Welcome to the Collective Content How to choose a content agency podcast series. In each episode, our hosts Daine Lindsay and Collective Content MD Tony Hallett are joined by content marketing experts to help companies choose their next agency wisely. In Episode 1, we’re joined by senior editor John Oates and freelance writer and trainer Jon Bernstein to help you figure out the pros and cons of getting in-house, agency or freelance help. Check out our full How to choose a content agency guide, available here.
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John Oates: There are huge advantages to freelancers from the opposite side, from the commissioning side, just to cover some of the negatives. It’s a bit like a builder. If you find a freelancer and they’re available tomorrow, you’re worried, you know, why? Do they not have enough work? And to turn that on its head, as an ex-freelancer, you never say no to work, even if maybe it would be more sensible for you to go. ‘You know what? I’m really going to struggle to hit that deadline unless I’m going to be working late at night after a couple of glasses of wine.’
Jon Bernstein: John, your argument is so convincing that I’m going to stop saying I’m available tomorrow. That’s the first thing that I’m going to do.
One, two, three, four.
Daine Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Collective Content Podcast. My name is Daine and this is our How to choose a content agency podcast series. Our first episode is all about the three main choices of in-house, agency or freelancer? In each episode, I’ll be joined by professionals in the field of content marketing to help companies choose their next agency wisely. Today we have John Oates, a Collective Content senior editor, and Jon Bernstein, freelance writer, trainer, moderator and friend of this agency.
And if you want to get your hands on more expert advice on this subject, then please check out the full Collective Content How to choose a content agency guide, available on our website. Link in the description.
But right now, also joining us is my co-host, Collective Content managing director, Tony Hallett. Hi, Tony.
Tony Hallett: Hi there, Daine. Yeah, really great to be here and welcoming John and John to this first episode.
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Three, two, one. Yeah.
Daine: So when should a company be making the choice, Tony?
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Tony: It’s a good question, when to make the choice, and I think the thing I would say is that most organisations come at this not from a greenfield, start up position. Normally every organisation has got something already happening and they’re working to different degrees with an in-house team, with agencies – or maybe an agency – and freelancers.
And it’s all about getting that right mix. There are some other options. I mean, we’ve seen over the years in the last 15 years or so, publishers, they’ll have commercial studios or other things where they can produce commercial content for you. And of course, a lot of which at the moment is about AI and the role it will play.
But I think the three main options: in-house, agency or freelancer, and I think you’re always making the choice to be honest, you’re always assessing what the right mix is.
Daine: And so when making that choice, what would be considered the pros and cons of in-house agency or freelancer, Jon Bernstein?
Jon: Thank you, first of all, for inviting me. Really going to look forward to this conversation.
So, in-house. I think one of the pros of in-house is also one of the cons of in-house. So this idea that you are very close to the company, to its ethos, to its mission, to its values, to its roadmap, to its products and its services. Actually, that’s one of the cons of being in-house as well, because sometimes you can be too close.
Some distance is incredibly useful, I think, when you’re creating content, when you’re writing, for after all, you’re writing for the reader, the listener or the viewer, you’re writing for the customer or the would-be customer. So being able to take that perspective requires a little bit of distance. I think one of the downsides of being in-house is sometimes you can be a little bit too close.
Daine: John Oates?
John: I’d agree. I think there’s always a danger that the in-house team sort of revert to the marketing messages because they know them so well without thinking “what does this mean to someone from outside the company?” Or even slightly outside your industry. What does it mean just to a reader who’s chanced upon this content. And either an agency or a freelancer can give you that bit of distance and maybe convert your marketing messages into real language.
Tony: I’m going to also add something which you might not expect from someone on the agency side, which is a pro of in-house around cold, hard financials. And what I mean by that is if you’ve got enough work, even with the extra costs of employing someone full time with, you know, taxes, holiday, sick pay, you name it, if you’ve got a solid week of work, you will get better bang for your buck through an in-house team. And that’s just a cold financial calculation.
I’m not saying you won’t also need agencies and freelancers. It’s when there’s not enough work or it’s unpredictable when you want the agility of those other channels. But it’s overlooked. But I’ve certainly heard it from clients over the years that say, you know, actually our cost per hour is less with the in-house people. It can lead to problems down the line, but that can absolutely be true.
John: I think the counterpoint is that everyone thinks that content is predictable and that you can easily create three and a half pieces per week, week in, week out. And the reality, as we all know, is that there are peaks and troughs. There are marketing campaigns that happen three or four times a year that require a whole bunch of content, and then you might be left with your in-house team twiddling their thumbs for a week or two waiting for the next peak.
