Solving the Dilemma of Agency, In-House Team, Freelancer, or AI

Finding the Right Client-Agency Fit Series – Part 1

Digital MarketingEditor's Pick
By Bryan Phelps | December 21, 2023 | 13 min read

Join in on the conversation about Client-Agency Fit here on LinkedIn

Most companies have had at least one disappointing experience with an agency, and with more and more agencies starting up every day (the number of digital marketing agencies in the U.S. has grown 54% from 2018 to 2023), finding the right fit can be daunting.

To guide you in this endeavor, the Big Leap team and I are sharing solid insights based on our 15+ year run as an agency (that’s 3x longer than most other agencies out there). The goal? To help you find the right client-agency fit. Because let’s be real—there’s a whole art and science to vetting and hiring a digital marketing agency.

What does the right digital marketing agency even encompass? What are the factors that determine your definition of “right?”

I’ve been on both sides of the issue as a digital marketing client and as CEO of an agency. There’s a lot to unravel, which is why this client-agency fit series is broken down into five parts:

  1. Solving the Dilemma of Agency, In-House Team, Freelancer, or AI
  2. The Costs of Choosing the Wrong Agency
  3. Hiring and Onboarding a Digital Marketing Agency
  4. The Inner Workings of a Powerful Agency/Client Relationship
  5. The Results of a Successful Marketing Partnership

This first part dissects the common yet essential dilemma—should you partner with an agency, in-house team, freelancer, or AI? To lay the right groundwork, I start by diving into why you’re looking for a digital marketing solution and then discuss the key considerations your team needs to reflect on when looking at options.

I hope this helps you find the right agency and feel more confident during your decision-making journey.

What Drives the Search for a Digital Marketing Solution?

5 Signs It's Time to Hire a Digital Marketing Agency

Let’s explore the why first. Why are you looking around at possible agencies? Why do you need help? What are the signs that it’s time to hire a digital marketing agency?

Instead of leaning on good old Google to find some validation and answers, I thought I’d share some first-hand experiences of what I’ve seen myself and what our clients have shared.

You Want to Optimize Resources 

It can be a smart decision for some businesses to spend their money on an agency that already has the staff and expertise available, rather than try to hire and train in-house. We see many clients who are in this position.

The way that works varies on a client-by-client basis. For example, some want us to do the keyword research, ideation, and outlines while their teams take on the writing. Others split up the tasks—we do all SEO and content while the client manages other internal tasks.

Tyler Brown, Senior Director of SEO
Oftentimes they’ve worked with a one-stop shop, and they are looking for an agency that specializes in specific disciplines (e.g., SEO, Content Marketing, etc.). On the flip side, sometimes companies are limited in resources, and managing multiple agencies is not as efficient as just managing one that is good at everything.
–  Tyler Brown, Senior Director of SEO

You Are Looking to Scale

Some companies may be scaling or looking to scale. Thus, they need the extra bandwidth to augment their efforts.

Partnering with an agency not only opens the doors to expertise and resources but also opens up additional growth channels. Clients who have access to an agency’s specialists (whether that be copywriters, search engine optimization experts, or web developers) don’t have to oversee and execute the many complex tasks required to scale their business’s online presence.

A reputable agency can serve as an insightful resource to help you identify additional strategies to maximize your gross profit and reduce costs.

You Were Let Down

Over the years, I’ve witnessed businesses hire an agency they think will be awesome and are then disappointed after the engagement gets going. Often, the client liked the salespeople or leadership, but the agency’s day-to-day team wasn’t living up to the hype. Or, there was much enthusiasm at the beginning, but over time, the agency seemed to disengage or simply go through the motions.

Tyler Brown, Senior Director of SEO
When companies hire us to handle their SEO, Paid, etc., they will often mention they felt like they were driving/babysitting their last agency, and they want our agency to be more proactive and to be the experts.
–  Tyler Brown, Senior Director of SEO

You Need a Trusted Source of Expertise and Innovation

It’s easy to get tunnel vision; seeking outside help and validation can be a strategy that ensures you’re investing your marketing efforts well.

Certain clients recognize an agency has broader digital marketing experience versus their in-house team, who may be less aware of what’s happening outside your current campaign or niche industry.

Additionally, most clients don’t understand the ins and outs of SEO and PPC. They get it at a high level, but they’re looking to us to be innovative, propose new ideas, and help them boost their authority in a given industry.

Jaime Theler, Creative Services Director
Many clients are looking to the agency as the experts, to develop a strategy. They don’t want to be the ones always coming up with ideas. They want to collaborate with us but want us to lead the way.
– Jaime Theler, Creative Services Director

The Marketing Solution Dilemma: Agency, In-House Team, Freelancer, or AI?

