As more brands take their digital marketing in-house, they need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater

More and more consumer brands are taking their digital marketing in-house and abandoning agencies. Helene Landre of Signium Belgium looks at the reasons behind this and the dangers involved as companies progress along their digital evolutionary path.

I was at Content Marketing World last year, a global gathering of the great and the good of digital marketing. Joe Pulizzi, then CEO of the Content Marketing Institute, asked the 4,000-odd assembled guests ‘Who here has published a piece of content just because it was on the schedule, knowing that it wasn’t as good as it should be?’ Straight away, 4,000-odd hands shot into the air.

Digital marketing has become so all-pervasive now that many marketers run the risk of losing sight of their original purpose, being digitally distracted, learning about the latest cool tool, all the while slavishly adhering to a schedule that demands consistency rather than brilliance.

Digital is so pervasive because, used properly, it can be very effective and allows brands to reach their audiences at a lower cost than ever. At heart, however, it is just another bunch of channels.

Mark Schaefer estimates that the amount of information on the internet will quintuple between 2015 and 2020 (yes, you read that right!). Whatever the actual number, there is no question that the volume of content is increasing at a dramatic rate. Brands need to ensure that their bar for quality and promotion is set high, or their content is likely to disappear in a sea of mediocrity, with a lot of money wasted.

Companies are taking flight from Agencies. Here’s why.

Increasingly, digital is moving in-house. Figures from the Society of Digital Agencies show that there has been a significant increase in the amount of companies who no longer use agencies – up to 27% from 13% in the year to 2015. 

So, what are the underlying reasons for bringing digital marketing into your organisation rather than working through agencies with deep experience in specialist areas and exposure to best practice?

  1. Minimise the fragmented nature of digital marketing - while digital marketing methodologies have revolutionised the brand/customer relationship, it has also been criticised for its ability to create silos. Working with agencies can exacerbate this tendency as it is unlikely you’ll find an agency that can carry out all digital marketing requirements, from social media to customer experience (UX) to paid advertising to content creation (and more). Although each of these areas is a specialised skill-set, bringing them in-house results in a cohesive team that works towards one goal. The growth of integrated marketing platforms such as Hubspot, Marketo and Percolate attest to the growing power of integrated cross-channels campaigns and ‘always on’ marketing.
  2. Own your own data - one of the reasons why digital marketing has overshadowed traditional marketing methods to the degree it has is due to the insights it provides. Every activity implemented as part of a digital marketing plan can be tracked and measured, providing organisations with a clear understanding of which part of their marketing budget is delivering business KPIs and which part isn’t. If agencies are running your brand’s digital marketing plan, the data that arises from it rests with them. Your brand’s data is worth its weight in gold and should be held within your organisation.
  3. Bring your customer relationships in-house - moving your digital marketing in-house really means bringing your customer relationships closer. Establishing direct customer relationships that are a two-way conversation, rather than adopting a mass broadcast approach, is what digital marketing does best. Why would you want to outsource these relationships?
  4. Brands are publishers now - one of the biggest developments in digital marketing over the recent past has been the rise of content. Brands need to think like publishers now to nurture and attract customers. No one will know your customers, nor your product or service, like you do and creating content and amplifying it through an agency is a circuitous route that costs time and money.
  5. Agencies can be slower - the agency model was built for traditional marketing methods whereby advertising was the dominant activity to reach customers. Digital marketing operates differently, not least in its multiple ways to engage with customers e.g. website, social media, content, and moves at a fast pace. Your audience will react quickly to your digital marketing activities and agencies may not always able to respond as quickly.
  6. Replacing an individual is easier than replacing a team - agencies will be serving multiple clients and their attention is not always guaranteed. If they are commissioned to work on a larger account and resign your brand’s business or pull some of their team members off your account, your brand can be left floundering. Once you’ve established a digital marketing team in-house you mitigate this risk. An in-house individual may resign but they’re a lot easier to replace than a whole team which can be switched at the agency’s whim.

Who you need most if you continue working with the support of an Agency

The fundamental differences between using an agency and doing it internally is that the nature of what you have to do is radically different and the people you need to make it happen is different. If you use an agency, you also need someone internally that has the following qualities:

a)  clear strategic vision 
b)  excellent overall marketing understanding
c)  senior enough to be listened to by the agency and internally in your own organisation
d)  strong on agency relationship - able to negotiate with and manage the agency so that your company gets the best value and results 
e)  seasoned in stakeholder management, able to navigate the different brand and cross-functional teams within your own organisation to manage expectations and direct content 
f)  excellent at writing briefs for agency 

Typically, you need someone with 10+ years of experience in marketing within your own company. Their reporting line is to the CMO or Brand Director.

The digital evolutionary path

The path from managing your digital marketing requirements through agencies to embedding a dedicated digital marketing team in your organisation is not linear. Gradually specialist roles will move in-house and a shift will occur from exclusive focus on creative activities to an equal focus on the technical aspects, such as data, involved in running effective campaigns.

There is a broad evolutionary path for digital marketing that looks something like this:

Step 1: A digital marketing manager, reporting to brand marketing (CMO), co-ordinates specialised external digital agencies and liaises with the internal departments (marketing, sales). Focus typically is on brand awareness.  

Step 2: First level of specialisation, with some key roles being taken in-house (such as e-commerce, content, user experience). Emphasis shifts from creative to technical, with strict KPIs set and progress measured. Focus is on reflecting company strategy and overarching marketing objectives. One head of team reports to Brand Marketing (CMO). 

Step 3: Digital marketing is embedded in all marketing roles. Extensive training of Brand Marketers in Web 2.0 marketing. Digital integrated in all marketing campaigns. Most technical roles still externalised to Digital Agency. Web content writer most likely to be internal as they have the best understanding of the products, company, strategy etc.)

Step 4: Digital is integrated across the entire business, with sound knowledge of digital being a focus of all areas of Marketing – not just an isolated specialised group. Depending on the degree of ‘technology’ and IT within the CPG company, build a cross-functional IT x Marketing team able to cater for all internal needs.

A word of caution for those making the shift in-house

While the shift from agency to in-house is ongoing, I would advise caution to those companies that are considering leaving their agency, for one key reason.

With an avalanche of content coming down the tracks, there must be a flight to quality over quantity. However, the best creative talent resides in agencies, because they get to work on numerous brands and focus solely on being creative, which is why they got into the job in the first place. If you reduce your creative standards, then you are less likely to achieve stand-out, which could be highly damaging, now more than ever.

And, as the show of hands at Content Marketing World attests, we need to protect ourselves from ‘simply getting it out because it’s on the schedule’. It is the job of that senior in-house person to guard against that, but, given the scale, they cannot always oversee everything. Agencies can also be a protector of that quality standard, as they will not put their name against work that doesn’t reflect well on them.

In short, there are compelling reasons for both models. However, I suggest that an in-house resource that taps into creative agencies for lead ideas may be a pretty good way to get the best of both worlds.