At RevelOne, we support our clients beyond executive search, often providing advice on broader marketing talent strategy, organizational design, and prioritization of key roles. One specific topic that comes up frequently is when to hire full-time and when to bring in contract marketing support. To address this question and offer a holistic perspective, RevelOne teamed up with Right Side Up, a collective of premium freelance marketing talent.
Because marketing channels, tactics, and digital tools have grown increasingly complex over the past 15 years, staffing for best-in-class results has become a nuanced puzzle of internal and external resources that can be difficult to piece together. We hope this article will give you a decision-making framework that you can reliably use to determine what type of hire your business needs.
Permanent full-time employment is the compelling de facto model for most employers. It’s a big investment to bring expertise into an organization, get new hires up to speed, and have them solve unique business challenges while continuously executing, learning, and improving. Furthermore, equity gives in-house employees strong incentive to stay and succeed, and aligns them toward a common goal. Developing a flourishing culture and community – which are powerful benefits with network effects – is easier and best done with full-time employees. In many roles, organizational context is necessary for achieving excellence, and in-house team members have an easier time accessing and acquiring this knowledge. As a result, it often makes sense to bring on full-time employees. Using contract marketing support (freelance or agencies) should be the exception rather than the rule.
When to Hire Contract Marketing Talent
There are two situations where it’s pretty straightforward to use contractors: you have a part-time need or a temporary need. An example of a part-time need is an email specialist for 20 hours/week who can start building a top-rate lifecycle program until the return justifies a full-time hire. Temporary needs, on the other hand, could include seasonal work, special projects, leaves of absence (like maternity), or coverage during long searches for full-time hires. In these instances, consider external support, especially if you don’t want to assign the work to an existing employee.
Since the above scenarios are easier to recognize, let’s explore three specific, unique situations where it’s better to bring on contract marketing hires than full-time employees.
1. You Have an Unproven Need
When you aren’t sure if something will work, but know you want to try it, consider external support until you clarify your requirements. This is the classic “try before you buy” concept. For example, suppose the only paid advertising channel you use is Facebook and you want to explore other channels. You are convinced Snapchat will crush it for you. Do not ask your Facebook person to do it – it’s a different demographic and user experience altogether. It also takes a long time to acquire the deep knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a new channel; you’re much more likely to find success using external talent with specialized skills that aren’t quickly learned.
If you try to hire an FTE to focus on it, you are very unlikely to attract top talent without budget and proven success in the channel. Even if you do, you risk rapid churn if the channel doesn’t perform as you hoped. The very thing you hired her for – her passion for and capability with a particular skill set – will make her unsuitable and/or uninterested in anything else you can offer. Contract marketers are excellent for proving new tactics, channels, and strategies to both increase your conviction and help you draw A+ talent when the time is right.
2. You Can’t Hire Fast Enough to Hit Your Revenue Goals
If you simply can’t hire fast enough or you want to test and learn faster than your current team can support, consider external resources. Remember, there is an opportunity cost to not having the right marketers in place. This is especially true after large funding rounds, when new marketing leaders start with a mandate to rapidly build out the team so they can hit new targets. In these cases, external marketing support complements full-time recruiting well, providing much needed interim labor (and outcomes) while recruiting builds out the long-term team.
In other cases, the challenge isn’t pace, but sequencing. Suppose you have been using an agency to manage significant spend across 5 different channels. You plan to hire 4 FTEs to cover the work internally, transitioning the work away from the agency. Contract marketing support can provide a great bridge between all-external to all-internal, a transition that can be quite clunky (and expensive) with staggered FTE recruiting and onboarding.
3. Your Organization Has Systemic Recruiting Challenges
Recruiting is challenging and can often take longer than you would like. But there are sometimes systemic reasons that make internal talent strategies notably difficult:
- Office location. Is your office in a hard-to-get-to part of town? Is it in a city or state far from A+ talent and you require on-site work?
- Reputation problems. Does your company or culture have a negative reputation?
- Product or industry. Is your product not sexy? Is your industry out of favor?
- Below-market compensation. Do you lose prospects because you underpay?
It’s worth noting that these challenges are magnified exponentially as a skill set’s demand increases and labor supply decreases. In these cases, you should consider external marketing support, at least as an interim solution until the contributing factors can be mitigated. If they can’t, then external support can help you continue to make progress while recruiting advances at a slower-than-desired pace.
When to Not use Contract Resources
Anytime the hours required are full-time, you have a high degree of confidence in the skills needed, and you have access to high-quality talent (yourself or through a partner like RevelOne), hiring a permanent full-time employee is the best path for both productivity and cost-efficiency.
However, here are three specific situations where hiring contract resources typically does not make sense.
1. Highly Cross-Functional Roles
Some roles require significant collaboration with a variety of internal stakeholders, all of whom have different goals and motivations. Contractors have no historical context, no knowledge of personalities and dynamics, and often spend less time face-to-face with clients. If you limit contract candidates to those who can spend all their time on-site, your pool will often be just as limited as full-time hiring.
A good example of this is a marketing analyst role. Doing this job well requires not only an understanding of marketing demand across a variety of stakeholders, but also an intimate understanding of the data architecture and landmines that must be avoided to pull the right data. The risk of failure is high. Even if you successfully put a contract resource in such a role, you then have much higher retention risk. It is not uncommon for companies to spend months on a too-difficult onboarding only to see the contractor move on, forcing the company to start over.
2. Very Senior Roles
Senior roles typically require managing others and stewarding the company’s culture and values. This makes it harder to find the right person, harder for him or her to be successful, and there’s a much higher downside risk if unsuccessful. Many contractors want to more singularly focus on selling their skills. The detachment from politics, culture, and team management are often specific reasons for being a service provider instead of an employee. As such, the company looking for an interim leader is often looking for a needle in a haystack and is more likely to find leaders who are not heavily invested in team and culture. These considerations apply to a CMO or VP Marketing role at a mid to late-stage company, for example. Even if that person can be found, s/he will require significant onboarding and will be an expensive loss in the not-too-distant future. Without careful communication, hiring a contract leader can also convey to that team a lack of dedication to the function. With individual contributor roles, the downside is limited to a particular project or role. With management roles, the downside extends to every direct report. The retention risk of entire teams can skyrocket with a poor decision.
3. To Build Core Competencies
When building a core competency within marketing, using contractors should be minimized. For example, if you are an ecommerce company, you should manage the top performance marketing channels (Google & Facebook) in-house via full-time employees. Hiring contractors is generally not recommended in this example, since the sooner you hire permanent talent for those areas, the sooner you build the expertise and core organizational capabilities. However, if you’re not sure if your business model is right for a channel or initiative, then temporary help is a great way to find out.
Another factor to consider is external marketing talent is typically engaged for a limited period and often works remotely, so it can be difficult to ensure processes, outcomes, and learnings are both well-documented and propagated internally for long term success. This presents a risk any time contractors are used, but represents an outsized risk when the work to be done is a direct driver of company value.
A final consideration is when contractors move on from projects, they will seek other clients and deploy the skills they’ve learned elsewhere. Though they obviously can’t share confidential information, they generally can work for competitors, regardless of the agreement you have in place (this is specific to California and is not legal advice). Limiting the number of people that understand (and help build) your secret sauce is wise.
Recruiting full-time marketing talent is a great de facto solution, but hiring external contract support can be immensely valuable when done well and in the right context. Both are hard and have become specialized skills in their own right.