Hiring a Content Agency [Pros vs Cons]

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Since Brad has been on both sides of the table, he has insights into this decision.

In this episode, Brad walks us through what to look for in an agency, red flags to watch out for, and the pros and cons of hiring an agency.

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Daniel: (00:00)

Hello there. Welcome to Codeless radio. My name is Daniel Midson Shorts. Great to be here and today I’m excited because I have one of our favorite guests, Brad Smith from Codeless. Hello Brad.

Brad: (00:12)

Good afternoon Daniel. How’s it going?

Daniel: (00:14)

I’m doing pretty well. How are you? Staying sane in these trying times?

Brad: (00:18)

Trying to as much as possible. Trying to stay busy, you know, uh, and not watch the news 100%.

Daniel: (00:28)

Yeah, of course. Absolutely. Well, hopefully things will get better and definitely what will help us is to learn from you again today.

Brad: (00:40)

Or if you’re having trouble sleeping it will help you knock out in about 30 seconds.

Daniel: (00:47)

Well, I think today’s a good one because what I want to talk to you about today is the pros and cons of hiring a content agency. And I know that you have some experience in that area and so I thought you would be the perfect person to talk to about this because a lot of companies out there might be at this point where they’ve attempted to do their own content creation or their own distribution or whatever. And they’re either not seeing results or they’re just getting too busy or whatever it is. But there are some pros and cons of hiring an agency versus maybe an in house person or trying to do it yourself. So of all the people I know, I thought you were the best person to ask about this, so thank you for being here. Let’s start off basically with the big elephant in the room, which is always that having an agency do your content for you seems expensive. And do you have a, you a typical response for that or a retort for that?

Brad: (01:46)

I mean, the direct answer to that is usually with an agency you should be getting more, better, faster than any other alternative. Ideally. That doesn’t always happen, but that’s ideally what it should be. And you’re also getting additional expertise and other stuff that you probably don’t have in house and, or don’t know how to manage. So for example, I’ve worked with web designers in the past. I would have no business hiring a web designer because I don’t know shit about, I think I know what like good design looks like, but I could not lead a web designer if that makes sense. So when you’re hiring an outside expert or a specialty firm or agency, what you’re doing is you’re outsourcing the knowledge in a large percentage of the time and you’re trying to lean on them for the actual strategy and the workflow and how to actually make stuff happen.

Brad: (02:34)

I’ll also preface this by saying, yes, it sounds super biased because we run an agency, that’s what we do. But I have a diverse background, so I’ve worked in house companies, I’ve freelanced, and I’ve run agency. I had never worked in an agency before starting one, which isn’t necessarily an ideal prep to start an agency, but nevertheless, I have a diverse background and being on all sides of it. And I’ve been in house hiring an agency and working with, you know, different contractors and all that kind of stuff. So I tried to write this in a way where it was like, okay, let’s break down the major categories of things you should want or expect. And then let’s talk a little bit about the good attributes and the bad attributes to watch out for to make sure if this is the route you’re going, that you are getting your money’s worth, so to speak, and that the money becomes much less of a factor because generally speaking, it tends to come off higher in terms of a sticker shock.

Daniel: (03:33)

Yeah, yeah. 100%. And I think it’s just really good to get that out of the way that, you know, working with an agency is more expensive. You can try and do it yourself. You can try and cheapen out a little bit. But there are some pros and cons to that as well. So I think it’s good to just know that upfront. And what I like about the way this was based on an article, that you had written, there’s different sort of categories or reasons why people work with agencies and there’s pros and cons to each. So if it’s okay, I thought we might just break those down and talk through them. First one being expertise. And so you had mentioned that the pro of the expertise of an agency is that they’re going to have better writers on staff. They’re going to have subject matter experts. So do you wanna talk about that quickly?

