Who Hires and Manages the Content Marketing Agency—Corporate Marketing or the Business Unit?


Like many creative services companies, the Content Bureau works with tech and financial services companies that have corporate marketing departments wielding lots of centralized control; and we also work with companies that are almost completely decentralized—where the individual business units can produce whatever marketing content they want. Which of these organizational structures leads to the optimal output? Let’s define “optimal output” as the highest-quality marketing content produced most quickly, cost effectively, and with the least amount of drama. Every single one of our clients wants that outcome, and so do we.

After running a B2B marketing agency for the past seventeen years, I feel I’m in a good position to provide insights on which organization structure leads to that optimal output. Strong corporate marketing guidance—when paired with project-level decision-making by the business unit—produces the optimal outcome. Let’s take a look at how this plays out, noting which responsibilities lie with business units and which with corporate marketing.

IMHO, business units should do the following:

  1. Decide what content they’d like to produce.
  2. Choose, negotiate, and agree on terms with their vendors of choice.
  3. Work directly with their vendors to create the marketing content they need, consulting with corporate marketing if any brand-related questions arise.
  4. Pay vendors from their own budgets. Since the business owner is closest to the work, she knows what was actually delivered and what amount is due.

 Corporate marketing should do the following:

  1. Manage the corporate brand and all corporate marketing activities.
  2. Maintain a list of approved vendors that their business units love—at least two that can deliver every kind of marketing service the company needs—and that meet the company’s ethics and diversity standards.
  3. Develop and maintain thorough editorial and creative style guides, as well as a site where all marketing assets are stored and an image library—and provide access and regular training to approved vendors.
  4. Be available to proactively answer questions related to brand and style guides during the content development process (note: this is the “carrot” approach to brand compliance).
  5. Refrain from running an internal agency designed to be the exclusive provider of all content for the company’s business units. Inevitably, in-house agency models lead to frustrated business units who want more choice, faster service, and better quality.
  6. Avoid hiring and managing vendors, or project managing, on behalf of business units. In my experience, agencies do a better job—and are more likely to deliver the “optimal output” defined above—when working directly with business units to produce the content they need. The businesses know what they want, when they want it, and how it should be said. Like other creative services agencies, we really want them to choose us, pay what they think is appropriate—making the price/service choices that work for them—then work directly with us until the content is approved to their satisfaction. If corporate marketing provides the helpful “shoulds” above, they can step aside and watch the business units and their trusted vendors produce beautiful content together—while they get lots of their own corporate marketing work done! Win, win, win.
  7. Celebrate and share the best content produced by successful business unit/vendor partnerships. For example, our longtime client Autodesk encourages vendors to post their most creative assets for all agencies to explore. It’s inspiring to see the innovative work that a competitive system produces—and it keeps vendors like us on our toes.

I’ve seen it all over the past seventeen years, including a head of creative services at a global software behemoth who gave me an earful for poaching—providing quick, high-quality, cost-effective service to—his internal clients (an extreme example of a near-monopolistic in-house agency model).

Or the ultra-creative rogue marketer we—her humble vendor—had to rein in because she was careening dangerously far from the established brand, and spending too much company money on concepts that wouldn’t pass corporate brand review (an extreme example of outsourcing with no oversight—which is no better).

Between these two extremes, there is, of course, a happy balance to be achieved.

Strong corporate guidelines + decision-making at the business unit level allow agencies like the Content Bureau to do its best work—delivering the highest-quality marketing content most quickly, cost effectively, and with the least amount of drama.

How is your marketing department structured—and how do you feel about that? I’d love to hear your opinions.

By Stacy Crinks