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Should your agency hire specialists, generalists, or fractional team members?

Chip and Gini recently spoke about the challenge of small agencies seeking to hire unicorns who excel at everything. In this episode, they look at when you should be looking for specific kinds of hires and whether they should be specialists, generalists, or fractional support.

Knowing the level of expertise needed and understanding how much demand your agency will have for their time helps you to make a smarter decision about how to obtain the resources needed to serve clients and manage your business.

In some cases, you may want to hire a contractor with specific skills that you require but not with enough volume or consistency to justify hiring in-house. For those positions you do choose to fill with part- or full-time employees, you need to decide what level of expertise in which skills will give you the best value and help to meet your specific requirements.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Nobody likes time tracking. But time tracking is your friend when it comes to hiring.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Look at your agency and you say, this is our point of differentiation, this is how we’re different. And this is the process that we use every time, no matter what. How do you fill in those things with your employees or your contractors?”
  • Chip Griffin: “If you have less than a hundred employees, 150 employees, you don’t need a CFO.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “That’s my job now is that I build that team, that bench.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, I feel like I’m only part of myself today. Oh boy. Right after this.

So last week we talked about unicorns.

Gini Dietrich: We did.

Chip Griffin: And if you, if you didn’t hear that episode, you should certainly go back and listen to that because I mean, how often do you get to hear particularly me talking about unicorns.

Gini Dietrich: The only thing that could have been better is if I’d had glitter and I’d like thrown it up in the screen around your face.

Shoot. I missed that opportunity.

Chip Griffin: Fortunately that would not come through the camera, so.

Gini Dietrich: No, but it would show. It would be lovely. It would be pink. I would make sure. Of course. I missed that opportunity. Shoot. Well. Another time.

Chip Griffin: Somehow our viewers will have to live without that. And most of you are just listening to us anyway.

So you don’t even get to see it. That’s fair. That’s true. Yeah. That’s fair. But, but as part of that conversation, you know, we were talking about how agency owners want to find employees who can do absolutely everything. They’re just, they’re good at client service and business development and management and writing.

And you think of it, they can do it. And so. And not just do it adequately, but do it great, right? But it then led to the conversation about what kind of employees should you be looking for? What kind of things should you be hiring for? Should you be looking for generalists? Should you be looking for specialists?

Should you have fractional people, contractors or that sort of thing who can help you on certain projects? And how do you figure out what the right fit is at any given time for any given need in your agency?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think it’s a really good way of, especially for small agency owners to think about, okay, we really need X.

How do we get that done without trying to hire maybe one or two employees taking that salary and breaking it down into four, six project fees. And now all of a sudden you have. the opportunity to bring in people who have an expertise, if that’s what you need, or you have the opportunity to bring in a generalist, if that’s what you need, but it gives you the opportunity to go, okay, let’s just say we just won this new client.

They’re looking for content marketing, web design, redesign, and some media relations. Now we know we need to have some, some really great writers. We know we need to have some traditional PR professionals and we know we need a web firm or a web development team, right, person, team, whatever happens to be.

So how do we do that? How do we build out that team if we don’t have that expertise internally? And which part of those team, of that team is going to be employees and which is going to be contractors.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I think part of the problem is that agency owners, particularly in small agencies, when they go out to hire it’s because they have an immediate pain point.

Fair. And it’s, it’s something that just, you know, that it just, they’re, they’re sick of dealing with it. They’re, they’re having to work too many hours or they’re having to do, you know, some kind of piece of work that they don’t particularly like to do. And so there’s almost a knee jerk reaction when they go out to hire and they’re not taking the time to step back and think about what do we really need?

How do we find the right fit for our needs, not just today, but also for, you know, 6, 12, 18 months down the road, because you might have someone who could help you today, but it’s a short term project, and now what are they going to do when that project goes away? Right. And so this is where I’m going to harp once again on timesheets.

I know nobody likes them. Nobody likes time tracking. But time tracking is your friend when it comes to hiring, because you can figure out how much of any kind of work you actually have. Do you… I talk to a lot of agency owners at PR agencies. They want to bring in a writer. Fantastic! How much writing do you have?