Brad: (04:20)

Yeah, for sure. Especially if we’re talking about a specialty. So that’s another key thing here is number one, the agencies should have more better writers in general than you typically have access to. That includes, depending on how big the agency is, that includes if you have hired freelancers in the past. So even if you have like your little little freelance team of three writers, the agency should have like dozens of writers they’ve worked with. So not only should they be better at writing, but then the actual subject matter expertise too. They should also give you a more broad view. This always makes me laugh when I see like a job posting and this company is super obscure and what they do is super specific and they’re like, we’re going to hire a writer in Denver, Colorado that has to have these qualifications. And it’s like, yeah, good luck finding that one unicorn person with all these random skills and experiences, like you’re never going to find it. And so that’s, that’s what an agency gives you is the ability to say, okay, we’re looking for this random thing. And the agency makes it happen. That’s generally what they excel at.

Daniel: (05:20)

Yeah. Yeah. So in terms of expertise, that’s one of the advantages if you’d like, is that they typically have that subject matter expertise or they have experienced writers. On the downside though with some agencies, you had mentioned that you know, if they’re more of like a full-service agency where they do SEO, they do website design, they do email marketing. Sometimes that’s kind of a red flag that they might not be as, as you know, well versed in subjects that you need them to write on.

Brad: (05:44)

Yeah. If an agency bills itself as full service and they have less than a hundred people, they’re full of shit. And what I mean is they’re doing of those services really, really poorly. The other half they’re probably doing okay. And this is coming from someone who’s tried to do that. It’s impossible to do a bunch of diverse services for a wide client base and do them all well and not have at least a team of five or 10 people in each department. Like, it’s impossible. It’s literally impossible. And so that’s a huge red flag to watch out for is even if they do content things, for example, content marketing in a specific space, do they also specialize in your vertical or do they have similar types of experiences in your vertical? Because even that becomes a problem and a challenge. And so for example, when we started working in finance, we had to build a full team of finance writers.

Brad: (06:42)

So it wasn’t like, it wasn’t like our SaaS writers doing finance work because that would be bad. That work would not be very good. And so we had to go out and build a team of finance writers just for that vertical. The same goes for cyber security. We have to go find experts in that field and put together a team before we could ever offer it as a service. And so if you’re looking at a quote unquote full-service agency who does a lot of these things are not related to. So like if someone’s good at branding, it doesn’t mean they’re any good SEO or vice versa, like completely different skill sets. They’re both marketing but being good at one does not help you with the other. So you need completely different people to do those things. Even SEO, because it’s so complex, you can break it down to the technical SEO on-page, contents, off-page, link-building, PR, like these are all little subsets and just because you’re good at one of those, just cause you’re good at technical SEO doesn’t mean you’re gonna be good at content.

Brad: (07:37)

Because usually, they’re diverse skillsets. And then the other thing is verticals and client base. So even if the agency does a couple of related things, like maybe they do SEO and so they do technical on-page content, whatever. If they’re not working with at least a few legit clients in your space, then again, it probably isn’t a great indicator unless they can find them. And unless they’re proficient at that, it’s probably not a good indicator.

Daniel: (08:05)

Yeah, that’s a great point. So there you go. So when it comes to expertise, make sure that they’re not spread too thin, I suppose, but and also make sure that they have proof of being able to write in the arena that you need them to

Brad: (08:17)

Or run ads or whatever the case might be.

Daniel: (08:23)

So that’s the first point is expertise. That’s one of the reasons that people tend to hire an agency versus doing it themselves. The second is scale. And the idea is that any agency should hopefully be able to outproduce a single person or an in house team or whatever.

Brad: (08:40)

Yup. Again we’ll talk about writing specifically just because I know a lot of details about it. For example, I know how long it should take a writer to produce a long piece of content, like 2000 words. In most cases most mortal writers I’ve seen top out at about eight to 10 of those a week. And that’s like on the extreme end, which means the average falls closer to like four to five posts a week. So if you’re hiring freelancers, it’s very simple in that you’re applying, you know, one writer times four or five pieces a week gives you x. If it’s in house, they’re producing even less because what happens with in house writers is they get pulled into meetings, they get pulled in Slack, they get pulled into all the other stuff that they don’t get actually paid to do.

Brad: (09:31)

People send them like emails to proofread. Just random shit happens all the time to poor writers in companies. And so they ended up producing like one to two a week maybe. Yeah. Agencies should be able to give you the best of both worlds. Because depending on how they’re set up, if they’re set up like we kind are in our field. But again, this happens in paid ads and whatever. You typically have a bunch of people all working in their expertise. And so you have, if you’re running ads, for example, you have experts in each aspect of creative, of the analytics, of data, of landing page performance. You get all these people working together and they should be able to massively outproduce any in house people and even a small team of freelancers. That’s the ideal way it should work.

