In-house marketing vs agency-side

For the first half of my career I worked in professional services, first as a lawyer, then in management consulting and digital marketing. To be honest, all of these agency-side disciplines blur into one because the fundamental mechanics are so similar. The day-to-day issues like client servicing, project management and billing are pretty much the same in every external advisory firm. Even the larger industry issues are the same, how to help the client sell more widgets, connect with their audience, and build their reputation.

Moving in-house was a rude awakening for me. In-house marketing as part of an internal growth team is very different from external consulting.

Many consultants secretly look down on internal marketing teams. To a fast-moving agency team an in-house team can appear conservative, unimaginative and slow moving. Having lived both sides I now have a good view into how things look on both sides of the table.


In-house marketing teams think on a longer time horizon than external consultants. When I’m planning marketing activity I’m seriously considering where we want the business to be in five years time. By contrast, an average consultant isn’t thinking much past the end of the immediate project, and even the great ones are still only thinking a year or two out. The longer time horizon can make in-house marketing teams seem slower, but really they’re just building the foundations more carefully, because they know that they’re going to have to live in the house that they’re building.


In-house marketers are more committed to success than most people give them credit for. There’s a saying that the chicken has an interest in bacon and eggs, but the pig is committed. When you’re in-house, a misstep with the brand can cost your job, your livelihood (if you have stock options), and your reputation. By contrast, an external consultant is only as committed to a project as the difficulty in winning the next gig. That’s not a bad thing because it can allow for more creativity and risk-taking, but I can tell you first hand that in-house marketers work harder and care more than most consultants ever realize.


In-house marketers have a tendency to want to get feedback on everything from everyone. From the outside, all this feedback can seem hopelessly inefficient and it waters down any creative work to have it cut to pieces by a committee. But once you’re in-house you realize that everything is going to go through a review process anyway, so you may as well get out in front of it. Internal marketers have been through the process of getting work out the door enough times to know who needs to be involved and when. It may not be pretty and I often wish that less people had to sign off on some projects, but the fact is that non-marketing people like to be involved in marketing and trying to skip them just means having to redo the work later. So what looks like politics and committees to consultants is actually the perfectly natural machinery of the company.


Sometimes internal marketers can seem cheap and nasty to external advisors because every conversation seems to come back to the budget. As the creative the project that you’re working on as an agency is the only project that you have exposure to, it seems obvious to invest in making a quality product. But for the internal marketer, every dollar on this project is a dollar that’s not being allocated to a dozen other worthy projects. What looks like cheapness as actually the delicate art of trying to optimize marketing spend across multiple channels. This type of on-the-fly ROI optimization is one of the most under-appreciated skills that great internal marketing teams develop. Good marketers know how to make the dollars stretch.


The worst pet peeve that I had with marketing teams when I was in consulting was that they seemed so afraid of change. The most common brief that we heard in brand design was:

“We want a whole new look, but you can’t touch the logo. We just made it, and it went through so many rounds of review that I’m not sure we could handle going through that process again.”

It turns out that once you’re in-house you realize that these kinds of boundaries are the only way to keep an external agency focused. Every consultant wants to redo the mission, vision and values of the company and to redo the tagline or logo. But sometimes all you need is to get a specific project out the door. The conservatism can also be driven by knowing how people in the rest of the business have reacted to changes and suggestions in the past. Hitting a wall with the marketing team isn’t fun, but it’s better than being led along only to have the project killed in review. Creative advisors still need to push the boundaries but there’s no harm in being a little realistic early on in a project.

None of the above is an excuse for internal marketers to be slow, political, cheap and un-creative. On the contrary, one of the most honest clients I ever had in consulting told me “We know exactly what you’re going to tell us as a result of this process, but we need someone external to tell it to us straight. That’s the only way the CEO and board of directors will listen.” In-house marketers can suffer terribly from the curse of familiarity. As a result, most CEOs don’t appreciate their own marketing team.

Internal marketers need to get much better at tracking return on investment, articulating their value and working effectively with external advisors. The creative process is better when you can see both sides of the table.