Do you have enough that you can fill consistently 40 hours a week, or let’s say even 30 hours a week of writing, so that it makes sense to hire that person in full time? Or, do you really need someone who’s more of a generalist and they can do some writing, but maybe you use a specialist contractor to do some of the higher level writing that maybe that person isn’t capable of?

And I think you need to look at… All of those different mixes, but it starts out with understanding what you truly need.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think, you know, we had an episode a few weeks ago as well, where you talked about, and this has really stuck with me, but you talked about the idea of delegating everything that you can.

And so you also have to look at that to say, okay, what is it? Let’s say that you have a really great generalist. And you have them doing writing and media relations, and maybe they’re doing some social media and some design work in Canva, and they’re sort of doing everything. But you need, you need someone else.

You need them or someone else to do more because some of that stuff has landed on your plate. What is that more that that’s on your plate that you need to delegate? Right? So you have to look at it holistically. The other thing I would say is that, you know, When we, when we launched the PESO model, it became incredibly easier, easy for us to say, these are the types of skill sets and people that we need on our team, because we do paid media, we do earned media, we do shared media and we do owned media, right?

So when you look at your agency and you say, okay, this is our point of differentiation, this is how we’re different. And this is the process that we use every time, no matter what, this is the process. And whether or not it’s named and it has, you know, you’ve, you’ve built it all out like we have, you don’t have to do that, but there is a way that you do the work every single time.

Look at those pieces and say, okay, every single time we know we do this. We have a writer who writes news releases. We have somebody who pitches the media. We have someone who follows up on the media. We have someone who tracks the results. So you know, those are the four things you do every single time.

How do you fill in those four things with your employees or your contractors?

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and and it’s, you know, you really have to understand what is core to your business. In your case, you know, it’s the PESO model, so you start thinking through, okay, what skill sets do we need in order to be able to execute on the plans that we have, but you also need to be realistic about what it is that You know, maybe you only do a little bit of, right?

Say that’s, you know, that’s web development, right? I mean, yes. Occasionally you’ve got to help build out some landing pages or maybe even a small website or something like that. That’s not something that you necessarily need to hire a specialist in house. That’s right. Or even have someone who has that as a skill set as part of other things that they do as an employee.

That’s probably something that most PR agencies are going to want to contract out. because you just don’t do enough of it to develop the expertise and to have the economies of scale of being able to do it on a regular basis. So, you need to really understand what your service offering is, what the expertise is that you’re really being hired for, and make sure that the core team has that, but then other things, that’s where you start looking for contractors.

Gini Dietrich: Yep. Yeah, yeah. So, on my core team, I have two writers, one Google Ads expert, a project manager a really strategic high level person. I have a virtual assistant. I’m missing someone. Oh, and social media.

Chip Griffin: And social media person. If you’re listening, Gini apologizes.

Gini Dietrich: Because that’s what we do, right? So that fits all four of the media types. And then when, if we, if a client needs help with web development we have firms that we referred them to. If a client needs help with social media ads, we don’t have that expertise in house. So we have people that we bring on for those kinds of things. So we that’s how we sort of do it is bring in and I used to use journalists and it was so much more stressful for me in that scenario because I felt like I always had to be double checking and making sure that people were getting the things right because they weren’t a specialist on things.

Once I started using specialists, my job, my life got easier because they’re experts and I don’t have to double check their work.

Chip Griffin: Right, right. And that’s something that’s really important to figure out because so much of it is getting things off of your plate. Right. A lot of it will be in fractional outside support though for things like, you know, finance and accounting and things like that.

I mean, I really, I get frustrated when I talk to small agency owners who tell me, yeah, you know, I think I’m going to need a CFO. You’re not going to need a CFO. If you have less than a hundred employees, 150 employees, you don’t need a CFO. That’s right. You simply don’t. And if you think you do, then you might want to recheck that because someone has convinced you to spend money.

That’s probably not a good idea. That’s right. You can get the kind of financial advice that you need as an agency owner, typically from someone who is available to you for a few hours a month and that’s it. You don’t need eight hours a day. I mean, unless you are not truly running an agency, you’re doing something else where you’ve got all sorts of you know, financial mechanisms in place.

