As a general manager or partner at a law firm, choosing the right marketing vendor can feel confusing. You know you need a marketing professional, and you can’t justify a full-time hire, but you’re also not sure which type of contractor you want to bring on.
Should you go with an agency or a freelancer? What about a digital agency? A full-service agency? A growth agency? Maybe you need a consultant to get things started, or an SEO specialist to get you ranking on Google.
The marketing vendor landscape is incredibly complicated, but, in this article, I’ll break down the six most common classes of external support and explain the benefits and detriments of each. Once you finish reading, you should have a clear idea of which option is best for your firm – and, if you don’t, you can always ask us for a free second opinion.
- Full-Service Agencies
- Fractional Leadership
- Specialist Support Firms
- Mono-Service Agencies
Freelancers are the most affordable external marketing option available to law firms. Because they work alone (and often remotely), they don’t need to build overheads into their pricing in the same way that larger agencies do. They’re also generally more flexible than agencies. You’ll always have direct communication with the person doing the work, which means any requests can be executed quickly without going through layers of account management.
A third, less obvious benefit is that you’ll often find the best technicians working freelance. A skilled technician can make substantially more as a freelancer than as an agency employee – and do so while working fewer hours with less stress.
While there are many great freelancers, marketing – unlike law – isn’t a regulated industry and has virtually no barriers to entry. Anyone with a laptop can call themselves a copywriter. Anyone with an Instagram account can say they’re a social media strategist.
The result: an incredibly saturated market where the majority of vendors aren’t remotely qualified to offer the services that they do. That means you need a rigorous screening process to identify high-quality freelancers, which isn’t easy to implement if you’re new to marketing. Otherwise, you’re essentially gambling with your firm’s budget and reputation – not an ideal position to be in.
It’s also important to remember that freelancers are technicians, not strategists. While you can find experienced freelancers capable of working more or less autonomously, they still need a degree of management – someone to actually brief in work. Non-marketers can brief in simple tasks (such as taking headshots for your team), but more complex projects (such as executing a content strategy) require a deeper level of marketing knowledge.
Ideal Use Cases
Freelancers are best deployed when you need straightforward projects executed in a cost-efficient way. They can also be a great way to support an internal staff member, such as a marketing coordinator, who has some marketing knowledge but doesn’t specialise in a particular discipline.
Definition: A individual who, by themselves or as part of a firm, provides strategic and MOps (marketing operations) advice that will be implemented by technicians (such as in-house marketers or freelancers).
Most professional marketing consultants have strong channel or management experience. Their knowledge tends to be deeper than most agency strategists, and, if they’re independent consultants, their advice will probably deliver better value for money than advice from a large firm.
Those two traits means that consultants are an excellent option for diagnosing and solving non-tactical problems, especially if the problem itself isn’t readily apparent. Those problems can range from channel-specific (such as conducting an SEO audit or developing a content strategy) to operational (such as setting up your CRM) to company-level (such as designing a strategic narrative or analysing pipeline sources).
The common critique levelled at consultants is that they’re theorists, not effective agents of change. Because they’re often paid to identify issues and propose solutions (rather than implement those solutions), it can be hard to know whether what they’re doing is actually effective. If the solution fails, is it their fault – or the fault of the people who executed it?
That, in turn, makes it hard to evaluate whether someone is a good consultant. With the right marketing knowledge, you can screen freelancers fairly easily. To assess consultant quality, on the other hand, you need to check references, look at case studies (if they have them), and trust their experience, which can be misleading. By the time you know whether you’ve made the right choice, you’ll have already invested tens of thousands of dollars.
Ideal Use Cases
Marketing consultants should generally only be employed if you or someone on your team has enough knowledge to evaluate their advice. If you can’t discern between good and bad consultants, don’t take the risk. Hire an agency instead.
If you do have that knowledge, hiring a consultant to solve specific strategic or MOPs problems and then implementing that solution with freelancers or in-house staff can be a cost-effective way to get great results.
3. Full-Service Agencies
Definition: An agency that combines tactical services with strategic advice across all marketing channels.
Full-service agencies have one big advantage of every other type of marketing vendor: they’re responsible for both strategy and implementation. That means, provided you don’t have any in-house staff, they’re solely responsible for driving marketing outcomes – which makes it easy to hold them accountable if they don’t deliver.
