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Should You Choose a Generalist or Specialist Marketing Agency?

Should you choose a generalist or specialist marketing agency? There's no wrong or right answer. But here are some questions to help you decide.

When you decide to hire an outside marketing agency – either because you want to outsource your marketing entirely or supplement your existing in-house team – you’ll have a lot of decisions to make.

And one of the biggest will be whether to hire a generalist or specialist agency.

Let’s start by defining our terms: a generalist marketing agency is one that handles all kinds of marketing. These may include (but not be limited to):

  • Content creation and strategy
  • Social media management
  • SEO
  • SEM
  • Email marketing
  • Analytics
  • Media buying
  • Affiliate marketing.

A specialist agency, in contrast, will focus on only one of those channels. So they will do only SEO or only email marketing, for example.

So which should you choose?

There’s no wrong or right answer.

But as you might have guessed, each choice has its pros and cons.

Perhaps this is why some businesses end up switching from one to the other and then back again. They’re never entirely happy because they’re never entirely clear on what they need.

For example, we just lost a client because they wanted to transition to a generalist agency. Ironically, we actually took on this client five years ago because they wanted to transition from a generalist to a specialist agency!

By taking a closer look at the pros and cons – and by answering a few questions – you can hopefully make a decision that you can stick with for the longer term.

Let’s walk through some of them.

Q1: Do You Need All Marketing Channels Offered? Or Only One or Two Predominantly?

Does your organization need all of the marketing channels listed above? Probably not. Affiliate marketing isn’t a great fit for B2B companies, for example.

If you lean heavily on one marketing discipline for most of your leads, then you might be better off with a specialist agency, or perhaps two specialist agencies.

For example, PPC drives 55-70% of leads for some of our clients, which makes them a great fit for a specialist agency.

If they decide to put more emphasis on a different marketing channel in the future, then they might want to hire a second agency that specializes in that area.

You might assume that with a big agency your account team will be made up of specialists who are experts in your preferred marketing channels.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

This point came home to us recently when we were interviewing to fill a position on my team.

The candidate was working for a generalist agency. We asked her specific questions about PPC management (an area she supported) and her answers revealed a lack of deep understanding.

Concerned, we asked if she had a Google Ads expert on her team she could go to if she had questions. She did not. Instead, she would have to call the Google helpline for assistance.

Given our recent poor experiences with the Google helpline, this was also not encouraging.

What’s more, she noted that her agency had moved into digital about five years ago and was working to get caught up. Gulp!

Thankfully, this isn’t always the case. Some generalist agencies are good about hiring and assigning real channel experts to account teams.

Even so, we still get a fair number of clients coming to us from generalist agencies with complaints about a lack of knowledge in the marketing channels they needed the most.

So when you’re considering hiring a generalist agency, ask questions to find out who will be on your account team.

  • What is their background and experience in your preferred marketing channels?
  • How much turnover can you expect?
  • Who can they turn to for advice, guidance, and training?

And if they say the Google helpline, run!

Q2: How Big Is Your Budget?

Say you’re a small manufacturing company, and you create a specific product for a specific type of audience.

Your total monthly marketing budget is $1,000 per month, which leaves a small monthly budget of about $300 for your Google Ads program.

It’s unlikely that a specialist PPC agency will be willing to take on that account. It’s simply too small.

However, you might find a generalist agency (or marketing person) that will be willing to manage it for you.

Q3: Are You New to the Game?

If you’re a startup, it’s often best to hire a generalist first.

You want someone who’s solid, trustworthy, and can figure out just about anything.

Then, as you grow, you can start hiring specialists, either in-house or as agencies.

The original generalist will continue to run the department as you grow. And they’ll do it well because everything will have already passed through their hands.

Q4: Do You Prioritize Performance or Convenience?

In some cases, convenience is the number one consideration.

You don’t have time to meet with your SEO consultant, then your social media consultant and then your content marketer. If that’s the case, then a generalist is the way to go.

However, in many cases, performance is the priority. And is well worth the time it takes to manage multiple specialists.

Q5: Do You Already Have an in House Team, but You’re Lacking in One Area?

Maybe you already have a solid in-house team, but you can’t seem to nail down the right specialist in one particular area.

I get it! Sometimes, it’s really hard to find the perfect fit.

In those cases, an option is to keep your in house team but then bring in a specialist agency to manage that one marketing stream for you.

We have done this for companies before. Sometimes it’s for a short term (while they’re trying to hire the right in house person) and sometimes it’s for a longer term (they give up on hiring the right person and keep us on).

Whatever You Do, Ask Questions

As you can see, the decision as to whether to go with a generalist or specialist will depend on your situation.

But regardless of the decision you make, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Who will be working on your account? What are their specialties? Who can they go to for support?

And if you’re not happy with the answers, keep on looking.

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Category Careers
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Pauline Jakober CEO at Group Twenty Seven

Pauline Jakober is CEO of Group Twenty Seven, a boutique online advertising agency specializing in Google Ads and Microsoft Ads ...

Should You Choose a Generalist or Specialist Marketing Agency?

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