But I mean the typical agency that is basically paying for labor, collecting fees, and has some services you know, that you need to add to that. I mean, that’s just that there’s really no reason. Because you shouldn’t be dealing with debt, right? We’ve talked about that before. Small agencies or really any agency shouldn’t be incurring debt to run their businesses.

So what is that CFO going to do strategically for you? Doesn’t make any sense. Right. But some of the other things that I see are even in in house staff. So, I have a lot of people come to me and say, You know, I really need an operations person. And I say to them, Okay, you know, you’re five or ten people in your firm.

Why do you need a full time operations person? What are they going to do? Do you know what’s going to happen if you have a full time operations person when you’re that size? They’re going to, they’re going to do work, but it’s going to create additional bureaucracy, and it’s actually going to slow things down and increase your cost, they’re not going to add efficiency because there’s not enough going on for an operations person to add efficiency at that scale.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. The other thing I would add to that is HR. And in fact, we run a an HR podcast for one of our clients. And one of the guests that they had on a few weeks ago our client asked the question, how many employees do you need to have to have a full time HR person? And she said, a hundred. And he said, but how do I handle HR if I’m smaller than 100 employees?

And she said, exactly what we’re saying. Use fractional, outsource. There are lots of organizations that do this for small companies. That’s what you should, because you don’t need a full time HR person until you have 100 employees. You just don’t.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, not, not in the environment that we have today. I mean, you know, 20 years ago, I think I would have given you a different answer.

And you probably need, because simply there was a lot more paperwork that needs to be done. Yep, yep. But today, so much of it is done electronically. Yep. And it just, it doesn’t make sense to do it. Now you may need to, certainly before a hundred employees, you’ll need someone administrative on your team who probably liaises with an outside expert to help facilitate, you know, the paperwork and that kind of stuff.

Cause you don’t want to really pay if you’ve got, you know, 50 employees, you don’t really want to pay your HR consultant to handle the day to day paperwork of new hires.

Gini Dietrich: But not a Chief People Officer, or a Chief Human Resources

Chip Griffin: no, not, no, not a, a, not a, a proper, what I would call HR person who understands all the laws and regulations. That’s, that is absolutely something you don’t need.

Frankly, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably a small agency owner, so you just don’t need it. You don’t, you do not. No. And, but, but even with some of the core things like writing, you may not need, at least at this point in time, a new hire who is focused on that capability, right? You may, you may already have one writer.

Maybe you just need to add a contractor to. Buy some time until you’re ready for a full time person. So don’t think that even if it’s a core competency that you need to have, that it has to be a full time employee who does it. There are a lot of other options that you can take advantage of, obviously while still complying with rules and regulations in whatever state you’re in or locality.

Thank you. Thank you for that. I say, I say that for my friends in California and New York.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and there are lots of organizations too that have come up post pandemic that have done a really nice job of working with virtual and remote organizations, working across state lines, all of that.

So you, you don’t need that person in, in, in house by any stretch of the imagination.

Chip Griffin: I think the other thing is when you’re thinking about how you staff, it, it also should drive you to think about how you are positioning your agency. Because if you are a specialist agency, which is something that we certainly encourage, that’s something that lends itself to hiring specialist employees.

If you are particularly, you know, if you have, have picked a strong focus for your agency, then it makes it easier to pick people who work for you, who have that same strong focus. Yes. The place where you get into trouble is where you are a full service agency that will service anybody who’s check clears.

And now you’ve got to hire either all sorts of specialists or you get some generalists who do an okay job because they are generalists. That’s not a good solution. So you have multiple benefits from finding a real focus for your agency. It’s not just that you can sell better. It’s not just that you can have higher profits.

It’s also that it makes it easier to figure out who you need to recruit and then to actually recruit them.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think, you know, like I said earlier, it, it has alleviated so much stress out of my life. To really figure out because I, I was like this too, I heard I had an operations person for years that she created process we didn’t need. I thought I needed a CFO. So I hired somebody and it was a disaster. Like I have, I’ve made all these mistakes. My life got so much easier when I sat down and I said, okay, every single time we work with a client, these are the things we do every single time without fail. I need to find people who can do those four things. And do them really well.

