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Digital Marketing

Marketing Freelancer, Full-Time Hire, or Agency: Which One Is For You?

January 13, 2021
Mae Rice

We dug into the pros and cons of the top three types of marketing talent. Yep, even freelancers. They’re our specialty at MarketerHire, but they're not for everyone!

Table of Contents

In 2018, Morgan Stanley reported that freelancers made up more than a third of the U.S. workforce, and forecasted that the proportion would grow over the next decade.

Two years later, they’ve already been proven right.

In 2020, when the pandemic radically changed work as we know it, the number of freelancers rose sharply amidst layoffs and budget changes. 

The shift doesn’t look temporary. 

Freelancers increasingly see self-employment as a long-term career path, and companies increasingly embrace them as a complement to full-time hires. 

Freelancers increasingly see self-employment as a long-term career path, and companies increasingly embrace them as a complement to full-time hires. 

Almost 90% of business leaders see freelance talent platforms as very or somewhat important to the future of their business, researchers at Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reported in “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” a study based on interviews with 700 senior business leaders at U.S. firms.

Source: "Building the On-Demand Workforce"

Meanwhile, 60% of the study’s respondents said that it was “highly” or “somewhat” likely that their full-time workforce would shrink in the future. 

This has major implications for how the American economy functions — and for how people assemble their marketing teams. 

Today, anyone hiring marketers needs to think rigorously about the trade-offs between freelancers, full-time hires and agencies.

Today, anyone hiring marketers needs to think rigorously about the trade-offs between freelancers, full-time hires and agencies.

MarketerHire CEO Chris Toy has already thought about exactly this for years. Below, we rounded up thoughts from him and other marketing experts on the pros and cons of each type of marketing talent.

The Pros of Freelancers

They can start promptly. 

A freelance marketer is great for an urgent project. They don’t have to give notice with their current employer; they’re available promptly. At MarketerHire, once a client requests a marketer,  it can take as little as three days for a freelancer to start work.

This nimbleness comes up in “Building the On-Demand Workforce” — more than 40% of respondents said that “using new talent platforms helped [their] organization hasten speed to market.”

Source: "Building the On-Demand Workforce"

They can hit the ground running. 

Many freelance marketers — especially in the MarketerHire community — know their preferred channels inside and out, from multiple clients’ perspectives. They can be treated more as expert collaborators than green employees, and they rarely need extensive onboarding. 

In fact, they may have more recent, relevant experience with certain marketing initiatives than their clients do. A first for a client isn’t necessarily a first for a freelance marketer — freelancers thrive on jobs repeated across organizations but not necessarily within them.

For instance: Launching a DTC startup’s first abandoned-cart sequence. There’s only one first per company, but nearly every e-commerce company has piloted an abandoned-cart sequence. 

That’s the type of project a freelancer can knock out of the park. 

They’ve seen your tech stack before — especially if you’re a DTC brand.

At least on a macro level, direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands are “all doing the same thing,” Toy noted. 

Many rely on the same marketing channels and software. “If you took 10 DTC companies, I can tell you within 90% accuracy what technology they use,” Toy said. “Most of them use Klaviyo, for example.”

That means many freelance marketers, especially those with backgrounds in the DTC space, will have worked with your tech stack before. 

They’re agile hires.

You can work with freelancers for as long (or short) as you need them. "It could be six months or six weeks," Toy said.

You can work with freelancers for as long (or short) as you need them. “It could be six months or six weeks,” Toy said.

No one knows what the business will need in the future — and no one needs to. Employers don’t have to state an endpoint, or make a long-term commitment, to start a contract. And ending one isn’t emotionally fraught, the way firing a full-time employee is; it’s an expected part of the engagement. 

They have stellar resumes.

“A much better marketer will freelance for you than will work for you at 99% of companies,” Toy said.

What does “better” mean, exactly? Things change fast in digital marketing, so it doesn’t always make sense to focus on years of experience as a quality indicator. Instead, Toy usually assesses marketers based on what they’ve done lately, for whom, and with what results.

On a freelance basis, companies can often afford marketers who have made major, measurable impact with high-caliber clients — and can use the latest martech to boot.

They’re a flexible expense. 