Tony: Very true.
Daine: What would be further pros and cons to agencies then, Tony?
Tony: Um, yeah. I mean, again, you would probably expect me to talk about all the things in favour of using an agency, but certainly the agility. Agencies should be a buffer for you against the ups and downs of the outside world. What I mean by that is you have a predictable relationship.
You know how much you’re probably going to be spending. It can vary, but you might have a set monthly spend and the agency is the one out there dealing with what’s changing in the market, dealing with having the right people on the right pieces of work. They should be a trusted advisor that knows what trends are going on and how you should be altering your marketing on this.
I think clearly there are lots of pros to having the right agencies in place, but also I think we’ll get into it. It’ll be tricky as well.
Jon: Yeah, let me add a tricky and then I’ll add a positive to this discussion. I think one of the things that can be tricky is clearly not all agencies are built the same and some agencies that do, for example, that do content as a bolt on, you can very obviously see that they do content as a bolt on.
And actually it’s a specialist, not a skill, but it’s a craft and a series of crafts and getting the right people who know and understand those crafts and know how those crafts go together – not just writing, but editing and sub-editing and commissioning, creating infographics, creating audio, creating videos – those are crafts that are learnt over a period of time.
So having an agency for whom content is a bolt on is, I think, a danger sign. In terms of the positives just building on, well, I won’t build on it, but I’ll just echo Tony’s point around agility and scale. Clearly that’s an advantage. The other advantage, I think, is if you do find an agency that has hired well and it’s hired people that know how to, and here comes an overused term, that knows how to tell stories, knows how to hire storytellers.
Then you’re on to something. I think really quite good and really quite interesting. And I’m tempted to say ex-journalists, as there are at least three journalists on this very podcast, but they learn certain skills or certain crafts that are really useful in terms of being 100% transferable to this kind of content. So let me give you three.
So the first one is the ability to ask questions, not only intelligent questions, but also dumb questions. Often you ask a dumb question, you get a very interesting answer. But also, they understand that you’re asking questions in the service of that reader, that listener, that viewer. So the what I call the five Ws and the inconvenient H of storytelling, the who, the what, the why, the when, the where and the how.
Asking those questions in the spirit and in the service of the reader is really important. So that’s number one. Number two, and it’s obviously related, is understanding what’s most important. So you’ve asked those questions, you’ve done your research, understanding what is the most important aspect of this and being able to surface that most important part of the story. And then number three, which is very obviously related to number two, is knowing what to leave out, is knowing what to exclude from your storytelling.
There’s a real danger, and I say it all the time with content marketing and the like, where people try to cram absolutely everything into their stories and they are stories written by committee. Whereas what a journalist does, and a little bit like the political phrase, you know, to govern is to choose, well, to edit is to choose. And that ability and that confidence to know what to include as well as what to exclude is really, really vital.
So if you’ve got an agency that’s hired well and has the right skills, then I think you’re on to a good thing.
John: Yeah. I’d agree with that. I think the issue with some agencies is that you can be buying a black box and you’re not really sure what you’re getting and where it’s coming from, Jon Bernstein’s covered the skills.
There’s also quite a boring process to doing this, about interviewing people, about doing your research before and after, about doing the writing and the editing and the sub-editing. Going through those steps, which again is second nature to journalists and subeditors, really helps hone the best possible copy. In film-making, they talk about a dated phrase now, but the cutting room floor, the bits that get removed, the fat that gets removed, that is really important. Particularly when creating content for the web, where time is limited and you don’t have 2000 words and 20 minutes of someone’s time.
You’ve got to get to the message quickly.
Tony: Time is limited, but the space is unlimited. So if you’re not careful, you get the worst of both extremes. But to go back to what you were saying earlier, what you’re touching on is transparency. And I’m always amazed at how infrequently in our case, for example, clients don’t ask us about our process or about who’s going to be working on their projects and their account.
All of that is up for grabs. So we encourage anyone listening to this, ask those questions upfront and just try and get an idea of who’s going to be there for you. This is perfectly allowable.
Daine: I guess we’ve left it to last as we have an ex-freelancer and a current freelancer. But what would be the pros and cons of freelancers, Jon Bernstein?
Jon: Yes, vested interest alert. So I’m going to tell you some pros. I’ll leave it to others to tell you some cons. So just a couple, three things very quickly, if I can. One: see above around storytelling. So I think that whole idea of people that know how to tell stories is useful. A bit similar to Tony’s points around that sort of flexibility. Clearly freelancers can’t do the scale, but they can potentially add to the scale. But they can certainly do the flexibility. Freelancers are used to being asked at the 11th hour. They’re used to working to deadline. It’s in their own interest to deliver professionally and to deadline because that’s where the next piece of work comes from. If the quality is good and the professionalism is good, they’re going to get more work.
