Every day, I make it a point to answer a marketing question on Quora. This is mostly to get my brain working because it usually needs some kind of prompt to get me writing. One of the questions I see come up on there frequently is how to hire someone to do social media, SEO or other digital marketing work. And then a second question that goes with that, which is, “should I hire an employee or an agency?”
As you might have guessed, I have an opinion on this. And rather than answering the same question over and over again on Quora, I figure I’d just answer it here. So …
“Who Do You Read?”
Most marketing people are clowns. Not all of them. There are some great people that work in this industry, but they’re outnumbered by the bozos and doofuses that we all like to make fun of. You can tell who the clowns are based on where they get their information from. If they tell you they read Forbes and follow Gary Vaynerchuk, you shouldn’t hire them. Gary hasn’t had anything interesting to say since 2007, and Forbes lost all credibility when it moved to a content farm model (and still to this day has not moved away from that like everyone else.)
I struggle with this, but sometimes if they namedrop Tim Ferriss, you should also be skeptical. I like Tim Ferriss’s books, but I think he suffers from the “Fight Club Problem.” The “Fight Club Problem” refers to how there were two kinds of reactions among people who read “Fight Club.” They either thought it was awesome and totally serious, or they got that Chuck Palahniuk wrote an excellent satire on hyper-masculinity and generally where we were as a culture before 9/11.
So Tim Ferriss has that same thing going, where people either read and appreciate his work for what it is (great advice for rich people), or think that what he writes is the be all, end all on how you should live your life.
Anyway, the clowns like Ferriss and Vaynerchuk and go to crappy places like Forbes to keep up with things.
The good people struggle through the Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, name check and UNDERSTAND (this is important) Ryan Holiday’s first book, and pull their information from a variety of sources. So for example, right now on my desk is the two most recent issues of Fortune. The February / March Harvard Business Review, this week’s Adweek (although Adweek and Adage can often be problematic in their own right), Sam Walton’s “Made in America,” and Stephen Oates’s book on Abraham Lincoln, “With Malice Toward None.”
Let me be blunt: I don’t know anyone who enjoys reading the Harvard Business Review. Turgid doesn’t begin to describe how most of the content in there is written, but if you can work through it, you’ll often find one or two things that are useful. I’ve been suffering through reading that magazine since grad school in 2007, but I can honestly say it’s worth it.
The Ryan Holiday book, “Trust Me, I’m Lying” is good as long as you understand what he’s saying and don’t walk away from it going, “Wow, journalists are dumb! The media sucks!” No. That’s not the point. The point is there’s a particular process to get news coverage that existed (and still kind of does) today that can be exploited for a variety of troubling societal and business reasons.
The other magazines and books I mentioned aren’t to show off; I just mention them because my larger point is this: If you’re going to hire someone to do your marketing for you, where they get their information from is incredibly important; Especially if they are pulling their information from unexpected places (an old biography of Abraham Lincoln) or from excellent case studies from wildly successful people (“Made in America”).
So, “Who do you read?” is the question you want to ask when determining who to hire.
You also want to ask them for case studies. “What have you done?” is the second, and arguably more important, question to ask. Past performance and past campaigns, especially in marketing, don’t carry as much weight as you think because every company, brand, product, not-for-profit, etc. is different. But it’s important to ask for references and to look at previous work.
I know. This all seems like common sense, but the fact that the question appears as often as it does on Quora tells me it’s not.
This will get me some shit for sure, but you should always hire an employee (ideally) or a freelancer (less ideal) to handle any aspect of marketing that you’re looking for help with.
An agency can be great. The problem is a lot of the big agencies today are too busy chasing rebates and automating themselves out of existence that I have real concerns about the overall health of the advertising industry at the moment. And the trends suggest I’m not the only one with those concerns. A lot of brands are parting ways with their agencies and moving the marketing work in-house or creating their own agency like McDonald’s just did.
So keeping in mind the caveat that everyone is different and has different needs, my own preference is that you hire someone internally. Especially because marketing takes time.
I’m going to repeat that because over the past year I’ve encountered many people who don’t seem to understand this: Good marketing. Takes. Time.
If you’re doing content marketing, unless you’re spending money to support it, you’re looking at six months at least before it starts to take root, and even then, maybe even a year before it starts generating the kind of results you’re going to be happy with. The same is true for SEO. Unless you’ve got the cash to juice it, SEO takes months and even then, you need to stick with it because things change all the time between Google, Bing and others like DuckDuckGo.
PR, social media, Influencer Marketing, Digital Reputation Management and word-of-mouth? Same deal. I like to roll those all together and refer to it as “Reputation Design.” Reputation Design takes at least a year to get it right. You CAN see some success before that, especially if you have the money, but all those things require an extensive infrastructure to be built, and most people don’t know how the fuck to do that.
And, you guessed it, the people who do know how to build the infrastructure to launch and operate a successful reputation design campaign will tell you that it takes time.
So, you can hire an agency and spend a ton of money, or you can hire people internally and control costs because you know it’s going to take a while to lay the groundwork.
Better still, the stuff I dump into the bucket of “Reputation Design” (Word-of-mouth, PR, Digital Reputation Management, Social Media, Influencer Marketing), works the best when it’s baked into the internal functions of your organization. Not when you bring in an outside party that doesn’t understand you, your culture, and your organization and frankly, they don’t care to understand it in most cases. They just want your money.
By hiring people to work internally for your company, you’re able to have the Reputation Design conversation early, meaning you can bake it into the product as you develop it. That’s the big joke with “Growth Hacking.” “Growth Hacking” is bullshit. “Growth Hacking” is word-of-mouth Marketing with a new fancy term to describe it because some asshole in Silicon Valley thought there was an opportunity to cash in on the general ignorance and distrust of marketing people among the tech crowd.
That dislike and distrust come with good reason. Do you want to know why? Because in the first dot-com Bust, a lot of tech companies went under because advertising and marketing agencies like Razor Fish were bankrupting them. (This is even more insulting when you recall the guys behind Razor Fish, a marketing agency, couldn’t explain to 60 Minutes what they did at their company before the bubble burst.)
So, I get why “growth hacking” became a thing, but you should know it’s just “Word-of-mouth Marketing” and the idea that you should bake that, and PR and influencer marketing, into your product as you develop it. Not when it’s finished. Which is why you want to have marketing employees working for you internally.
All of this stuff takes time, and the sooner you start doing it within the internal structure of your products, the better your results will be.
(Also: Before anyone throws shade at me for coining the term reputation design, I got nothing to sell you. If you want to read my book, email me, and I’ll send you a free .pdf copy of it. BJ@BJMendelson.com. The only reason why I invented the term was because I was lazy and got tired of writing “Digital Reputation Management and Search Engine Optimization” on a Chicago startup’s marketing collateral.)