar one year ‘in-house’. The year I spent in house was the complete flip – I managed four agency relationships during that time and really got to see things from the other side of the table and I did not like it one bit! I found that agencies thought I wasn’t on top my game just because I worked in-house – they were often shocked at my breadth of knowledge and applicable experience. A lot of that came down to the common perception that you get a better education working agency side as you deal with more businesses of different types – I think that can be true, but certainly doesn’t apply across the board! Sorry, I am rambling here, but I guess the fact that I’ve come back to agency (and now run a start-up agency) is a clear indicator of my preference. I agree with you re access to decision-makers, that’s very much more apparent when working in-house. I think there’s a lot to learn on both sides of the coin and I’d encourage people to taste both sides at some point!

    • Mike –
      Thanks for this. Sounds like your inhouse experience is very different from mine. Maybe I’m lucky in that I’ve built a respected name in the industry, so agencies don’t try to talk down to me.

      I definitely think people should a) try both, and b) be very selective about any job they take. One of the main reasons I took the HotPads job, even though it’s not a well-known brand right now, is that I know I’d have engineering and design resources to start, and I had resources to hire email, content, etc.

      Also, I’m not just doing SEO. I’m building out the whole online marketing team. So that is a big difference right there.

      • My in-house experience was within a global insurance company – insurance and FS are often looked upon as very old school and behind the times, so that probably didn’t help the agency people’s perspective of me. I was working across all digital (and some offline) areas.

  3. I tend to agree with Mike’s comments. I have had experience both as an in-house and with agencies (now with my own agency) and had the same end response as Mike, I came back to an agency. I think in house solutions are great if there is a team around them to support it but it is difficult to REALLY go at it hard without the appropriate resources (development, designers, content,etc). Thanks for the post John.

  4. I think your assessment on the work/life balance is spot on. I also do see that agencies are not ultimately held accountable for success – the people executing it are. However, at times, the overall strategy is set without much input from those executing the strategy. This can then lead to the lack of success.

    So. Who’s responsibility is it to include the people executing the strategy? I would say the client project champion and am curious if THEY are held responsible for the lack of success.

    I’m touching on this a lot only because there is a lot of finger-pointing that goes on with clients and agencies and I think there are ways to solve it, but then it would put more accountability on the agencies, who might be reluctant to do that.

  5. Good post John. I was agency side for 1 year, then went in house for 3 years. I much preferred working in house as I had to getting better job satisfaction due to getting things done much quicker as a result of the responsibility which comes from an in house role. The person limiting my work was myself. Saying that though I have decided to start my own agency, so I have went full circle. I think my experience on both sides will be invaluable and I think all agency employees should go in house at some point.

  6. I’m actually in the opposite situation: I worked in-house for 3 years before moving to an agency in September. The differences have been really interesting to me and I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. One thing that has been different in my experience so far is that I’ve actually had a better life/work balance at the agency (which I know is rare and is why I love this new company). Although I might be working more hours (slightly), I’m more productive and efficient during those hours and I have more flexibility as to when those hours are, which makes it easier to schedule a dentist appt or leave early on Friday to go out of town. Or if I’m in the middle of a project towards the end of the day, I’ll stay later to get it completely done all at once and just work a shorter day the next day as opposed to working exactly 8 hours each day. It balances out. In-house, I was stuck to a much more rigid 8-hour schedule.
    I also believe that experiencing both sides really makes you a better, more well-rounded search marketer. You can develop better relationships with your clients at an agency when you’ve been in-house and understand their needs. However, I think a stronger knowledge base comes from working at an agency where you’re surrounded by so many other people knowledgeable in your field. In-house, you may be the only person in the company who knows about SEO in depth, which makes it hard to seek out advice or suggestions. There are ups and downs to each job situation and as you said, it comes down to what you prefer. Even though I would say that I prefer the agency side right now, I wouldn’t have been so successful at it without my prior experiences in-house.

  7. John,

    I think the best piece of advice you have here is about making sure you choose the right in-house position. I started at an agency and really enjoyed it. In fact I was not even looking for a job. I thought I would spend at least another 3 years at an agency if not more. During my time at an agency I was approached several times about moving in-house, however none of the opportunities seemed like the right fit. Either the role was too limiting or the industry was not a good fit. I happened upon an opportunity that was in an industry I am very passionate about with the opportunity to grow and build a team and it has been close to perfect. Had I jumped for the first position that offered more pay I would have been unhappy quickly and moved back to an agency within a few months.

  8. Great post John. I’ve never worked for an agency before, but I can agree with all the points you made about working in-house. The biggest advantage in my mind, is access to decision makers. That tops my list.