So there’s a vested interest there. And then the final point I’d make is around breadth of experience. I think one of the nice things of being a freelancer is you get to do lots of different things and actually those things, although they feel tangential, are interlinked. So again, I can only talk from my own experience, but I spend my time roughly doing the following three things a third, a third, a third of my time.
So I spend a third of my time moderating events, MCing, conferencing, chairing debates. And so I get to speak a lot of people, a lot of senior decision makers, a lot of customers, would-be customers – the kind of people that we probably want to be thinking about when we’re writing this kind of content. And I’m hearing first-hand, unmediated, about their challenges, their opportunities, their pain points, etc., etc..
Exactly the kind of things that we talk about day in, day out when it comes to this kind of content creation. So that’s what I spend a third of my time doing, and I bring that to bear to my writing. I spend another set of my time running training courses, so I run writing courses, effective writing courses, a lot of the times with in-house content teams, as it happens. And I always start those workshops by saying and insisting I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.
And why do I say that? It’s because I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, and I wouldn’t pretend to. And you tend to find out – I’ve never run a workshop where I haven’t found out something interesting. I’ve learned something from those in-house teams. I’ve learned about how they have to make some compromises, how they get around certain issues, how they are pragmatic, bits of best practice as well.
So again, I’m learning something and again I can bring it to bear to that final part of what I do, which is that final third spent writing. So that’s the, I suppose, the arguments for freelancing. I’m interested to hear some of the arguments against freelancing.
Tony: I’m really interested to hear John Oates as well, because you’ve been on the freelance side and you’ve commissioned freelancers. So tell us what how would you commission yourself?
John: Yeah, no, there are huge advantages to freelancers from the opposite side, from the commissioning side, from my time, as an editor, just to cover some of the negatives. It’s a bit like a builder. If you find a freelancer and they’re available tomorrow, you’re worried, you know. Why do they not have enough work?
And to turn it on its head as an ex-freelancer, you never say no to work, even if maybe it would be more sensible for you to go, “You know what? I’m really going to struggle to hit that deadline unless I’m going to be working late at night after a couple of glasses of wine.” So that’s one issue.
The other issue is, is managing them because a freelancer sounds great. It’s just someone you phone up, you send them 200 quid and they do the work for you. The reality is they need managing just like any other staff. You don’t need one. You need several depending on how much content you’re trying to create. You need some people you’re bringing on, and frankly, you might need some people who you’re putting out to pasture or leaving to do other things, move on to other clients or go in-house or getting to our age, perhaps retiring, who knows?
So it’s an ongoing process. It’s like a stable that you need to manage, and you need to keep in touch with these people. You need to know when they’re on holiday, when they’re away, when they’re getting married, when they’re moving house, when they’re going to be unavailable. And all of that is a management overhead that I think people overlook with the idea that, no, you just pick up the phone or fire out an email and one of these people is going to fall from the sky and doesn’t need onboarding, either in practical terms with your accounts, or more likely, just learning your tone of voice, learning how you work as a company.
So yeah, I think the end result of this conversation is that we’re going to need a mix, probably, and freelancers provide part of that mix, but relying on them for the majority of your content comes with a sizable management overhead, that’s what I’d say.
Jon: John, your argument is so convincing that I’m going to stop saying I’m available tomorrow. That’s the first thing that I’m going to do, and I think you’re right, I think those are very reasonable pushbacks to this. All I would say, and again, it’s a bit like finding the right builder once you’ve found the right builder, you cling onto them and you don’t let go.
So building those relationships I think is really important and can be incredibly fruitful. But points taken.
Tony: We’re big fans of freelancers here. We don’t base our business only on freelance talent. So Jon Bernstein, we work with you. We work with a small number of really unbelievably great freelancers for reasons of quality and sometimes niche expertise, unlike some other agencies, as I say, where we happen to have most of our talent in-house, but it works.
It’s a really great set up. And on the negative side, if we’re thinking about a company, an organisation commissioning freelancers, I think, John Oates you touched on the idea of the juggling freelancers, where it’s like a hub and spoke relationship. And a lot of freelancers aren’t going to be talking to each other, so you’re centrally trying to sometimes balance and manage what multiple people are doing.