Brad: (10:17)

And if it works to that degree, again, all these like pros that we’re talking about, if it works to that degree, the cost, whatever it is, usually pales in comparison to the results you’re getting. The problem is when you don’t see that efficiency and that’s when things typically fall apart.

Daniel: (10:31)

Yeah, absolutely. And even, I mean some agencies will also hire experts, you know, freelance experts or whatever on some particular project, but then they’re kind of marking up the cost on them so that can be a risk as well. If you’re hiring an agency but actually just hiring a freelancer through an agency. I mean you have to be careful of that too. Are the people actually working in house for that agency that you’re hiring or are they just essentially a broker for a freelancer? Really key point. Okay, so that has to do with scale. Any other thoughts on scale before we move on from that one?

Brad: (11:02)

No, it’s pretty simple. Like I said, it usually refers back to output and inputs. Like how many hours do you have a day, how many people do you have working on something? How many hours of effort per person does it take to produce X widget or deliverable? And then how many of those deliverables can you produce or iterate on? So if you’re running ads, for example, you might start with a huge keyword base and a ton of ad types and creative ideas, but then you’re constantly like iterating and narrowing the things down. Generally speaking, the more you can do and the more you can iterate, the better your results should get overtime, generally speaking, because you’re able to move faster and kill the losers and double down on the winners a lot faster. So it’s more mechanical, if that makes sense in terms of scale for in house people, kind of freelancers in the middle or contracts in the middle, and the agencies on the higher end.

Daniel: (11:54)

Yeah, yep. Got it. So that’s scale. And then another point in mind was about timing, which I suppose has to do with the turnaround time the people can offer you and usually in an agency that tends to move a bit faster?

Brad: (12:10)

Yeah. Again, hopefully. Not always. But hopefully, some caveats to that is obviously if someone’s in house, then you can reprioritize their work. So if you hire  a writer in house or a marketer in house, you can just straight tell them like, Hey, I need this by end of day, move the other stuff you’re working on to tomorrow and then they’re going to do it faster. So there are some caveats, but generally speaking, especially one issue with contractors is that if you’re completely reliant on one person for something, when something goes wrong, which things always go wrong, then shit slows down and grinds to a halt. And so with an agency I can, if something happens to one writer, if someone’s sick, if someone gets in an accident, if something happens, we could just shift their workload to someone else like that.

Brad: (12:57)

and it’s it’s not a big deal cause that’s again, that’s what we’re set up for. If we have a big client and they’re paying us a lot or if they’re paying like a rush fee or they’re like, Hey, can you guys just do me a favor and get me something on this like tomorrow, then we could do something similar to the first example where we could just shift people’s work around and reprioritize stuff pretty quickly so we can turn around an article and put four hours we needed to, you know. Yeah. So there are more available people and again there’s more specialists focusing on just what they’re good at. And so if someone can’t do something right now then I can have someone else to do something later for you. For example, we just had a client or we set a client email, one of our account managers, she actually lives in Europe.

Brad: (13:44)

So certain times of day, it works really well because we have a lot of people based in Europe and outside of the States. And so for like early morning people, East coast people, it’s perfect for them. But in the afternoon, that means we just have like someone on the West coast jump in and help out because obviously the people in Europe are off time. That doesn’t happen when you’re like in house all sitting in one office in San Francisco, right? You’re all in the same time zone. And so again, it’s just like different dynamics based on how the teams are set up.

Daniel: (14:11)

Yeah, definitely. And I’ve, I’ve certainly had that experience working in house in an agency myself where, you know, you get re-prioritized on something and it’s okay because you’ve got the rest of the team backing you up. So it’s not like when you’re a freelancer and you’re like, crap, I’m going to do these and everything else. You know, so, or if you’re trying to do it yourself that’s even worse because you got your own work to do plus creating content in your own business. Yup. So yeah. A really key point is that you know, that timing is hugely important and that’s what agencies can offer you is that expediency most of the time.

