Should I Hire an Agency for Paid Media or Keep Things In-House? How to Decide.

by Carissa McStay | March 24, 2021

Giving paid media the investment it deserves isn’t cheap — it’s a cost you need to justify to management every quarter. If your company doesn’t have the right pieces in place, it is hard to prove its impact.

One big question looms as you assess your options:

Should you run your paid media campaigns in-house or hire a marketing agency?

There are a lot of demands on your marketing team. They’re knowledgeable, but they may not have in-depth knowledge of each ad platform.

Major changes happen every few months. Many times, in-house marketers have a general grasp on these changes, but often not enough.

You need to lobby for the resources to hire an in-house team to run your paid media program properly. Or, you need to hire an agency to handle this level of paid media complexity while freeing your people to do the work at which they excel.

Both are major investments. Which is right for you? Let’s take a look. 

Option 1: Hire a team and keep your paid media campaigns in-house

The nice thing about hiring in-house is the expert works for you without any other clients or distractions.

The expert is focused solely on your business goals and is just a stroll down the hallway whenever you want to talk strategy.

Access isn’t free, though. According to Payscale.com, an experienced pay-per-click manager who can effectively handle your budget, lower cost per click, monitor trends, develop all aspects of a campaign and minimize risk will cost up to $63,000 per year in salary. That’s before you factor in insurance, hardware, software and all of the other expenses tied to a new hire.

This assumes the hiring process goes smoothly, the individual can handle the workload and doesn’t leave after a year or two.

Option 2: Hire a marketing agency to run your paid media campaigns

An agency is a much more straightforward relationship. There is a timetable, a contract and accountability. You can feel reasonably comfortable you are working with an expert. 

But agencies are not cheap. Christian Sculthorp, marketing director for Agency Analytics, a digital marketing company in Toronto, Ontario, explains:

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go: PPC management is not and should not be cheap…

In this sphere, the maxim that you get what you pay for has never been more accurate. Anyone can charge $100, slap together something that will never do anything, and spend that money on a string-in-a-can or hacky sacks (or something equally silly). 

Large agencies, he continues, generally charge between 15-20% of total ad spend. A smaller agency may charge 10-15% while requiring an account minimum. If you are spending several thousand — or several hundred thousand — dollars on your paid media campaigns each month, those fees add up very quickly.

How an agency can help you: Six questions, answered

At Silverback Strategies, we asked four of the most talented and experienced members of our team a series of questions about how they work with their clients. We asked how they handle multiple client requests and stay on top of an ever-changing industry while still delivering the outstanding results characterizing Silverback’s paid media programs for the past decade.

This inside look allows you to make a more informed decision as you consider whether to hire an agency or build your own paid media team. 

Question 1: When a client has questions, needs changes or wants to discuss strategic challenges, how do you make time and set priorities?

If you are paying an agency, the last thing you ever want to hear from your account manager when you need help is, “Sorry, I’m busy.” In fact, it may be the last thing you ever hear from your account manager.

Silverback intentionally limits the number of clients its paid media account managers handle in order to facilitate close, responsive relationships.

“We always talk about clear expectations,” Louis Belpaire, Silverback’s chief operating officer, explains. “With the smaller client load, if there is work for a client needing to be expedited, the turnaround is going to be much faster on the paid media side.”

From my experience as a director of client services, communication between agency and client is key. This give-and-take allows us to anticipate client needs and build the necessary trust to update their paid media accounts when issues or opportunities arise.

Agencies can prioritize competing requests, considering urgency between clients, but stay agile thanks to the advanced strategy, communication and relationship with clients to minimize urgent, special requests.

Question 2: How do you manage ads across various platforms on a day-to-day basis when a small change here or there may dramatically improve performance?

It can be tempting to demand making immediate changes when a campaign appears to be underperforming. When new tools roll out from a major player like Google or Facebook, the temptation to dive in headfirst can be almost irresistible.

Silverback Senior Manager for Strategy and Development Matt Weltz explains, the idea is to rely on experience as a guide, rather than the urge to scratch an itch in the moment.

“I think this is definitely one area where agencies have an advantage [over in-house teams],” Weltz says. “Our business is digital marketing. We are constantly exchanging ideas, talking about new things in the industry, new features, new platforms. Since we’re working with a lot of different clients, we find things working well for other clients and apply it to others.”

“We’re not going to recommend an approach we know from experience isn’t going to get a client what they want,” adds Andrew Fuchs, associate director, paid media & analytics. 

The degree of interaction an agency has with major advertising platforms also gives the agency more access to behind-the-scenes specialists and strategists.

“We get a much better level of support from platforms like Google and Facebook than most in-house teams would,” Fuchs continues. “Plus, we have more experience in the platforms, so we have a good understanding of what to expect. We go into each campaign with an understanding of the goals and benchmarks and a pretty solid idea of how we’re going to be able to hit those numbers.”

Question 3: What do you do if a client becomes uncommunicative?

There are times when your busy schedule may prevent you from communicating with an agency representative. While the occasional rescheduled phone call is part of doing business, you need to keep in mind — before hiring an agency — the agency thrives on communication. 

“If a client’s disengaged,” Fuchs says, “then it can be hard to help them.” 