That same holistic approach means you can also take a low-touch approach to management. If you have minimal marketing knowledge or you’re not particularly interested in anything other than results, a full-service agency can handle everything without your input. You don’t need to worry about paying different invoices, administering different contracts, or micro-managing processes – you have one agency that does it all.
Full-service agencies are also wholly aligned with your business goals – at least, when they’re set up in the right way. Most other classes of marketing vendor have either channel-specific biases or incentives that aren’t aligned with your business goals (which, ultimately, should be booking client meetings and driving revenue). A properly structured full-service agency will have omnichannel capabilities and will be accountable to revenue, making them a good strategic growth partner.
When you hire a full-service agency, you’re outsourcing most or all of your marketing infrastructure. That creates a significant dependency. If you ever want to switch vendors or change your approach, you’ll either need to pay for another full-service agency (who’ll come with their own processes and people) or build your infrastructure from scratch. Both options come with high costs and the potential for business disruption.
Although true full-service agencies do exist, most agencies don’t fit that definition. Instead, their internal focus typically centres on one or two core functions (such as website creation and Google Ads); the remaining services are added on as lower-quality, revenue-boosting auxiliaries.
A good way to check an agency’s focus is to look at their team. If they offer SEO, do they have a dedicated SEO specialist? If they offer copy or content writing, do they have an experienced writer? It’s also important to make sure that those people will be working on your account – you don’t want to have your organic search strategy handed off to a marketing coordinator who’s just graduated from university.
That same full-service approach also means that most agencies won’t give you unbiased advice. They’re financially incentivised to absorb as much of your marketing as possible, which means they’ll never advise you to hire a staff member or use a third-party specialist, even if doing so is the most cost- and quality-efficient approach.
Finally, although good agencies measure their effectiveness through hybrid attribution, many full-service providers use vague leading metrics that make it difficult to gauge their effectiveness. If your agency is purely tracking clicks, impressions, or keyword positions, for instance, they have no way of knowing whether they’re actually delivering results – and neither do you.
Ideal Use Cases
Full-service agencies are a great option if you want a low-touch marketing solution that doesn’t require any marketing expertise. A properly structured full-service firm can also be a long-term growth partner that helps your firm scale (in a way that other marketing vendors can’t be).
Definition: An individual who serves in a part-time leadership role, generally as a contractor rather than an employee.
Hiring a head of marketing (or any other kind of marketing leader) is a big decision. You’re putting a six-figure salary, recruiting costs, onboarding time, and a lot of risk into one individual. For large corporates with strong marketing and recruiting knowledge, those factors aren’t really a problem. For SMB law firms, though, that first leadership hire is a gamble – one that could drive your growth or cripple it.
Fractional leaders are a way to mediate that risk. They’re generally battle-tested marketers with a strong client-side and agency track records, they cost less than a full-time hire (which frees up budget for execution), and they aren’t employees. Most fractional leaders are engaged through monthly or tri-monthly contracts, which means you can easily part ways if they don’t deliver.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with fractional leaders. Keep in mind, though, that they operate in much the same way as an employed marketing leader.
You need to be in a position where paying a high cost for one individual makes sense (that is, you have a number of in-house marketers or external vendors that need to be managed). You need someone who can give your firm the focus and dedication that a leadership role demands. And you need someone who aligns with your firm’s culture and can communicate fluently with partners. Finding that trifecta of traits at a price you can afford isn’t always easy.
Ideal Use Cases
Use fractional marketing leaders when you need someone experienced to lead your marketing strategy and manage technicians – without the cost and commitment of a full-time hire.
Specialist Support Firms
Definition: An agency that offers strategic advice and specialised tactical services across a limited number of channels or functions.
In the defence industry, there’s a concept known as the ‘high–low mix’. It refers to the idea that a small number of specialised, high-capability, high-cost aircraft paired with a larger number of generalist, low-capability, low-cost aircraft can have the same impact as a much larger force.
How? Because the high-end craft act as force multipliers – they can handle the highly technical tasks that the low-end craft can’t, giving the overall force greater effectiveness. At the same time, those high-end craft often can only perform specific functions (which is why the low-end craft must be multi-domain) and are also more expensive, which means they can only be deployed in limited numbers.