And there was another really brief point. We touched on this in our episode around onboarding and legal. Sounds dull, it’s a really great episode, but a lot of big organisations can’t bring on freelancers onto their books, and sometimes therefore we get into this in another episode where they have to use a go between if they really, really want a particular person and that can have issues around liability.
So who’s actually employing who in that set up? So I think we and in-house teams can be big fans of freelancers, but everyone can also go into this eyes wide open
Daine: Can the size of a company or the size of the project affect which option a company should choose, Jon Bernstein?
Jon: I think it absolutely can, and it probably does on every occasion. And I think one of the things, certainly looking at it slightly from the outside that feels sensible and useful to do is to do a bit of mental maths, to do a bit of mental auditing of what you’re planning to do. I mean, as I think John Oates mentioned earlier, you can’t plan for the unknown, but you can plan for the known.
So getting a sense of frequency and volume of content. What’s your intention with this project or as a company, what is the frequency and volume you think is most likely? What kind of content you want to produce? What platforms do you want to put it on? Just doing that mental maths at the beginning and getting a sense of actually, well, what is the heft and breadth of this thing that we want to do that we call content? That is going to influence absolutely the decisions you make next.
And I think without skipping to the end, it does feel to me, as John Oates said, that a mix of sort of these three elements we’ve mentioned is absolutely the way inevitably you’re going to go. What that mix is probably depends on the earlier part of my answer.
Daine: John Oates?
John: I think it is something that people perhaps overlook when, just returning to freelancing briefly, is people think of freelancers as great for one off projects. Freelancers are great for something that’s going to happen once a month or every six weeks. You’ve got to be sure that the freelancer will be free for those two or three days and make themselves available and will learn and react to your feedback in a much better way than suddenly dropping everything in order to do an emergency job over a weekend.
Obviously, an agency can do that as well. So yeah, thinking about the tempo of your content is really important, but it doesn’t actually exclude any of the three options.
Tony: Yeah, I back that up as well about not excluding any of the three options. I think the size of project, programme, the overall ambition, there are some companies out there that have made a huge commitment to content in the last ten years up there with some media organisations.
And at that point they know if they have to invest not just in the creation of content over the long term, but in a lot of strategic work, a lot of thinking and planning before they get into the doing. And if you’re going to do that, you inevitably are going to need in-house, agency, certain freelancers. And what I would say is you need that commitment.
So what John said about the regular involvement, get that in a contract, get that locked in, have a 12 month outlook at least where you can have the predictability of those agile outside workers as if they were your in-house team, even though they’re contracted, they’re not on your payroll. Just lock it in and bring them all together.
Daine: Excellent. And I guess overall, we’ve all kind of established that, yeah, inevitably a mixture of the three does make the most sense. So I guess I’m going to put one of you on the spot here and ask what is really the best bang for your buck then? Tony?
Tony: Can I be honest? I’m going to say it depends. A classic answer. I said at the very beginning that all things being equal, if you had predictable large amounts of work, you will get a lower average cost by employing people.
And straight away John Oates, you jumped on it. It’s not predictable, which is normally always the case. I think it’s always a blend and you just have to call it as you see it for the next few months ahead. I don’t think there’s any one formula that works for every organisation.
John: I would also say getting the relationship right between your agency and the person who’s managing that agency is really important.
I’m talking now as someone who works at an agency. It’s fantastic when we know that we have one point person who is devoted to content creation. It’s much more difficult when you’re talking to someone who’s actual job is broader marketing or PR or something else. To have a point person whose job at least partly involves content and understands how we work and builds a direct relationship with us, makes life a great deal easier from the outside.
Jon: And just building on that as someone who used to manage editorial teams, albeit a little while ago, don’t underestimate getting the processes right.
Don’t underestimate getting all that background stuff right. And that might mean actually that relationship with your agency as well, because they can help you to do that. But by getting the processes, by getting the systems in place, that is going to save you money in the long term. If you don’t get those processes right, that’s going to be expensive.
Multiple voices, overlapping each other: This is the Collective Content podcast.
Daine: So thanks to both our guests today, Jon Bernstein and John Oates. And thank you, Tony as well.
Tony: Thank you, Daine Thanks everyone.
John: Many thanks.
Daine: Yeah, it’s been really great chatting with you guys and diving deeper into this foundational side of content marketing and thank you to the listeners.
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Daine: Next in this series, we’ll be looking at how you assess an agency by its reputation. In the meantime, don’t forget, you can always get more quality insights in Collective Content’s How to choose a content agency guide on our website. Links will be in the description. Check it out and let us know your thoughts on Twitter/X and LinkedIn.
So until next time, I’ve been Daine, take care.