The flip side of agencies as marketing partners

Mark W. Schaefer wrote an excellent piece about why more and more marketers are going in-house, and why companies sometimes can be better served by an in-house professional rather than an agency. If you haven’t read it yet over on HBR, do so.

One key reason why a marketer might be better served at an agency rather than in-house at a brand is diversity. This is the key reason I joined SHIFT Communications almost three years ago.


When I was starting the process of searching for my next thing, I had coffee with the ever-inspiring Mitch Joel at Dreamforce 2012. Mitch, entirely with love, told me that I was an idiot for staying in-house because no one brand needed the odd assortment of things I could do.

I was an email marketer and a podcaster.
I was a social media practitioner who also understood marketing analytics.
I was a longtime SEO professional who could also design in Photoshop and Illustrator.
I could create marketing strategy but also write code.

Unless I was working at a top brand with big marketing dollars, I’d never be able to use my skills to their fullest potential, and even then, working at a top brand would have meant managing people to do those activities and not being able to do them myself. I still enjoy getting my hands dirty and trying new things.

Mitch was quite clear with me that in-house was the wrong choice. I’d continue to be bored, constrained by the endless limitations of working at a single company. At an agency, the fast-paced life and opportunity to work with many different kinds of businesses would stretch my capabilities and challenge me to grow my skills. I’d work with companies that had radically different business and marketing models, and be able to use all of my skills to their fullest potential.

For example, recently at SHIFT, I and my team launched a bake-off among a native ad platform, a DSP’s network, and an AdWords campaign to see how well each platform does at achieving one particular client’s goal. In-house, that sort of experiment would almost never have been approved at any of my recent employers. (I’ll tell you who won on the SHIFT blog once the test is concluded)

I get to use almost all of the skills above on a regular, nearly daily basis. No one client wants or needs them all, but in aggregate, the companies I serve do make use of them, which keeps me sharp and in practice. That’s not an experience I can get in-house anywhere.

To Mark’s last point about attracting talent, talent absolutely is a challenge. Agency life isn’t for everyone. It’s extremely fast-paced, and the demands on your time can be extreme. Top that with the necessity of marketers everywhere who need to be both left and right brained (yes, I know that’s not actually a real construct) and there absolutely are challenges finding and retaining the best and the brightest.

That said, having peeked inside more than a few companies over the past 3 years, there are plenty of companies that maintain the same furious pace and pressure on their in-house teams as well.

Ultimately, I’d make the case that agencies are as uneven in quality as any other employee. Some will be great. Some will be terrible. Most will be good enough, most of the time, and like hunting for good employees, hunting for the very best is a quest that never ends.

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Become a necessary luxury

Your goal, as a marketer, is to achieve necessary luxury status.

What do I mean?

Broadly speaking, we can be commodities or luxuries in the sense of both price and rareness. A commodity is commonplace. A commodity is inexpensive. A luxury is not commonplace. A luxury is rare, and almost never cheap.

Broadly speaking, we can be optional or necessary. Necessary things are things we can’t do without. We need them. They’re mandatory for us to get our jobs done. Optional things are nice-to-haves. They’re additions that are welcome, but if we didn’t have them, we’d be okay.

What determines something to be a commodity or a luxury is its functional quality. The better it does at the core tasks asked of it, the higher a price it can command while still being needed.


Think about getting to work. You have to get to work somehow, and for a majority of people, that involves some form of transportation. A car is a commodity. You can buy cars of all makes and models. A Tesla Series S is a luxury that’s optional. You need a car, but you don’t need THAT car, per se. That’s why the Tesla on the chart above is an optional luxury. Its luxury doesn’t improve the core functional quality of being a way to get to work. You get there in more style and with more amenities, but it doesn’t change the core experience.

What about computers? Many people who work in offices need a portable computer of some kind. You can get cheap knockoff laptops or vastly underpowered machines very inexpensively. They’re commodities. If you want great functional quality, a MacBook Pro starts moving you towards the luxury end of the spectrum. However, if you need built-in UNIX compatibility in an easy to use, well-built machine, then you remain more towards the necessary end of the spectrum. These needs transform the MacBook Pro into a necessary luxury.

As a marketer seeking a career in marketing, you begin ineptly. We all do. We begin with very few polished skills, and we don’t perform especially well out of the gate (except for a few savants). We are low performing marketers when we begin our journey. Some of us stay there. Most of us achieve some level of competence, which moves us from optional to necessary.

Your goal, as a marketer, is to advance your skills and capabilities, your functional quality, until you are necessary. As you become necessary, you can command a higher price, until you reach the pinnacle of your career. At the top of your game, you become a high performing marketer, which is a necessary luxury that every company wants, needs, and is willing to pay top dollar for.

Your challenge, as a marketer, is to identify what is necessary and become so proficient at it that you are rare. When you become this, the world is your oyster.

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You are only as good as the capabilities you remember

How many marketing tools, tactics, and strategies do you know?

If you stopped to think about it just now, chances are you’d struggle to remember more than a few. You probably remembered ones you’ve used most recently, or ones that are part of a project you’re working on now.

However, your potential is much greater. You’ve got a lot of knowledge locked away that you haven’t brought forward and you don’t keep loaded in your head.

As a result, whenever you have to brainstorm, chances are your brainstorms are lackluster. You probably come up with the same 5 ideas over and over again.

How do you defeat this cycle of mediocrity?

The answer is to map out your capabilities, your potential. Map out what you can do, what you know how to do, so that when you face new problems, you’ve got as big a picture of your solutions as possible.

For example, this is a hilariously large mind map from a couple years ago about how to market a podcast:


(for a version you can actually read, click here for the PDF)

When faced with a question about marketing a podcast, instead of trying to wrack my brain for what I know, I can refer to a map I’ve made of what I know how to do. The map refreshes my memory and brings forward the full set of capabilities I can bring to bear.

Make your own mind maps of solutions you have to common marketing problems. When you face problems of a similar nature, you’ll know what you can do and be far more effective in choosing your strategy.

Remember: you are only as good as the capabilities you remember you can do.

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