Think about your law firm. You probably have a similar dynamic playing out, even if you haven’t considered it in those terms. You couldn’t afford to have an entire firm comprising highly specialised partners – so you need lower-cost associates for less complex tasks, and it’s often helpful if those associates have broad (rather than deep) skillsets, because it means they can work effectively across different practice areas.
A specialist support firm is essentially the high-end component of your marketing high–low mix. Deploy them in the specialised functions that they excel at, whatever those might be. You’ll get better results than if you used a full-service agency or freelancer, and you won’t need to worry about the channel-specific biases that plague mono-service agencies.
Specialist support firms, by definition, don’t offer a full spectrum of marketing services. That makes them less ideal than full-service agencies in certain scenarios. If you need the same vendor to handle everything from website development to event marketing and SEO, use a full-service agency instead.
Their specialist positioning also means they’re relatively more expensive than full-service agencies or freelancers. While that’s not generally a problem for larger law firms – because of the way specialist support firms are deployed, their absolute cost tends to be less than other agencies – it could strain the budgets of small firms with fewer than 10 staff.
Ideal Use Cases
Hire a specialist support firm when quality not quantity of work is your priority. They’re an excellent choice for implementing brand and operational infrastructure, developing strategies, and executing high-value projects that fall within their purview.
Definition: An agency that fulfils a single marketing function or works with just one channel (such as social media agencies, creative agencies, CRO firms, and advertising agencies).
Unlike full-service agencies, mono-service agencies (MSAs) specialise in working with just one channel or function. That specialism means they avoid many of the issues that plague full-service firms; instead, they – like specialist support firms – focus on maintaining quality across a handful of areas.
They also generally have channel- or function-specific knowledge and processes that other, less focused firms can’t match. If you need a specific channel or function to deliver results, an MSA is your best choice.
MSAs fall into two different camps: those that perform one function, and those that work with one channel. One function: think PR, content marketing, CRO, e-commerce, ABM, web development, and creative agencies. One channel: SEO, advertising, social media, performance marketing, and email marketing agencies.
The main ‘issue’ with the one-function MSAs is that they’re expensive. Specialising in a single function requires an agency to have people who can service the more complex areas of that function – which, often, only larger companies truly need. For example, a CRO agency might employ data analysts and behavioural scientists; small and medium-sized law firms, though, will almost never have the website traffic to justify deploying such high-cost technicians. That means you probably won’t be able to afford employing a one-function agency for any significant period of time.
One-channel MSAs, on the other hand, are generally priced on par with full-service agencies, but you’re more likely to receive biased advice. Many one-channel agencies view their channel of choice as a sort of silver bullet. They think that almost every business should invest in SEO or email marketing or Google Ads or whatever channel they work with.
The problem, of course, is that your marketing budget is limited. A successful strategy focuses on the channels that best connect you to your ideal clients – not whatever a one-channel MSA happens to specialise in. Following strategy advice from one-channel MSAs can lead to poor channel choice or overinvestment in a channel that should comprise a smaller part of your overall marketing mix.
Ideal Use Cases
Bring in an MSA when you need a specific function fulfilled well. For example, you might have an in-house marketer who handles your firm’s social media and a specialist support firm that collaborates with your practitioners to write content – but you need someone to run Google Ads. A dedicated performance marketing agency would bring the channel-specific knowledge that you need, without the risks associated with trying to find and manage a high-quality freelancer.
There’s never one answer to the question “Which external marketing vendor should my law firm hire?” It always depends. Different vendors exist to serve different purposes.
While there are probably some classes of vendor to avoid at all costs – like ‘growth agencies’ who promise to get you X leads per month (but fail to mention that none of those leads will become paying clients or that they’ll run your carefully built brand into the ground) – the six that I’ve mentioned in this article can all be good options.
The difficult part is working out when, for example, a freelancer is better than a consultant, or a specialist support firm than a full-service agency. You need to understand the costs, capabilities, and capacities of each option – as well as exactly what you’re trying to accomplish with your marketing. I hope that, through this article, I’ve provided a good overview of the pros, cons, and ideal uses cases for each vendor class.
If you’re still unsure, take advantage of our free 30-minute strategy sessions to get an expert opinion. They’re actual consultations, not thinly veiled sales pitches – you can read about what to expect here.