Your First Communications Hire: A CMO vs. an Agency

By: Cami Schulte
Category: Uncategorized

As a business grows, so does its need for expertise in various functions. A CEO makes strategic decisions about filling specific roles, usually in a particular order such as operations, finance, technology, and human resources. At some point, there is a requirement for adding in a professional marketing and communications capability. Someone has to focus on getting broad public exposure to drive sales. One consideration may be to bring on an agency as your first communications hire. Here are some common questions startups ask PR agencies when evaluating this.

Using an outside agency certainly has its advantages. It gives you access to tools you may not have in house, like analyzing the competitiveness of your brand’s voice in the media. Agencies can also help with tricky pain points, like getting your customers to participate in PR efforts to gain media exposure for you and them.

Once a company decides to hire a communications agency, some decision-making is needed to get the right one. But let’s not get the communications cart before the organization horse. First, there are three questions leaders of startups should ask themselves:

  • Do I expect the agency to operate on its own, without day-to-day input from me?
  • Do I prefer the agency takes charge of crafting thought leadership for me and my company?
  • Do I want to get the most value for the money I pay to the agency?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, it’s not quite time to hire an agency. Instead, your first communications hire should be someone on your staff who can run point on all communications efforts. Usually, the role is called a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Communications Director or a Marketing Coordinator, depending on the experience level needed.

Let’s dig in to the reasons why we recommend this approach.

Agencies Need an Available Point of Contact

Part of the value an agency provides is developing brand messaging for your business and then ensuring all communications efforts effectively incorporate it. To create brand messaging, an agency needs to get keen insight into your company’s unique value proposition.

A dedicated point of contact helps us understand your firm’s competitive position, strategic priorities, target audience, and culture. We work best when we get this information at a top level and can use that data to develop brand awareness and identity.

An internal communications contact in your business can devote the required time to the back and forth with the agency that is needed to draft the best messaging. That person can then provide the team with internal updates on message development as your business grows.

Lost in Translation

Once the initial onboarding is complete, working with an agency is not “set it and forget it.” The best agencies will continue to strategize new concepts to increase presence in your market. We don’t do this in a vacuum though. Someone in your organization must provide feedback, technical product information, and approvals. It’s best if this person has a communications background. Why? Because we speak the same language.


Think about it this way, would you rather your agency spend billable hours translating communications jargon or quickly getting answers from your CMO and making things happen? For example, if we propose incorporating all four elements of The PESO Model™ into your marketing plan, a communications person understands immediately what that means. This allows your involvement to be laser-focused on results without getting mired in how to obtain them.

At the same time, an internal marketing person will speak your company’s language and can break it down for the agency. This is extremely useful for things like writing press releases and crafting your company’s story for pitching to media.

Your Involvement Stays Strategic

The best agencies recognize a client’s CEO and top leadership have a limited amount of time to devote to communications functions. So, how do we best utilize that precious resource? By getting expert commentary from you as the top spokesperson and providing media training when needed.

When we’re pitching ideas, reporters want to include quotes from top leadership in their stories, not public relations representatives. We will ensure your limited time is used participating in an interview with a reporter, and rely on your CMO to handle day-to-day needs like providing information for pitching angles or attending a weekly progress call.

There is also the urgency factor. Journalists often work on a tight story deadline, so a request for an interview requires you to be available quickly. Sometimes it may need to happen the same day. You have a greater ability to vet the opportunity and participate if you’re not already bogged down with routine marketing tasks.

Agencies can do so much to help you and your business in crafting and fulfilling your communications strategy. While it’s not a requirement to have a CMO on staff to work with us, we highly recommend it. Once you’ve hired a communications professional, it’s time to think about selecting the right agency for your business. Task your CMO with vetting an integrated communications agency that will help you reach your marketing and PR goals.

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