Agency pros are often more skilled than in-house people

It's a myth that in-house experience is better when hiring for in-house positions, says Eric Doyle, SVP at Spark.

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The new year is in full swing. Budgets are locked in, and companies are hiring.

"People are our greatest assets," many companies say. But how do you really know you’re hiring the best PR talent? Should you hire someone with in-house experience, agency chops, or both?

There are several myths you should discard if you want to hire the best PR talent. Below are five misconceptions that many CMOs, marketing and PR directors, and other PR pros have about hiring in-house PR talent, particularly as it relates to their agency peers.

Myth one: In-house experience is critical. This one seems logical. If you’re hiring in-house, you should look for "more" in-house experience, right?

Wrong. This thinking is not strategic and it makes my skin crawl. Yet managers too often use more in-house PR experience as a key hiring factor.

But many in-house people have spent their entire careers in-house and that’s "just what they know best." However, they often don't know what they don’t know, which is an even bigger problem.

Also, "more" is too vague. Instead, look for examples of campaign results and industry knowledge, paired with solid leadership, management, adaptability, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. All are more important and accurate factors of future success.

At a minimum, candidates should be able to describe two or three successful campaigns they worked on and why they were successful, how they solved a challenging situation and their management style and philosophy.

Many people think more in-house experience is a safe choice. But the safest choice is not always the best. Someone can have worked their entire career in-house and still be mediocre. Let’s face it, not everyone is a Lebron James at their job. Some people are nice, do a decent job, and don’t ruffle any feathers. And there’s value in that.

But if they don’t have stellar campaign successes, are not inspiring leaders with high emotional IQs, and can’t articulate why they’re the best fit, why hire them?

Myth: In-house PR pros have deeper market knowledge. Not necessarily. For example, an agency person with 10 years working for 10 ad tech clients has probably as deep a knowledge of the market (sometimes deeper) as an in-house person who has worked with just a few ad tech companies across the same time span.

Many agencies are also highly specialized in specific sectors like blockchain, ad tech, cleantech, fintech and so on. Trust me: agency people can have very deep market knowledge.

In-house hiring managers might ask, "How can an agency pro working on five different clients at the same time possibly have deep expertise about our business?"

The answer is ambition and hard work. Any agency person worth their salt will go the extra mile to understand a business.

Also, focusing on market understanding ignores the quality of the talent. In my experience -- corroborated by many colleagues over the years -- in-house pros without agency experience are just not as skilled as someone with four to five years of solid agency experience.

Agencies expose employees to a far more diverse set of challenges and clients. They might be "newsjacking" a security news story, dealing with disgruntled clients, working on messaging architecture for a startup, and writing a byline all in a single day. That’s not going to happen in-house.

And it takes well-honed skills and a cool head under pressure to pull that off smoothly and successfully, day after day in a lightning-fast workplace.

Also, people with agency experience tend to be better at motivating and managing teams precisely because their team members must switch between clients. Frankly, that takes more skill and brainpower, not to mention highly effective time management skills.

Finally, internal PR practitioners are often not as skilled at core PR functions like media strategy and media relations because they’ve usually relied on agencies to do that work.

Agency pros eat, live and sleep storytelling day and night. Most in-house PR pros do not, at least not across a diverse set of situations and challenges because, in part, they’re focused on one brand.

Myth: In-house PR pros provide better C-suite advice. This one is ridiculous because it’s not necessarily true that in-house PR pros work more closely with the C-suite. Agency people often work side-by-side with their CMO and CEO clients, offering strategic counsel with an outside perspective that in-house practitioners can’t always provide.

In-house people may simply lack the experience or have been drinking so much company Kool-Aid that they can’t see the forest through the trees.

Agency pros can also provide better C-level media and spokesperson training because they do it more often for multiple clients.

Myth: In-house pros are better cross-functional teammates. Seriously? Anyone who’s worked in an agency knows they have cross-functional teams.

But if you can successfully marshal key stakeholders across marketing, sales, product, biz dev, partnerships, HR/operations, and the C-suite, you know what it takes to be a great teammate.

So, just ask the agency candidate to describe their cross-functional team experience. See if they know the right questions to ask teammates to create and execute strategic plans.

Also, agency pros can apply their aptitude at keeping multiple, often very demanding clients happy, to keeping in-house teams happy while uncovering strategic opportunities. The right person will understand the importance of treating in-house teams like clients.

Finally, there’s adaptability. Yes, there are fast-paced, changing client-side workplaces. But in my experience, agency pros are better at adapting on the fly and making quick, accurate decisions. They deal more frequently with diverse situations and challenges than in-house people.

In a situation where the CEO says "we must make this announcement tomorrow" and there’s no chance of pushing back, agency pros are generally better at managing expectations and results.

Myth: In-house pros manage agencies better. Not if they’ve never worked at an agency before.

I’m not saying some in-house PR pros can’t effectively manage agency partner teams. But someone with solid agency experience understands how agencies operate and their business models, how to assess the agency team's strengths and weaknesses, and how to delegate tasks to maximize results and build chemistry.

They also know to treat agency people as strategic, integrated members of the team, and not "go fetch" executors.

I am not saying there are no talented in-house communications pros. But most of those pros have had at least four to five solid years of agency experience.

Many companies say they want to hire out of the box strategic and creative thinkers. But they often don’t use those same traits while hiring people. If you are truly willing to think out of the box, you’ll recognize and reject the myths above. As a reward, you’ll get more of your greatest asset: the very best talent.

Eric Doyle is an SVP at Spark.

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