Daniel: (14:42)

And then I think the fourth point and the last one was management and basically the idea that your end result should be better because you’re with a team which I know we’ve talked about before and the idea of producing content versus creating it, it’s another kind of link to this as well. But do you want to talk a little bit about that? Like the value of working with the team versus just an individual or you know, trying to do it yourself?

Brad: (15:05)

Yeah, for sure. There’s like a range of benefits. So one of the things we talked about already was digital marketers becoming so much more complex and sophisticated. It’s impossible for one person to be good at everything. So even within a certain subset like SEO that we’ve talked about already, people who say they’re amazing at SEO really mean they’re amazing at two or three aspects of SEO, right? Like they’re not amazing at all, five or five plus. And so a team obviously allows you to blend those skill sets better or more effectively. Same goes with hiring. If you’re trying to hire one person internally, you’re going to run into the same problems where they’re going to be really good at like a few things. Or if they’re writing on certain topics, they’re gonna be really good on a few topics. Anything else outside their expertise, they’re not going to be that great at.

Brad: (15:51)

And so what are you going to do? Go hire a new full time person? It starts to become really problematic. Flexibility was the other thing that we’re stressing. So there’s less from like an old school management philosophy. There are fewer points of failure if you have more distribution, there’s less risk involved. So if we have a team of writers and one writer gets sick, or even if like there’s one writer is not that good, it’s not that big of a deal. Because there’s like 10 other ones working on the same thing. And there’s no single point of failure. It doesn’t mean that this project is going to get knocked off time. It doesn’t mean that like it’s the whole working relationship is gonna come to a halt. It doesn’t mean that like we have to stop everything or that like they suck or whatever.

Brad: (16:37)

It’s just like, no, we just need to replace that one writer. We either need to help them out or we need to replace them and get someone else in. But one out of 10, that means 10% of your stuff sucks and needs to be fixed as opposed to if you hire three freelancers and one of them sucks, that’s 30% of your stuff. So from a more of a risk management standpoint, a team should in theory, again, almost always be better and easier to work with rather than relying on a few quote unquote experts and, and where you’re placing all your eggs in one basket.

Daniel: (17:11)

Now on the flip side of that, one of the cons I think of having let’s say the agency managing all your content is that you’re not paying like you would with a freelancer. So you know, you pay $500 and you get one post or whatever. But with the agency, I mean part of the cost is getting soaked up in the management fees and all the admin and that kind of stuff as well. So that’s obviously why agencies cost more. It’s a really good point to remember, but you’re also getting access to that entire team.

Brad: (17:43)

It’s like two sides of the same coin. You have to realize that like some of these cons are kind of baked into the relationship. So it’s like if you get the positives from it, then you also get the negatives from it. And one of the perceived negatives here is that if, like if I got, I don’t, I don’t think you should just prioritize the cost of an article, but if you’re just looking at the cost of an article, an agency’s probably always going to be more expensive on a pure numbers basis, even though, again, I think it’s kind of over-inflated or underinflated depending on how you look at it for a number of reasons. But in any case, if you’re just comparing hard costs without factoring in all the other stuff, then yeah, of course agencies can tend to look like it’s more expensive in reality.

Brad: (18:25)

I don’t think it is when you factor in other stuff, but that’s, that’s kind of, if you are on like a tight budget for whatever reason, then yeah, of course probably don’t go with the agency or at least don’t go with an agency until you’re ready for it. Like probably go with a hybrid. A couple of like freelancers to get you through. The other thing too is like if you don’t have an in house person who’s going to also help and work and support the agency work, then you probably need to fix that problem first too. Agencies are really good at what they do. Agencies are not good at knowing your business. You need to help them. It’s the client’s responsibility to help the agency understand what they want, how they do things, how things should be done, what things should look like, what things shouldn’t look like.

Brad: (19:10)

Like agencies are guessing because they work with so many different clients that they’re not experts in your business. And so you really need that person in house on the client side to help support agencies. We don’t work a lot of founders directly for example, because they’re way too spread thin. Right. What I like to see is like at least a couple of people like at least a content lead or like someone managing it and possibly also a project manager. Because most content people aren’t good at managing projects. So I like to see that stuff in house before I want to work with a client. And so it’s kinda like the same boat where it’s you need to be set up in such a way to get the most value out of it ultimately.

