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When Startups Should Use Agencies: 3 Situations

Heidi Zak

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Most founders end up using a number of agencies when their startups are still in the early stage.

You really don’t have a choice at that point. The money just isn’t there to hire full-time talent in every department.

When my husband and I co-founded our startup, we were in the exact same boat. We used a digital marketing agency for the first few years because hiring a team of digital marketers made no sense without having the capital to support it.

But as the company grew, we brought the core areas of our business in-house. And even as an established business, we work with an agency from time to time.

Here’s when it can be the right move:

1. If the task isn’t essential to your core differentiators.

Agencies are great for contributing to projects or tasks that would place a large time burden on your team.

At some point along the way, our team has used an agency for just about every part of our business. Influencer marketing, Facebook advertising, quality control, accounting — each area benefited from outside help when we were still an early-stage startup.

But we never used anyone else to design our own products. That’s something we’ve always seen as our core competency, and we felt it had to be handled internally or we’d never build the best possible product.

You shouldn’t rely on an agency to contribute to your core differentiators. They’re just too important to your success to trust to anyone else. If you’re a product company, keep your product close. If you’re a marketing company, never outsource your marketing.

But there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t outsource the less important aspects of your business in the beginning — at least for awhile.

2. When you’re trying to learn something new.

It’s a good idea to use an agency when you’re figuring out the best way to execute in a certain area.

For example, we used a digital marketing company for Facebook advertising back in the early days of ThirdLove. Once we got to a point where we felt like we had the requisite skill and money to spend, we began building an internal team.

You don’t want to end up hiring a full-time team before you’ve actually proven what works.

It’s not a good idea to say, “Oh, I think search engine marketing is going to be huge for us,” and then immediately hire two experts to do it. You may discover that SEM doesn’t work for you at all, and now you have two people who can’t contribute to your startup’s success.

When you hire an in-house team, you’re committing significant resources to the department. It’s much easier to change direction when you’re using an agency.

3. Once you’re searching for radically different ideas.

Agencies are great when you want to evolve your brand or do something radical.

The difficulty with attempting to do this on your own is that you’re too close to your brand. You know it too well. It’s very much a part of your DNA, and that makes it hard to push evolution internally.

An outside agency can come in and take your brand to a new place, somewhere it’s never been before. They can progress in a new direction.

That’s why our team at ThirdLove recently decided to work with an agency, Partners & Spade, to launch our first national brand campaign, “To Each, Her Own.” The campaign celebrates women in universally understood moments in time, highlighting a breadth of women from different walks of life and different backgrounds. It’s a completely different style than the “vanilla” brand we began with — a look that wouldn’t have been possible without the help of an outside agency’s perspective.

Just remember that nobody knows your brand like you do. No agency is ever going to protect your brand the way you would or make the exact same decisions. You have to be a part of what’s happening — you can’t just sit back and watch as they make all the decisions.

Get involved in the process, manage expectations, and give them feedback. At the end of the day, you’re paying for the service, so you have to make sure the output is something you’re truly happy with.

Heidi Zak is the co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove. Prior to ThirdLove, Zak cut her teeth in retail at Aeropostale where she quickly rose to Director of the retail giant, launching and running the International Division, before becoming a marketing executive at Google. Zak holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from Duke University and an MBA from MIT Sloan. In her free time she loves spending time with her two kids. Heidi has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People, Goldman Sachs 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, Business Insider's 30 Female-Founded Startups to Watch, and SF Business Times 40 Under 40. Follow her on Instagram: @Heidi.

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