Staffing for Thought Leadership: Freelancers vs. In-House vs. Agencies

You know your thought leadership content is going to come from your subject matter experts and what they’ve learned from their client engagements. You know they have a deep understanding of the ways various businesses work (or don’t work), the latest and greatest business models and technologies, as well as the biggest barriers to implementing them. You know you may supplement their thinking with case study research because (as you know) that’s the best way to develop the novel insights that will generate the inquiries and leads you and your marketing team are being paid to produce while making your content more attractive to editors at the journals in which you wish to publish.

Now comes a small hurdle before you can start accepting hosannas from your boss for your excellence in producing and publishing world-class thought leadership. It’s no big deal, really. It’s just a little matter of… getting it done.

Someone, in some way, eventually will have to put metaphorical pen to virtual paper to produce what journalists and advertisers call copy, many call content, and we call thought leadership. And, if you’re self-publishing on your website or on dead trees someone (a designer) will have to make it look pretty.

Full disclosure: Bloom Group is an agency. But we promise not to put our thumb on the scale when discussing the pros and cons of each model. We’ll play fair and square, Scout’s honor.

1. Freelancers

The Pros:
  • Freelancers are a scalable cost. When you don’t need them, you don’t pay them.
  • Freelancers live in a competitive world full of out-of-work or under-employed former journalists. This often means they’ll work relatively cheaply, more cheaply, certainly, than agencies (which have employees to pay and other overhead), or in-house staff, to whom you must pay competitive salaries and provide benefits.
  • We mention former journalists as they usually have most (although not all) the skills you’re looking for: the ability to conduct interviews with your experts; an understanding of how to find out quickly what they don’t know, and, of course, experience in writing and constructing articles. Presumably. Which brings us to the first con.
The Cons:
  • Not everyone who styles himself a writer is good at it. That means you (or someone you trust) needs to vet them. To do that, you have to read clips and talk with people who know that candidate, if you can find any. That takes time and provides no guarantees. Bylined clips from journals will have been fiddled with by editors, and you’ll never really know whether you’re reading the writer’s work or the editor’s. And even when you have picked someone, you will still go through a process of trial-and-error. If he doesn’t work out, you’ll need to find another which, again, takes time.
  • Freelancers hate to say no to assignments. You call your freelancer, ask her if she has the time to do something and she’ll say yes. You say you need it in three weeks and she’ll say yes. Then, when you ask her to get on a 7 a.m. call with an expert in Wollongong, Australia, she can’t make it. And the deadline you gave her? Can’t make it. What are you going to do then? I’ll tell you what you’re going to do: Nothing.
  • Freelancers can be deep specialists in something like financial services or life sciences, or generalists with depth in one or two areas. In any case, you’ll need to match the freelancer’s subject matter knowledge to your SME. If you get it wrong, the conversation can go south quickly.
  • Plus, not every freelancer knows how to get the best out of your expert. Journalists are used to interrogating the people they interview. Your experts, especially your senior partners, most likely will require something a bit more respectful.
  • Finally, you’ll need an editor to manage them and provide quality assurance. If you don’t know how to manage writers, you’ll need to find someone who does.  

2. In-House

The Pros:
  • It’s a beautiful thing to have a staff of writers and editors down the hall thoroughly informed about your organization’s mission and goals. Think of McKinsey, Deloitte, or Accenture. They all have in-house editorial staffs turning out thought leadership.
  • An in-house thought leadership production capability allows content directors and CMOs to align marketing imperatives with thought leadership content easily and quickly. It’s also simpler to establish a house style that will set you apart from your competitors and guarantee quality.
  • It can be easier to establish long-term personal relationships with in-house staff than with freelancers or agency staff. Having a personal relationship smooths and enriches communication, which always produces better work.
The Cons:
  • It’s expensive. You may not have the budget to maintain a stable of full-time writers and editors, and your thought leadership needs may not warrant the expense. If that’s the case, be assured your CFO will bring it up often.  
  • They’ll need to be managed. That means motivating, leading, hiring, reviewing their performance, mediating disputes and other activities you may not want to be responsible for. Heaven knows, you have enough on your plate as is.
  • It’s difficult to scale down. Unless you know that you will be producing thought leadership content on a regular schedule – say, for a monthly journal with a certain number of articles each month – there will be times when your editorial staff will be twiddling its collective thumbs. But you will continue paying them nonetheless.

3. Agencies

The Pros:
  • An agency provides a virtual staff you do not have to assemble, manage or vet. This saves you time, energy and angst.
  • An agency provides editorial resources on demand, from strategy and topic selection through research, writing, editing, proofing, layout, and sometimes publishing.
  • It’s a scalable resource. Depending on how you arrange the contract, you should never be paying for services you don’t receive or need.
  • The agency may have relationships you don’t with editors at the publications in which you wish to publish. Relationships make the world go ‘round.
  • It’s easier to vet one agency for quality than a roster of freelancers or dozens of applicants for in-house positions. That said, before engaging an agency for your thought leadership work, it’s important to examine their client roster, and look for the successes they’ve had with other firms like yours.
The Cons:
  • Agencies charge more than freelancers. Although engaging an agency is less expensive than maintaining an in-house staff, the best do not work cheaply, certainly not as cheaply as individual freelancers.
  • Almost all your communication with the agency will by email and telephone, and your experts will never meet its writers and editors. This can make forging the relationship necessary for the free and creative exchange of ideas necessary to the best thought leadership challenging. Some agencies will cope with this better than others. (You’ll have the same challenge with freelancers.)
  • The onus will be on you to teach the agency your house style, your thought leadership requirements, and your organizational culture. You will still have to manage the relationship, making sure you’re getting thought leadership that advances your organizational goals at the proper price. And, you will have to justify the agency’s cost internally, demonstrating that you’re retrieving a proper ROI.

Every business is different, and every business has different thought leadership needs. Any one of these approaches to that little problem of getting the work done will work, and sometimes what’s best is a mix of all three.

The trick is finding the Goldilocks solution – the one that is just right for you.  


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