Silverback facilitates client-agency communication in a number of ways. Basecamp serves as a repository for all files and conversations. Bi-weekly or weekly phone calls provide stakeholders with verbal explanations of project data and recent performance. Quarterly business reviews allow the entire client team, including C-suite executives, to develop an overall understanding of the work completed so far and what’s planned for the next quarter.

Clarity is the essential aim of these conversations. A campaign may appear to be moving along well from the agency’s perspective until the client gets upset over the cost of new leads.

“One area where we usually don’t get enough information is the actual cost relief clients can afford,” Belpaire says. “They’ve either failed to calculate their true cost of customer acquisition or their return per customer in the long term. Sometimes that’s difficult for the client to figure out in the initial phases of the campaign. Once they start spending money, they’ll do the math and realize they gave us a margin either too big or too small.”

Question 4: With the vast amount of data available, how does the agency decide which data points to share with the client? How do you give bad news?

An agency learns how to report to a client the same way you learned to report to your own boss: You figure out, over time, what is important to the bottom line and focus on those priorities. You tell that story, for better or worse.

At Silverback, regular conversations with clients — including a thorough vetting and onboarding process as well as the Basecamp threads, bi-weekly phone calls and quarterly reviews mentioned above — bring clarity to those priorities.

The combination of experience and expertise allows Silverback account managers to determine the right KPIs to monitor specifically for a given client. Once these metrics of success are established, Silverback’s analytics team is able to establish appropriate measurement of conversion actions, creating a much richer picture of overall progress.

Bad news is sometimes unavoidable. When the numbers go south, the situation must be dealt with professionally and proactively.

“Every client will eventually have a bad month,” Weltz says. “Most of the time, it’s a market trend or competitors are being more aggressive. There are a lot of things that happen and are a little bit beyond our control. Most clients understand. What they don’t want is to hear, ‘it’s a bad month’ and then that’s it. They want to know, what are you doing to change it?” 

Question 5: How does a paid media account manager work with their counterpart on the in-house team without stepping all over each other’s work?

Here’s a nightmare scenario for a decision-maker who just signed a fat agency contract:

  1. Business X hires an agency to handle a specific piece of company business.
  2. The in-house team at Business X previously responsible for that work feels insulted or threatened, probably because the onboarding process was overlooked, rushed or failed to produce role clarity. 
  3. The agency makes no real effort to engage the in-house team at Business X.
  4. Strategies, recommendations and project work done by the agency gets neglected, deprioritized or reversed by the in-house team at Business X.
  5. The decision-maker at Business X wonders why nothing seems to get done. 

No one is happy in this scenario. How do you avoid that kind of mess?

Building a level of trust, especially when you first take on the account, is the most important first step.

Explain why you’re making the changes you’re making. Listen to the client’s ideas. Oftentimes, the point of contact has good ideas you might want to implement. When you don’t agree, explain why. Ultimately, the account belongs to the client. You should do what the client wants, but only after giving them the information they need to make the best choice.

“We want the client to see we are very thorough with our measurement,” Belpaire adds. “Through that measurement, we gain their trust. It’s not easy every time, but when a client’s marketing manager can see our analytical resources support the work they are doing, everyone comes around.”

Question 6: How does the agency keep up with what is happening in the client’s business or industry?

“I think it’s part of the dialogue,” Weltz says. “Usually, on a week-to-week basis there’s not going to be major changes in their business, but when there are, we have good enough relationships with the client that they want to update us on things immediately. They treat us like partners. Our quarterly business reviews, for example, give us a chance to step back and let the client share a longer view about what’s changed with their business and how their industry is changing.”

At the same time, the agency realizes its work is very specific, and knowing the macro-trends in a client’s industry is not quite as important, at times, as optimizing the digital presence on a daily basis.

“What’s often really important to us is knowing if there’s been changes in the website, or if a new product is coming out, a new offering, a change in design,” Belpaire says. “I’d say what’s really important to follow are updates from the ad platforms themselves. Google’s Ads has the Google Ads blog, Facebook has an ad-specific blog. These, I make a point of reading.” 

Silverback’s close relationship with major advertising platforms also gives the agency a leg up in terms of new product developments. Silverback clients often get to try new tools first and learn about advertising product updates because the agency is so closely aligned with the platforms. It’s a benefit of spending millions of dollars within these platforms each year — something an in-house paid media team at a small or medium-sized business simply may not have the budget to do.

Ultimately, the choice between in-house and an agency comes down to a few key factors

If you want… 

  • Paid media-specific expertise 
  • A laser focus on one specific area of marketing 
  • Less work in one area on your own team’s plate, allowing your employees to focus on other tasks more closely oriented to their skill sets and business goals 

…a paid media agency may be the right fit.

If you want…

  • Internal experts who will have more direct contact with the sum total of your marketing program
  • A laser-focus on your business alone 
  • Proximity in terms of day-to-day interactions 

…building an internal team may make more sense.

Which will you decide? Let’s start a conversation

Contact Silverback Strategies to learn more about our agency’s comprehensive approach to paid search and media marketing.

Carissa McStay

As Silverback Strategies' Director of Client Services, Carissa ensures client goals are translated into actionable cross channel marketing strategies that drive tangible business results. Connect with Carissa on LinkedIn.

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