Speaking of affording things — freelancers are often the most affordable of the three types of marketing talent. When you don’t have essential work for them, you can cut their hours (or let them go entirely). 

In other words: You only pay for the work you need.

The Cons of Freelancers

They can be tough to integrate into existing systems. 

In “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” the researchers noted that C-suite executives saw major potential in hiring contractors through digital talent platforms — but middle managers saw “the looming challenges of implementation.”

Especially in large, complex bureaucracies that haven’t historically worked with freelancers, unlocking the power of freelancers can take some work up front. It might mean retooling existing workflows, or breaking down amorphous business objectives into clearly-defined projects.  (We’ve developed a freelancer onboarding workflow to help with some of that.)

It can also  require an HR reboot; typically, human resources has designed its onboarding and training protocols with full-time hires in mind, the Harvard and BCG researchers noted. 

They can quit suddenly. 

You’re not the only one who can end your collaboration with a freelance marketer. They can leave, too, for higher-paying work, personal reasons, or for no reason at all. 

This can be inconvenient — though it’s worth noting that full-time employees, too, can depart at inconvenient times.

At MarketerHire, “we don’t hide from the fact that things change,” Toy said. “We embrace resourcing being something that is agile and lean… That’s why we’ll match [clients] so fast.”

The Pros of Full-Time Hires

They’re in it for the long haul. 

A full-time hire involves a higher “level of mutual commitment,” Toy said, than a freelancer does.

Yes, they’re likely an at-will employee, but that doesn’t mean you can really terminate them with no consequences. Firing employees hurts team morale, and has implications for your unemployment insurance.

A full-time hire has incentives to stick with you, too; it’s a “red flag to hiring managers” if full-time employees routinely jump ship before their one-year anniversary with a company, CNBC reports

They can tackle idiosyncratic jobs... 

You might want a full-time hire if you want someone to tackle evolving or idiosyncratic tasks, Toy said. 

If you’re looking for someone “scrappy” to make 100 phone calls, then write an email campaign, then tackle who knows what, ”it’s probably better as an in-house process,” Toy said.

The same applies if you “want someone to mold into the job.” Full-time hires make sense for recurring internal tasks that are highly specific to one company — so much so that even experienced marketers won’t have seen them before.

...and fluid projects.

Unlike freelancers or agencies, you are your full-time employees’ only client. That means they’re easier to tap for spontaneous brainstorms and clarifying conversations about ambiguous projects, the Harvard and BCG researchers reported. 

Full-time employees can accommodate changes, even abrupt ones, almost immediately. 

They know your brand inside and out.

External contractors and agencies can help you see where your business fits into the larger market, but neither will get to know the granular inner workings of your business, and the nuances of its values and voice, quite like a full-time employee.

Brandon Rhoten, former CMO of Potbelly, has often worked with agencies and full-time employees simultaneously. 

“There's a lot of value in having an agency partner,” he told MarketerHire, but “the agency can never know the brand as well as the in-house team.”

The Cons of Full-Time Hires

It’s a heavy lift to hire them...

It’s much more labor-intensive to hire a full-time employee than a contractor. You don’t want to make a long-term commitment to just anyone — and neither do your candidates.

“More commitment is harder to get in any context,” Toy said. “Just like it's easy to date someone than it is to get them to marry you, that [full-time employee] commitment requires you to put more effort into recruiting.”

That means more manpower, more money, and most importantly, more time. It takes an average of 42 days to make a full-time hire, the Society of Human Resource Management reports, and for early stage startups, hiring a first marketer can take even longer — think three to six months, long-time marketer Arielle Jackson told the First Round Review.

...or let them go.

Letting full time employees go is awkward, bad for morale — and, perhaps worst of all, it involves hiring. That means a lot of companies stick with talent they only half-like, Toy noted. 

A lot of companies.

Hiring them requires compromise, especially on quality. 

As the old saw goes, you can pick two: good, cheap, or fast. That definitely applies to hiring full-time employees, Toy said. Often, to speed things up, he’s seen companies spend more than they’d like, or compromise on quality and hire someone “meh.”

Not that you want the best marketer in the world — that rarely makes financial sense. But even a solid marketer might be out of your price range if you demand full-time fealty.