As you navigate through your company’s needs and budget, you’ll likely consider four marketing solutions:

  1. Hire an agency
  2. Hire an in-house team
  3. Contract a freelancer
  4. Use AI

There’s a lot that can be covered here and I’ll break it down for you. But first…

Marketing Budget Calculator

Not Sure How Much To Spend On Marketing?

A company’s budget is dependent on a variety of factors like industry, revenue, and goals. But even if there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, the good news is, we’ve dug up useful industry statistics in order to create a tool to help you establish the right budget.

We conducted extensive research in order to discover how businesses of all shapes, sizes and industries allocate budgets. It helped us develop calculations based on real data. So give it a try!

Use our custom digital marketing calculator to estimate the best budget for you. Just input the industry you’re in, your annual revenue, and how aggressive you’d like to be. We’ll crunch the numbers and deliver a suggested budget amount that matches your criteria.

What industry is your company in?

Please select an industry to proceed.

What was your business's revenue (total sales) last year?*

This works best with an annual revenue of at least $100,000.


How aggressive do you want to be?

  • Low - cash is tight or we don't have the bandwidth for new customers but want to keep our marketing active.
  • Medium - we want to grow conservatively with a traditional marketing spend.
  • High - we have big growth goals and are ready to scale.
Please select how aggressive you want to be.
Please address error(s) above.

Recommended Monthly Digital Marketing Budget

Disclaimer: These are recommendations based on industry stats but each business and industry is different. Some channels may be more important for your industry vs. the industry averages. Contact Big Leap to get a customized proposal.

The Pros and Cons of Working with an Agency, In-House Team, and Freelancer

Here’s an at-a-glance rundown of the pros and cons for each digital marketing solution.

Agency pros and cons
In House Pros and Cons

A Deeper Analysis of Value When Comparing Agency, In-House, and Freelancer

Cost structure will differ across agency, in-house, and freelance. They will even differ within each entity.

The truth is, while you will compare costs to see which digital marketing solution you can or can’t afford, there are less visible considerations to explore. You need to examine the value you’re getting from those numbers. In other words, what are you gaining from spending that money?

For example, while some clients may pay agencies by the hours, I prefer to focus on outcomes and purpose-based deliverables.

The Capability and Capacity of One Person vs. an Entire Team

Realistically, you can hire one full-time in-house marketer for the same amount as you’d pay an agency for a year.

Can one person do everything an agency can do?

  • Manpower: A team can offer access to a diverse talent pool (knowledgeable in SEO, content marketing, email marketing, reporting, and more). And I guarantee their combined hours and workload will be much higher than what one person could possibly handle.
  • Services: In addition to digital marketing, other services are usually required to meet your needs and goals. They include social media marketing, email marketing, conversion rate optimization, and PPC.
  • Growth opportunities: I often see businesses use a hub-and-spoke model for scaling their marketing efforts. An example is an in-house VP of Marketing who oversees collaboration with an agency. This allows for maximum control and ultimate flexibility to pull off any strategy required, even at a moment’s notice.

4 Forms of Value Beyond the Price Tag

It’s not just the price tag of a service that you should consider when agency shopping. There are other forms of value that merit deep consideration:

  • Greater Gross Profit: Revenue is only half the story. Will the agency, in-house team, or freelancer maximize your gross profit in addition to increasing revenue?
  • Reduce Cost: Can your partner help reduce costs in the long run? For example, if you have a separate PPC vendor, can your digital marketing partner offer the same service at a lower rate or with additional services?
  • Cost Avoidance: Spending time and money on a marketing strategy is only worth it if the desired results come along with it. Many businesses fall into the trap of thinking a lovely landing page is all that’s needed to bring in leads. But if that page isn’t technically optimized for SEO or aesthetically optimized for CRO, that’s a sunk cost with no ROI.
  • Insurance: Your ideal partner should follow the latest online marketing and search engine updates, which will help your business mitigate or bounce back from potential dips in online performance (e.g. traffic, rankings, etc.). For example, one client’s website was flagged by Google after an algorithm update. We were able to dive in and make the necessary changes to save our client up to $10 million in lost lead opportunities.

Again, it’s not just the initial number of how much an agency, in-house team, or freelancer will cost you. It’s about taking a step back and observing the opportunity costs of not hitting the mark.

What are you missing out on? 

How will these missed opportunities impact your business?

By thinking about these questions, you gain a wider perspective on what digital marketing solution is worth investing in and why.

What About Using AI for Digital Marketing?

I didn’t forget to talk about the giant elephant in the room—AI. How to choose the best digital marketing agency now involves this heavily discussed subject.

  • AI is a top priority this year for marketers—64% of marketers express AI is either very important or critically important to their success over the next 12 months.
  • Reducing time spent on repetitive tasks is the top outcome 77% of marketers want to achieve with AI.