And then my job is to find people outside that I can, so to speak, put on the bench. Right. And I can pull off of the bench when we need. We need somebody to do social media ads. I’m pulling this person off. We need extra hands and arms and fingers and toes on social media. I’m going to bring that person on.

Like I, I, that’s my job now is I, I build that team, that bench so that we, when we have a new client and we have a pain that we have to solve. I have already built that bench and I already know who’s good at what and when I can bring them in and how I can work with them, it’s already done. And that’s my job.

That is my job. And so it’s become so much easier. Because now we go through and we say, okay, here’s our project management outline. And we have a project manager and he’s great. Here’s everything that needs to get done. Here’s who’s responsible. Here are the deadlines and people do their jobs. I’m not following up on deadlines.

I’m not checking work. I’m not reviewing stuff. It’s fantastic. So great!

Chip Griffin: And like you, I’ve made all these mistakes too. I’ve hired full time assistants when I didn’t really need a full time assistant. And this was, you know, 15, 20 years ago when there was more benefit to having an assistant. Yes.

Almost no agency owner that I can think of is running a business where they need a full time assistant today. Right. It is unlikely that you actually need that because so much is not… As difficult as it was that many years ago. Right? I mean, things like travel, it’s frankly easier generally for you to book your own than it is to have someone do it for you because by the time you explain it and look at your schedule and your own personal preferences here, you know, you might as well have just done it because it’s just like three clicks.

And so, and I’ve hired operations people, same experience as you. I’m like, well, we just, we just need this person in here. That’ll, and if I look back at them, most of the decisions were ones that I made because something was annoying me and I didn’t like having to deal with it. Yeah. And so I, I think as an, as an owner, you’re inclined to over invest in those things that make you feel better or allow you to get things that are painful away from you.

And you need to be particularly careful about those because it can be a real waste of money and actually be even counterproductive if you’re not being smart about it. So that really comes down to figuring out, okay, you got, you know, 10 hours a week of something that you don’t like to do. That’s not the best fit for you.

Fine. How can you move it off your plate? Look at it, look around your team now. Is there someone who can take it on? If not, is there something fractional that you can use on the outside to help you? Whether that’s a virtual assistant or an HR consultant or a bookkeeper or accountant or whomever. And if you think about those things and you’re really strategic about how you move the different puzzle pieces around, you’ll be in much better shape than if you’re out there just constantly trying to hire, hire, hire.

Gini Dietrich: The assistant’s a really good one too. Like there are plenty of virtual assistants that you can hire for 10 hours a week, 20 hours a week and not have somebody full time. That’s a really good example too.

Chip Griffin: Right. But, but even then you got to be clear with yourself what you’re looking for in that virtual assistant, right?

Because I, again, I talked to a lot of agency owners. So I need a, I need a virtual assistant. Okay, cool. For what? What are they going to do? Right, right. And a lot of times they describe things to me that. that are not truly assistant type work, they are more small amounts of specialist type work. And part of the problem is that the virtual assistant label has become so polluted over the last, you know, five or six years that instead of it being someone who’s basically an administrative assistant who’s doing the work virtually, it’s now used for almost anybody who’s an independent contractor.

When you find virtual assistants, who are like, I do SEO stuff. Well, then you’re an SEO consultant.

Gini Dietrich: You’re not a virtual assistant.

Chip Griffin: And if you tell me that you can do SEO and scheduling and you can tame my inbox and all. What?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I agree.

Chip Griffin: I’ll pass, thanks. Yes, right, right, right, right. Can you perform surgery on the side too? I mean. Dental work, anything? Yeah, I mean all these things, it’s just, yeah. So, so be really mindful of these things, understand what it is that you really need at any given time, define how these roles are going to help you, define how much work you actually have for them so that you make the right decisions about hiring a generalist, a specialist, or finding a Fractional or contractor based solution somewhere on the outside.

Gini Dietrich: Yep. It’ll make your life a lot easier. I promise so much easier.

Chip Griffin: And we like it when things are easier and also they make sense financially. So that’s right. That’s what this has been all about. And so now I guess I’m, I’m now a whole me. I found, I found the rest of me, Gini. So.

Gini Dietrich: I’m so glad that you’re, you’re full and complete now.

Chip Griffin: So, so with that, we will draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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