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What’s the best way to source content: In house vs. agency vs. freelance


As more companies join the content marketing arena, one of the bigger issues these companies face is this: How do we source all this content?

Many organizations just aren’t set up to create an ongoing dribble (let alone a firehose) of online content.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but in my experience, I’ve found it to be true.


Yes, these companies have smart marketers. But the marketers are often busy planning and managing agency resources.

Yes, these companies have great PR people. But again, the PR people are busy in meetings and planning out quarterly and annual plans.

And yes, these companies do have mid- to junior-level people who are charged with creating content. But, it’s one of many, many things on their plate.

So, content often gets short-shrift.

And companies start looking for answers and resources. And, they often look at three distinct buckets:

* In-house (either training existing employees or hiring additional head count)

* Agency

* Solo consultant/Freelance

Each option has its own set of pros and cons–so I thought we’d take a look at those pros and cons today. Take a peek:




* Less ramp-up time. Training existing resources to handle content development requires significantly less ramp-up time than it would for an agency or solo. Don’t let the agencies/solos tell you otherwise (and this COMING from a solo consultant). Your existing employees already know the historical hot buttons your company wants to avoid. They already know the key points to hit. They already know where to look for data and information. This option means a much smaller bump on the way to getting started.

* Knows your brand better. Since your existing employee is already sitting in a chair WITHIN YOUR COMPANY, that employee conceivably already understands your brand promise. They understand what you’re trying to achieve at a 10,000-foot level. They know the brand guidelines. They’ve already been in the battles (or at least witnessed them) with legal and brand governance. I hate to say it, but these people know and understand your brand better than any agency or solo consultant ever will (again, this coming from a solo consultant).

* Quick access to internal subject matter experts. Not only do existing employees probably already know who to turn to for help, in terms of content. They know how and when to get in touch with them. And, that’s bigger than you might think. By the time your agency or solo consultant asks who the appropriate internal contact is for story X, reaches out to them, gets ignored after 3 emails because they’re an external consultant, your internal resource could have literally walked down the hall, knocked on this person’s door, asked for 5 minutes of their time, and had the content in hand. I would argue this is one of the bigger advantages to keeping content development in-house.


* Not always the best resource. Sometimes you’re forcing a square peg into a round hole. That is, your internal resources may not always be the most qualified to handle content development. They may not be the best writers. They may not understand how to write for an online audience. They may be more “old school” in their approach. And bottom line: it’s probably not what you really hired them to do.

* Existing political barriers may provide roadblocks. Just because your internal resources have better and faster access to internal subject matter experts, doesn’t always mean that’s the best way to “retrieve” the content. Sometimes, political barriers beyond your teams control may get in the way. And, in those cases, an outside resource may prove more useful. For example, your internal resource has a history with an internal SME we’ll call “Alex.” Your employee has rubbed “Alex” the wrong way for months, to the point where “Alex” merely tolerates your employee. That kind of history can definitely get in the way and prevent your internal resource from doing her job well.




* Access to more “human” resources. I’m specifically thinking about the big agencies here, but this really applies to all agencies, I suppose. What do I mean by this? Well, if client A hires agency X to head up content marketing, sometimes, agency X will have to either find  a resource from across it’s agency’s network (think Fleishman Hillard or Weber Shandwick here) or go ahead and hire a resource. Either way, they’re picking from some pretty darn smart people. Whereas, again, to the point above about going with the internal resource, you may be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with your existing employee.

* Get some much-needed outside perspective. Agencies don’t have the historical knowledge you and your employees have about your company. Sometimes, that’s a bad thing (when it comes to ramp-up time, for example). But, in other cases, it’s a very good things. Without that historical perspective, agencies have little feel for the internal hurdles and roadblocks–in essence, those ideas that haven’t worked in the past. As an employee, those roadblocks hinder your creative thinking–you’re always thinking about what you CAN’T do, not what you COULD do. Big difference. And agencies, predominantly, are ALWAYS thinking about what you COULD do. You want to pay for that thinking.

* All-in-one package. Content these days doesn’t mean just text. It means photos. It means videos. It means e-books. It means inforgraphics. The point is, content has many different forms in today’s online landscape. So, a writer can’t handle it all. You really need a content team, made up of writers, photographers, videographers and designers. So, if you had to hire all those positions internally, that’d probably mean adding 3-4 people to your team, which is impossible for most companies (at least, in the short-term). Instead, by hiring an agency, who usually has access to all those components under one roof, you get a nice, tidy package (albeit for a higher price point). Which leads us to…



* More expensive. Not much else to say here. Agencies are expensive. Sometimes, they are worth it. Sometimes, they are not. But, they’re always your most expensive option. No question. Go eyes wide open on that.

* Longer dating cycle. As mentioned above, by hiring an agency, you’ll have a longer ramp-up period. Why? First, you have to get them in the door. That means contracts. That means getting sign-offs. That means working with procurement if you’re a larger organization. Once you’ve done all that (which can take 3-6 weeks, in some cases), you still have to get the agency up-to-speed on your company’s goals, vision, mission and strategies. All that backgrounding takes time. No doubt about it.


Solo consultant


* Better value. When compared against an agency, you’re going to get more perceived “value” from a solo consultant. And yes, I realize this is self-serving coming from a solo consultant. But, consider the facts. Most solo consultants are going to fall in the 15+ year experience bucket. They’re going to change somewhere between $75-150 (ballpark; on an hourly rate). On the other hand, agency folks (at least the ones actually working on your content) trend younger. Heck, sometimes they may be REALLY young (seen this a couple times personally). And, as a blended rate, I’m going to go ahead and guess these people’s hourly rate would be in the $125-175 framework. So, essentially, you’re getting a younger writer/content producer for MORE money. Again, taking a few educated guesses there, but I think those numbers are pretty close.

* What you see is what you get. With the solo consultant, what you “buy” is what you see each and every day. In other words, the same person who “sold” you at the pitch meeting, is usually (barring subcontractors, which the solo usually never lets you see anyway) the same person interacting with you on a day-in-day-out basis. That’s big in terms of quality (see above), perceived value, and making the client feel good about their investment.

Big fish, small pond. Most agencies have many clients. The bigger the agency, the more clients they’re serving at any given moment. That means your agency team is serving a few different clients on any given day. And you may or may not be at the top of that priority list on that day. On the other hand, for the solo consultant, you are most likely one of 2-3 clients they work with. And, if you’re giving them ongoing work (as would be the case with content needs), you’re probably one of their bigger clients. That (usually) means that solo consultant is going to go above and beyond for you whenever they can. Because they know they want that long-term business and relationship. Does the junior-level agency person working on your content care about that? Sure, but not nearly as much.



* Just one person means just one person. The downside to the “what you see if what you get” bullet above is that there’s only person behind that solo consultancy. That means, if that consultant lands another major client, they may get “distracted” for a bit. And, when they get “distracted” (with no or little backup), that could create headaches for you.

* Lack of ongoing professional development. Agencies are usually pretty good about providing some form of training or support to their employees when it comes to professional development. For content development, that means staying on top of the latest tools and technologies to create and curate content. It means honing writing skills. It means learning new ways to unearth content. On the solo front, this is all the responsibility of the consultant. Sure, some of them are great at it, but not everyone sees it that way. And, truth be told, solo consultants have a lot on their plates between new business, the actual work, and admin work. Professional development sometimes just slips down the priority ladder.


So, that’s the way I see it. I’d love to hear from corporate folks who have hired for content development in the last few months. How did you make your decision? What were your key criteria you looked at with each potential partner?



photo credit: geoftheref via photopin cc



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