  9. Good insights, John, and I look forward to you revisiting this topic in a year.

    It’s certainly a personal opinion as to which is ‘better’ – in-house or agency sides. I’ve built my career on the agency side, but have had long stints as in-house along the way. I have a very similar perspective to you (these are just my experiences and opinions, not trying to make blanket statements):

    • In-house days had an easier rhythm to them than agency days. I could settle into work in-house and give it a lot of focus without competing interests (multiple clients, projects, business development / pitches) competing for my time.

    • Results. It is so true – at agencies you just don’t have the raw demand for results that you have when in-house. In fact, often results are even tied to employee contracts for in-house players.

    • Data. Agencies have the benefit of having hundreds of sites (depending on agency size of course) to mine for analysis and insights. This is huge for monitoring trends and the ecosystem, algo updates and new search / social product rollouts.

    • On the agency side you get exposure to lots of situations, in terms of implementations and technology issues. This gives a broad experience set that’s valuable.

    • In-house access to other teams is really beneficial and valuable. You can talk to a frontend person over coffee in the morning, a dev person during lunch, and the CMO over drinks that night. It’s way more efficient.

    • I’ve found that the best in-house people are evangelists (especially with SEO). They advocate for their department’s needs. They break down walls between different groups. They get people around the table. Agencies can’t do this as well, although they can often be a catalyst for changes like these.

    • Too often the agency is listened to over the in-house team. Or the agency validates the in-house team. It sometimes takes a third party to tell the executives the same things the in-house folks have been saying for months/years.

    I wrote a piece about this a few years back which I’ll add here if helpful:
    http://searchengineland.com/weighing-in-house-vs-agency-seo-for-enterprise-search-strategies-85326

  10. Nice post. This is a touchy subject in some circles and you handled it with ease.

    I’ve been on both sides and although I prefer in-house, I’m with you that agency work was the best possible preparation for the responsibilities of an internal marketer.

    I didn’t like feeling so removed from my clients in an agency. I felt like I was delivering substandard work all the time because I couldn’t possibly be the kind of brand champion they needed. I didn’t get to really learn their business in & out, which I feel is essential to social media management. There is a lot of time wasted waiting for documents or approval; we’re more efficient in house because I think there’s a greater sense of trust.

    But I sure miss being surrounded by other marketers in an agency. I’m the only marketing person in the office now, and there’s no one to bounce ideas off of, no creative energy. It’s a lot lonelier.

  11. Great write up and yes, totally agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. I also blogged about my experience inhouse as well a while back (http://seo.tolafamakinwa.net/2013/09/being-in-house-seo-vs-agency-seo.html) and I believe for me starting out Agency is great (and probably the best thing IMHO) to build up your knowledge and experience but somewhere along the line when you know what you want to specialise in In-house work perfectly for that.

    I’ve also found inhouse gives you more of an opportunity to become a better all round t-shaped marketer (which I’ve also blogged about too!) as you get to interact with a number of these other teams and understand their value a whole lot more, which is also great for career progression and personal development!

    Ultimately, I believe the end goal would either be get into the high-level management position inhouse OR build your own agency startup, which seems to be a trend based on a lot of comments here!

  12. Good post, I have worked in Agency and in-house in the past now I run my own agency.

    I agree in-house you do have far lower hours to work because you usually go home around the same time as your fellow employees. Where agencies you seem to go home a bit later because every one is working back late.

    I think the thing is if you work in house one one niche for a long time you can get over the niche, for example I did 2 years in house on a telco and I wanted a change. That is the benefit with agency life if you can get your hands on a few different niches and experience a range of niches.

  13. Great post. I just made the jump to inhouse, so we’ll have to see how it goes! But it’s been refreshing to get the opportunity to change things without having to go through the client. I was making changes to the site on day one.

  14. Great post. I have a startup agency going into our third year of business after several years freelancing.

    I haven’t ever worked in-house.

    However, I’ve already had my fair share of clients that were their own worst enemy and seemed to murder ideas by way of the “death by committee” phenomenon where you’d think that’d happen more often in-house it seems to be a common trend with a few of our clients too.

    There’s nothing more frustrating than getting paid for content and creative link building ideas and clients exclaiming that they love it and then pumping the brakes to get second third and fourth opinions internally and it all coming to a screeching halt because one of a dozen people have feedback that spits a curveball back at us…

    I like the opportunity to work with different business types and constantly meeting new people so the agency life suits me… for now…

  15. Great point on being “an external member of the team” no matter how close you work with the client that will almost always be the case. To be honest I was surprised to see you move from such an awesome agency like Distilled in work in-house. I always thought in-house work my be very boring as you work with the same client all the time.

  16. Great debate post here. I went in house 8 years ago after working at 2 SEO agencies. The agency life for me was spent putting out more fires with a focus on working for the client that complained the most or was up for a contract renewal.

  17. Great Post John! Thanks for sharing it :-)