Daniel: (19:52)

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great insight because I’ve experienced that firsthand as a content creator too working through an agency where your clients really have no idea what they want. And so you’re kind of like well let me just make some stuff up and see if you think it makes sense and that’s not a good place to be for anyone. That’s not going to create something of value and it’s a waste of money and time.

Brad: (20:12)

Totally. And then they wonder why it doesn’t work. And it’s like, well, it’s not. You can go hire 10 agencies and they all fail. Exactly. If the goalposts are being moved every time in terms of the target you’re trying to hit like no one’s going to know that. And so in that case like that, yeah, you should hire someone in house because you keep changing your mind and the only person that’s gonna be able to figure that out is someone you’re literally paying to sit with you and just deal with all the constant interruptions in strategy or direction.

Brad: (20:40)

That’s literally the only way you’re going to start to get a handle on it. So that’s again, where some of these like factors come into play. And again, there’s, there’s always good things and bad things associated with each decision. And so the point of this one is to figure out where are we in terms of like what we’re trying to do and what we need the most help in right now. And sometimes that’s an agency, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s in house person first and then the agency or whatever the sequencing might be.

Daniel: (21:11)

So true. Well, very cool. Well, I think that’s a great overview of some of the realities of working with an agency. Why people choose to do it, why they don’t, and you know why they’re not ready sometimes as well, which is another key point is maybe you’re just not there yet. Maybe it’s two years down the track before you can actually afford to work with an agency. You need to get in house people first. Well, thank you, sir. I appreciate the insights there. Any closing thoughts about the experience of hiring an agency or anything you want, a real perspective you want to share?

Brad: (21:42)

I mean again, it’s one of those things where there are lot of factors that are weighed price as you can tell us. It’s not something we talked about directly. Price is an indirect influence. Price is not a direct influence in that you shouldn’t decide to work with an agency or not work with an agency based on price. It should be based on other factors that are more central to actually moving the needle. Because price is relative in that something could be expensive or cheap depending on what your own experiences or what you’re comparing it against. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. So if something costs twice as much but it provides twice as much benefit, then it’s still worth it or it’s the same end result. So I think that’s the key consideration here is it’s not Christ that you should be looking at directly. It’s all these other factors. And if you align these other factors correctly, price, depending on whether it’s hiring a really expensive in house person or a really expensive agency or freelancer is almost, should always be worth it, assuming these other things are hit.

Daniel: (22:46)

Yup. Very, very true. So there you go. So that’s, that’s a great perspective on hiring agency and the value that it does create for you if you’re willing to invest. As always Brad we appreciate your time and your insights. It’s great to have your point of view. And I’m sure this has been valuable for people in this position, considering actually hiring an agency. So thank you.

Brad: (23:09)

Thank you. Yeah. Hope it was helpful.

Highlights

Unicorn writers are hard to come by. But an agency may be able to help. (04:46)

This always makes me laugh when I see like a job posting and this company is super obscure and what they do is super specific and they’re like, we’re going to hire a writer in Denver, Colorado that has to have these qualifications. And it’s like, yeah, good luck finding that one unicorn person with all these random skills and experiences, like you’re never going to find it. And so that’s what an agency gives you is the ability to say, okay, we’re looking for this random thing. And the agency makes it happen. That’s generally what they excel at.

How agencies help companies avoid the pitfalls of putting all their eggs in one basket. (12:31)

One issue with contractors is that if you’re completely reliant on one person for something, when something goes wrong, which things always go wrong, then shit slows down and grinds to a halt. And so with an agency I can, if something happens to one writer, if someone’s sick, if someone gets in an accident, if something happens, we could just shift their workload to someone else like that and it’s not a big deal cause that’s again, that’s what we’re set up for.

Brad suggests this to get the most out of an agency.  (18:53)

Agencies are really good at what they do. Agencies are not good at knowing your business. You need to help them. What I like to see is like at least a couple of people like at least a content lead or like someone managing it and possibly also a project manager. Because most content people aren’t good at managing projects. So I like to see that stuff in house before I want to work with a client. And so it’s kinda like the same boat where it’s you need to be set up in such a way to get the most value out of it ultimately.