They’re a fixed cost. 

You can’t scale a full-time employee’s hours up and down as your business needs (and revenue) evolve. During the coronavirus pandemic, many companies have implemented salary cuts, but that’s a rarity – usually, during a lean month, you still have to pay your salaried employees.

The Pros of Agencies

They’re a hivemind.

...or a team, as normal people call it. That means an agency can offer you something most individual marketers can’t: a trifecta of broad, deep, and current marketing expertise. 

It’s truer now than ever. Agencies are increasingly merging into one-stop marketing shops with excellent creative and data teams. 

This is especially true for agencies within holding companies, which “have to hustle to become all things to all people,” Ann Billock, a partner at consultancy Ark Advisors, told Digiday

They can help you figure out what you want.

If you don’t have the first clue about marketing, an agency can turn that into a success story more easily than a freelancer or an employee. 

Agencies can excavate your needs and meet them — though so can MarketerHire’s sales team. In a way, we fuse the breadth of expertise of an agency with the lower price point of freelancers.

They’re reliable. 

Obviously, agencies welcome (or at least take) client feedback. Unlike individual hires, though, agencies rarely require high-touch management. They have their own internal managers keeping tabs on deadlines, and making sure things hum along smoothly. 

“With an agency, you pay extra for that reliability,” said Camille Trent, MarketerHire’s managing editor and an agency alumna.

The Cons of Agencies

They’re expensive.

Working with agencies is expensive. They often have higher minimum retainers and hourly prices than individual marketers, which makes sense — you’re hiring a team, after all — but do you need one? 

Especially for early-stage companies strapped for cash, the answer might be no, Toy said.

It’s also worth noting that agency pricing can balloon over time, said Tracey Wallace, MarketerHire’s director of marketing. Many ad agencies charge in proportion to your ad spend, so the more you grow, the more they cost — even if they aren’t the ones driving your growth. 

Luckily, agencies don't have a monopoly on marketers with agency experience. Many freelance marketers started out at agencies.

Luckily, agencies don’t have a monopoly on marketers with agency experience. Many freelance marketers started out at agencies. 

They can be siloed in confusing ways.

When you’re hiring a freelancer or employee, the person you negotiate the contract with is the same person who executes the work. 

There’s not always a single source of truth at an agency, though. Many agencies have separate sales and execution teams, and they don’t always communicate well, noted Marc Barraza, director of paid media at MarketerHire and an agency alumnus.

Sales can sometimes create unrealistic expectations, and set clients up for disappointment. 

They struggle with employee turnover.

If you hire Wieden + Kennedy, you’re not necessarily hiring the same team that made Old Spice’s viral “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad.

At agencies, turnover is high; the Association of National Advertisers estimates that the average turnover rate at agencies is about 30%. (This year, with widespread layoffs, it could be higher.)

“Most agency folks stick around for one or two years,” Barraza said.

That means when you pay for an agency, you’re paying for brand name, in-house processes, and institutional knowledge. You’re not necessarily paying to work with superstars whose work you love. 

So, What Now?

It’s up to you! The way marketing leaders structure their teams is evolving every day — accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, a massive spike in remote work, and high levels of business uncertainty. 

Some companies are investing in full-time hires right now, while unemployment is high and talent is relatively affordable. Other organizations have become more cautious about bringing on full-time marketing employees and committing to fixed talent costs, instead opting to have a few full-timers manage freelancers or agencies.

Especially right now, here’s no single right answer. As the Harvard and BCG researchers note in “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” many major companies layer together all three types of marketing talent. 

However, if you’re in the midst of a recruiting push and you...

  • … want marketing talent fast.
  • … want the expertise of a long-time marketer — without the expense of a full agency team
  • … want to keep your recurring marketing expenses flexible.

Then hiring expert freelancers through MarketerHire might be a fit for you. Reach out to us anytime — we’ll hand-pick a freelance marketer for you.

Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is senior editor at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she enjoys interviewing marketing experts and learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture. She also loves any ad that makes her say "Huh?!" — especially Tim and Eric's ad for Totino's pizza rolls, which she watches way more often than you would think.

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