Copywriting agency vs In-houseThere comes a time in the life of many businesses where the demand for new content, from product descriptions and blogs to white papers and email, exceeds your internal capacity.

At that point the decision between recruiting an in-house copywriter or copywriting team and working with a copywriting agency rears its head.

As someone who currently runs a successful copywriting agency I have to declare a bias, but I think there are some important issues that are often overlooked by brands and organisations when making a decision about their copywriting requirements.

When should you hire a copywriter or copywriting agency?

According to 2014 report by the Content Marketing Institute:

“55 percent of B2B businesses are challenged with producing enough content, and 47 percent are struggling to produce the kind of content that engages.”

Clearly the need for content is exceeding the ability of the average business to produce it.

So, is this the right time to hire a copywriter in-house or outsource? If you’re asking, then the answer is likely a resounding ‘yes!’

Scale production with your content need

One of the key reasons for outsourcing content projects to an agency is the fact that they can scale production up or down depending on your content needs.

This is one advantage to outsourcing your copywriting – an in-house content person can’t scale their workload up, and it doesn’t make sense for them to be sitting at their desk twiddling their thumbs.

There can be natural lulls at various times of the year for some businesses, and it’s natural for many content producers in your business to want some time off for family or other reasons.

This can create a pinch point in your content production cycle, leaving a higher workload for later.

Again, this is where an outsourced copywriter can help.

What should you look for in a copywriter?

Of course, the basics of writing are a given, but great written content requires a knowledge of expression and tone that go beyond basic grammar. (You’d be surprised how many ‘copywriters’ wouldn’t know an idiom if it hit them in the face!)

Great copywriters know how to express a brand’s tone in ways that engage and ensnare the reader, effortlessly.

  • Are they experienced in your sector or a similar market?
  • Are they recommended by businesses you recognise?
  • Do they pay attention to detail (for example, in their emails and application/proposal)?

These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself when looking at any copywriter, whether you are outsourcing or hiring for in-house.

They will have a style. So make sure you read their work – a lot of it – and decide whether that style fits with the culture of your business and brand. There’s no use in hiring a witty humorist when you really need a serious salesperson.

If they are right for the job, you’ll know it.

Other than that, it’s the same criteria as for any job – reliability*, experience, expertise, rapport.

*Agencies may have an advantage here – if any of our freelance writers turn out to be unreliable, slow or otherwise difficult to work with we simply stop using them. Recruiting someone who looks good on paper and then turns out to be unreliable or requiring a high degree of management is a much less straightforward prospect.

In-house copywriters or outsource?

Putting the copywriting agency option to one side for a moment, when it comes to recruiting an in-house team of copywriters there are two main options:

  • Run a team of freelancer copywriters
  • Recruit a full-time copywriter or copywriters

Let’s first consider what’s involved in putting together a freelance copywriter team.

Recruiting a freelance copywriter

There may be a lot of freelance copywriters out there but you need to devote resources to finding and assessing the quality of candidates.

Unless you’re experienced in this it may be a bit of trial and error to find the right copywriters for you. Even if you only want a single freelance copywriter, you need to over-recruit to ensure that when freelancers go missing (that flexibility is their privilege) you have someone else who can fill the gap.

You also still need someone in-house to manage briefing, editing content and maintaining consistency across several different freelance copywriters – that may well require an investment in copywriting training so you can judge the quality of work appropriately and make sure the technical requirements of the content (keywords, grammar, spelling, content structure) are up to scratch.

You could of course directly employ your copywriters.

On the plus side, you have a permanent team of writers so you have security and consistency and can ensure that your content is always on-brand.

Turnaround on very urgent jobs might be slightly quicker as you can reallocate resources immediately as you need them. You may also value the idea of building a team and developing personnel long-term within your organisation.

Are the advantages of an in-house copywriting team actually disadvantages?

For many businesses – perhaps even most businesses – some of the apparent advantages of employing a copywriter or copywriting team are actually quite serious disadvantages. The idea of having a permanent team of copywriters where writing is not a core discipline of your company adds a heavy burden to your business both financially and in terms of your working practices.

Not only are there salaries to consider with the attendant holiday pay and National Insurance but you also need to bear in mind the indirect costs including desk space, equipment and the cost of recruitment.

Then there are the costs of management and perhaps even copywriting training. After all, if you are not used to managing copywriters someone within your organisation is going to have to know whether they are doing a good job for you or not. You also need a resource to manage delivery and publication and perhaps even provide an editorial function.

The latter is particularly important if you are embarking on large volumes of content.

The glaring disadvantage is:

Do you really want more employees on your books when you could get the same or better level of service by outsourcing to a copywriting agency?

