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  • Leon Lee

Is a marketing agency worth hiring? An SME perspective.

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

image representation of an outsourced agency

As the world adjusts to the new norm, Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) business owners have had to accelerate their digitalisation process, and shift towards driving traffic digitally to sustain their businesses.

There have been huge amounts of grants disbursed by the Singapore Government over the past year to support the “SMEs Go Digital” movement.

But one of the biggest challenges for most SME owners remains: how do i start AND sustain this digital marketing process?

Check out this article, The Marketing Flow, on the basic concepts of digital marketing campaigns.

What options do you have as a business owner to build a sustainable marketing process?

  1. Do-It-Yourself

  2. Hire an in-house marketing headcount

  3. Engage a marketing agency



using technology as a marketing outlet

In other words, work on your business’s marketing yourself. You’ll be able to execute your own vision exactly the way you want it, without having the message lost or diluted as it’s passed on to different teams.

Digital marketing isn’t rocket science. And for you to have already achieved success as a business owner, you generally stand a great chance of doing well in managing your own digital efforts.

What’s more, there’s been a deluge of marketing tech platforms in the market today that makes it much easier to go digital.

Need a website? Try!

Want to run Facebook ads? Use the simplified “Boosted Post” option.

Thinking of starting on Google Search Ads to drive conversion? Now “Smart campaigns” make it into a simple 4-step process for you.

Of course, setting up these ads is only the first step. Being able to learn and analyse their effectiveness (and subsequently refine your ads for better performance) is the next critical stage of delivering a sustainable marketing plan for your business.

If you’re going with this option, there are a ton of self help videos, forums and groups that you can join to learn more.

That's what I do on a daily basis. It's a never ending journey of learning, and I tend to set aside 30 minutes a day to read through different strategies, perspectives and learn from the work of others.

Some resources that I find useful:

And many many more. Google them! Neil Patel, Kyle Sulerud and a few others have been real mentors to me all these years.

I’ll be writing more self-help articles, covering topics from marketing strategy to execution. Keep a lookout for them here!

Hiring an in-house marketing headcount

marketing images doodles on papers

This definitely makes a lot of sense on many levels, especially on a long-term sustainable level as your employee will learn about your specific industry and your business.

The main challenge with this option is the diversity of skills required to execute a full campaign flow.

From analytics to creative work, and understanding the intricacies of each platform, it's a big stretch to expect just one employee to be able to execute everything on his or her own, and at optimal performance.

Let's review briefly the scope of work required from a basic marketing campaign.

First, one has to understand the market, the business opportunities it presents and identify the resulting target audience. Using these factors, you can then build an ideal consumer journey for your business, and identify the relevant messages and the best channels to reach out to your audience.

Most times, you’ll realise at this stage that there are so many different channels and messages that you believe could work in your goal of building your traffic and converting them into paying customers.

The second step is therefore to identify the gaps and the best opportunities to start off with. (If not, you’ll probably end up burning cash and time to test and learn over and over again.)

Third, the ability to create the right assets, such as copies and creatives, and launch these campaigns on the various platforms you’ve chosen.

One tip here: if you can identify a clear marketing campaign plan ahead of hiring, you’ll then be able to accurately identify the skill sets that you require, and have a better chance of hiring the right marketing person (or team) for the job.

In this option, you'll need to give your employee(s) time and space to make mistakes and learn, and be able to provide them with training and guidance. If you feel confident of being able to do that, this may be the best path to take for your business.

Engage a marketing agency

online marketing on notepad

Having both worked in a brand that engaged agencies such as Happy Marketer, OMD Singapore, and in a marketing agency (now running ROMI.SG), I’m going to try and share a neutral analysis of this option by weighing its pros and cons.

The usual pitch of engaging an agency:

1. Skip the learning phase

  • An agency will provide you with specialist knowledge across the broad spectrum of platforms available to you. With this, you won’t have to worry about spending time, money and effort to get through the learning phase.

  • On the flip side, it’s your agency’s responsibility to take the time and effort to understand your business, and how you are looking to capture the opportunities in the market. You’ll need to find an agency that’s actually willing to do this!

  • An ideal partnership: find an agency that doesn’t overpromise. Trust the team that tells you they need a runway (and what they will do to learn) to achieve your goals, and not the team that says “Sure! We’ll have it done in 3 weeks.”

Of course, make sure that they have the right analysis and ability to execute your campaign. Just take a look at some examples of work in their portfolio and you’ll have a decent idea!

2. Cost savings

  • Given the range of skill sets required in a proper marketing team, it’s generally very costly to run an in-house team that is capable of executing a full campaign, as mentioned in option 2 above. You’ll minimally need a creative designer, a performance marketing executive and a content creator, which can cost you anywhere from $10k to $20k a month (including the cost of office space, electronics, benefits and time off)

  • Using an agency allows you to circumvent this by making available a full-suite team to be “used” as required. The cost paid to your agency covers all operational costs and removes the downside of a wrong-fit employee hire.

  • On the flip side, the relationship may be mostly transactional and will only last as long as you pay them, or when the next better client comes along.

3. Never get left behind

  • This is the greatest and possibly only point about using an agency that doesn't have a drawback.

  • Agencies work on a series of projects and industries, meaning they can observe and learn from multiple business models. This learning experience and the ability to stay updated on the newest trends and changes will never go away.

  • For example, think about the recent changes with iOS 14 and Google Ads management. These are the bigger trending topics, but there are always new updates and strategies that I would never have thought about as an in-house marketer.

In summary, an agency removes the worry of poor execution. But if you don’t pick the right one, it could end up with your agency executing standardised, cookie-cutter campaigns that aren’t optimised for your business.

If you take this option, make sure you select the right agency, respect the partnership and, as with any relationship, give it the time and commitment needed to allow it to flourish for you.

So what's your best option as a business start up?

When we started ROMI.SG, our goal was clear, we wanted to help businesses build a sustainable and effective marketing process. That’s why, our key framework and modus operandi is to build, operate and transfer.

building blocks animation

Stage 1: Building

Here, the idea is to work with the business owner to identify the gaps and opportunities to work on.

We are able to leverage on a wider set of skills to deliver multiple campaigns strategies to test, monitor and learn from with the maximum upside, thus reducing the opportunity costs of errors. (That said, there will still be a runway for our agency to get up to speed with each business.)

gears rotation as operating representation

Stage 2: Operating

While we identify effective marketing work flows and scale up the process, we often notice certain bottlenecks that prevent the scaling up at speed.

Oftentimes, agency partners will not be able to support a business at the pace it should be going at. This is where we advise our business partners to start building their own team.

For example, if social media data shows that the optimal speed of posting is every day to maximise your reach and awareness, you may want to hire a social media/creative specialist to develop the assets and push the posts out.

This makes sense both in costing and for learning purposes. This in-house headcount will be able to better identify the specific messages that work and replicate them in the day-to-day assets to engage your consumers.

Your agency can instead focus on exploring new channels or diving deeper into the analytics to keep performance optimal.


arrows as transfer animation

Eventually, your business should scale the team up to a stage where there is no real need for an agency to support the everyday work.

Here's where we transfer the working model, lessons learnt and effective workflows over to our clients.

Our role will move into being a partner that does advisory and training. Don't forget, the digital channels change so frequently (such as the recent Google Ad and iOS updates) that an external specialist will be able to provide deeper insights and share options to sustain your marketing efforts.

What do you think is the best option for you and your business?


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