How High Growth Companies Should (& Shouldn’t) Use Marketing Contractors

22 March 2020

At RevelOne, we support our clients beyond executive search, often providing advice on broader marketing talent strategy, helping to prioritize key roles, and placing expert contractors to fill interim gaps. One specific topic that comes up frequently is when to hire full-time and when to bring in marketing contractors. We’ve put together a holistic perspective to help you navigate this critical question in your organization. 

At RevelOne, we support our clients beyond executive search, often providing advice on broader marketing talent strategy, helping to prioritize key roles, and placing expert contractors to fill interim gaps. One specific topic that comes up frequently is when to hire full-time and when to bring in marketing contractors. We’ve put together a holistic perspective to help you navigate this critical question in your organization. 

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 a 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. Even still, it often makes sense to leverage expert contractors in addition to permanent employees as long as you have a strong understanding of your goals and are intentional about the expert profiles you seek.

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 ROI justifies a full-time hire. Temporary needs, on the other hand, could include seasonal work, special projects, leaves of absence (like parental leave), 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 TikTok 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 expert contractors 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. Interim expert marketers are excellent for proving new tactics, channels, and strategies to both increase your conviction and help you draw A+ permanent 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 expertise (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. Interim experts 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:

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.

4. You’re Still Early in Your Growth Trajectory

Like most startups, your marketing needs will inevitably change as you evolve from seed stage to later venture rounds, and as your revenue and team continue to scale. One growing trend to address this inevitability is the “Fractional CMO” or “Fractional Head of Marketing.” In the early stages, you might not have the need or the budget for a full-time marketing leader. The type of leader you need might also change from where you are today, to where you’ll be in 6 – 18 months. However, you can bring on an expert contractor to serve in this role for 2-3 days a week for a few quarters, then reassess. This type of resource can be quite versatile – helping drive strategy, owning implementation (either with in-house or agency resources), and provide leadership to more junior members of the marketing team.

When to Consider Not Using 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. That said, you may face hiring freezes or other constraints that are very real.

If you are facing the following situations, you might want to think twice before using an expert contractor or do so with caution.

1. Highly Cross-Functional Roles

Some roles require significant collaboration with a variety of internal stakeholders, all of whom have different goals and motivations. Interim expert contractors lack historical context, as well as knowledge of personalities and other team dynamics. Keep this in mind if you’re planning to tap a contract resource for one of these cross-functional roles.

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. You’ll benefit from spending some extra time upfront in vetting the person to ensure they are a good fit. They might be a contractor, but they will still have a big impact on your organization, even long term. One of the benefits of our Interim Expert Network is that we vet and qualify these marketing freelancers and only present the best ones to you, saving you time, de-risking the hiring process, and accelerating impact. 

2. Very Senior Roles

Senior roles typically require managing others and stewarding the company’s culture and values. It’s becoming more common for former CMOs and VPs of Marketing to pursue fractional or interim engagements. This makes it easier than before to find the right person, but the stakes are still high in tapping a contract resource for a leadership role. For the reasons discussed above, it often makes sense to use interim experts at an earlier stage of growth. Just be sure you’re focused on the right type of senior leader. Also make sure that you temper expectations. Naturally, a fractional senior marketer will be less invested long term than a permanent leader (they probably won’t be granted equity, for example). It could also appear that you’re less dedicated to marketing if you’re not willing to invest in a permanent hire. With good communication, you can overcome that perception and ensure your whole team understands the decision. 

3. To Build Core Competencies

When building a core competency within marketing, using contractors should be part of your talent strategy, but not the entire strategy. For example, if you are an e-commerce company, it is preferred to manage the top performance marketing channels (Google & Facebook) in-house via full-time employees. As discussed earlier, interim expert contractors can help you prove out new channels before investing in full-time employees. The sooner you can get to this point, the more cost-effective your hiring strategy will be. Plus, you’ll be building internal capabilities and core competencies that are required at scale.

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. And that’s where we can help!


About RevelOne

RevelOne is a leading marketing and sales advisory and recruiting firm.  We do 300+ searches a year in Marketing and Sales roles from C-level on down for some of the most recognized names in tech.  We also offer interim and fractional contractor placements to help our clients build dynamic teams. For custom org design, role scoping, retained search, or expert contractors, contact us.

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