It’s still tough out there.

A copywriting agency can offer you a level of flexibility that is impossible to achieve with an in-house writer: you can stop using them when things get quiet or you want to save money.

They can offer strategic services such as content strategy or copywriting training that an in-house copywriter may be unable to deliver. You can also pull in writers with different areas of expertise and experience as and when you need to.

To use a hackneyed phrase, you get more bang for your buck.

A copywriting agency won’t be as reliable or quick

I suppose it depends on whom you use but we offer a standard turnaround of 5 – 7 working days and for most clients we’re able to deliver urgent work even quicker, often in 24 hours.

If you’ve got an in-house team you can of course get them to drop everything and turn their attention to whatever you need.

That will have a knock-on effect on your other work but that immediate response is not something we can guarantee, so if you are an organisation that is constantly in crisis mode then you might be better off employing a writer (or employing someone to review your content strategy so it’s less stressful!)

I find the reliability argument a little specious. After all, I wouldn’t get much repeat business if I continually let my clients down. The very notion of running a copywriting agency is predicated on certain values of service, and reliability is a critical part of that service.

I would even go so far as to argue that we are more reliable than an in-house writing team.

If one of my writers goes sick, for example, I can immediately find someone else to take their place. If one of my writers leaves I can bring a new writer up to speed straight away, whereas a company with an in-house team would have the cost and inconvenience of recruitment and perhaps additional copywriting training for that new recruit.

Will an in-house copywriting team deliver better quality?

From our point of view – a point of view that is shared by many of our clients – some of the other apparent advantages of having an in-house team are based on misconceptions.

You could break these down into two statements:

  • “we can only get the right brand tone of voice by doing the copy in-house”
  • “the quality won’t be as good if we outsource.”

Both are untrue.

For a start many copywriting agencies write brand guidelines for their clients. Most brands are familiar with this service offered by ad agencies, design agencies and digital agencies and copywriting agencies are no different, except for the obvious leaning toward tone of voice and content strategy and less or no emphasis on design or AV.

Given that any copywriting agency worth its salt will have experience working with a huge variety of clients, a copywriting agency should actually be better versed in meeting brand guidelines than a newly recruited copywriting team.

With the second point, there should be no deterioration in quality. I’m not saying that the copywriters you recruit won’t be any good (although arguably I’m a lot better at recruiting freelance copywriters having done it many times over the last few years) but there’s absolutely no reason that a copywriting agency will deliver worse content than an in-house team.

Obviously you get what you pay for in both cases and expecting either an in-house or outsourced copywriter to deliver Pulitzer Prize-winning articles when you pay them 1p a word is unrealistic.

The bottom line is always the bottom line.

I’ve done quite a bit of maths around this – never my strong point – but I think that in many cases we’re a more cost effective option than taking on an in-house copywriter.

It’s often difficult to give a like-for-like comparison as companies frequently make a direct cost comparison between our quote and the rate they are going to pay an in-house copywriter, forgetting not only the financial costs of National Insurance and holiday pay but the costs involved in recruitment, training, management, editorial, shortfalls in efficiency due to tea breaks, equipment malfunction, illness and other human factors.

With a copywriting agency, you only pay for the content you’ve asked for – not our lunch breaks or broadband crises.

It’s also important for companies to understand what is humanly possible for their potential copywriters. In my experience a freelance copywriter can handle around 2000 – 2500 words of content in a day. And that’s pushing it. You want great research, interviews, creative thought or strategic input and it’s a lot less.

Copywriting does not suit production line dynamics. If you try and push copywriters to insanely high volumes the work will suffer – either in the short term (through repetition, lack of depth/research and typos) or in the longer term through total burnout.

OK, you’re biased – is in-house ever a better option?

The only time that we can’t be competitive is when we’re quoting against companies who use unpaid or low paid interns or choose to use overseas writers. And you have to ask yourself what kind of content you can expect for that.

If you’re of the mind set that wants to pay less than minimum wage for your greatest marketing asset then good luck to you. I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise.

Where access to physical product is a requirement for writing product descriptions then having someone actually in the office might be a help but we do actually receive physical product from one of our clients in order to write their product descriptions, so even that’s doable.

Alternatively we visit you and review your products at your organisation as we do for some of our fashion clients when they present their seasonal collections.

While cost is important, a copywriter can be a valuable part of your marketing team. That’s not to say we can’t do the job just as well and integrate into your working practices but it may be that your company culture likes new faces and that an in-house team is important to your ethos.

I’m obviously biased but at the very least try out the copywriting agency option before you commit time and money to recruiting permanent staff.

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