Digital marketers have been reflecting upon how artificial intelligence has been and will be shifting the industry. Every agency should have an AI policy by now.

No policy is the same—each digital marketer carries different opinions and use cases for AI, so it’s essential to check what these are. You want to ensure your partner’s AI philosophy and approach align with yours.

FAQs About Using AI for Digital Marketing

We get a ton of questions from clients about using AI for their digital marketing, whether as a substitution for or an addition to their current solution. Here’s a quick rundown.

If I use AI to create content or images, what are the risks involved?

According to Gartner, 80% of executives believe their business can apply AI to any business decision. But advancements come with new risks.

  • Only 3% of executives cited data and privacy as a primary AI concern, but 41% of surveyed companies have experienced data breaches resulting from their AI processes.

Other substantial risks are:

  • Privacy: AI can be a double-edged sword. It works by learning from volumes of data that may or may not be collected or provided ethically. This situation forces businesses to deal with privacy issues. For example, in the recent Hollywood writers’ strike, AI became a top concern among creatives due to issues such as privacy, copyright, and consent.
  • Plagiarism: Since AI can reword sources, how and where it collects the sources is debatable. The tool may cross legal boundaries, opening up a whole new conversation around compliance.
  • Intellectual Property: In August 2023, federal courts ruled that artwork (content and images) generated by artificial intelligence does not have the same copyright protections as human-created art.

Of course, these areas are evolving as we speak, so it’s best to stay vigilant and updated on all things AI and digital marketing. Doing so will be your tool for safeguarding your brand’s credibility.

If I’m not using AI to create content, will I fall behind my competitors?

It depends on how you’re using AI to create content. But we will say that staying rooted in ethical content practices (e.g., fact and source checking) will be your golden ticket to gaining the authority your brand deserves and maintaining your competitive edge in the market.

To add, Google’s latest helpful content system update states:

“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results.”

While you can use AI to speed up the research and optimization process, your team should take time to ensure the content aligns with your audience’s unique needs and pain points and is grounded in human thought and knowledge.

Read more from the almighty search engine on creating helpful, reliable, people-first content.

Is investing in an agency more valuable than saving time and money with AI?

For us, it comes down to this—AI is assistive, not autonomous. While we leverage AI to help us to be more efficient, achieve higher quality, and provide more value to clients, we keep human thought, creativity, and knowledge at the forefront of everything we create.

While AI is undoubtedly disruptive and changing rapidly, AI cannot replace a human’s strategic and creative thinking or the quality and impact of original content. Experienced content marketing and SEO teams are critical ingredients to a successful digital marketing campaign.

With that said, the right digital marketing agency—an agency that understands AI’s nuances and ever-changing tides—is worth sticking with. Fifty-eight percent of marketers say they’re still exploring how AI works and the potential value it will bring. Digital marketing is an ever-changing industry, and you want an agency that can adapt to shifts, whether that’s AI or anything else.

How can my business benefit from AI-assisted marketing?

Right now, your business can benefit from AI-assisted marketing in three key ways:

  1. Improved efficiency: AI can speed up repetitive tasks such as data gathering and entry.
  2. Audience-insight: AI can gather a range of information on your target geographic, demographic, and psychographic audience.
  3. Better decision-making: AI can analyze large sets of data efficiently and accurately to help you make more informed marketing decisions.
  4. Customer experience: AI can help you better predict and communicate with your audience. This improves the customer experience and helps build brand loyalty and affinity.
AI Pros and Cons

Which Digital Marketing Solution Gives the Greatest ROI?

You must do five things to answer this question:

  1. Determine your short- and long-term goals for your digital marketing efforts.
  2. Think about what quality marketing work looks like for your company and your audience.
  3. Take a hard look at what’s needed to produce what’s needed and expected.
  4. Consider each option’s values, work style, needs, abilities, and capacities.
  5. Evaluate digital marketing solutions that align with your answers above.

Only after this can you determine if an agency, in-house team, freelancer, or AI brings your business its greatest return on investment.

Did I Miss Anything?

What did I miss or are there areas where you’d like me to delve deeper? I hope you’ll contribute to the conversation—I’m all ears and here to assist. In fact, so is my entire Big Leap team of experts. So reach out.

There’s More to All of This, So Stay Tuned

The journey doesn’t end here. Next, drawing on my 15+ years of experience of being a digital marketing client and agency CEO, I’ll give you deep insights into the opportunity costs of hiring the wrong digital marketing agency. So grab another glass of your favorite beverage and buckle in for the next ride.

Leveraging 15+ Years of Digital Marketing Wisdom to Find the Right Client-Agency Fit