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Are You In or Out? Considerations for In-House or Agency SEM Roles

Published: September 8, 2014

Author: Molly Shotwell

Catsup or ketchup? Superman or Batman? “Less filling” or “Tastes great”?
Agency or in house?
Do questions get more divisive or polarizing than the ones above? I certainly have strong opinions on all of those quandaries, but as someone who has spent the majority of their professional career building brand awareness and driving revenue through direct digital advertising, I can tell you that the difference between whether to choose between an in-house SEM role and an SEM agency role is complex to say the least. So here are some considerations to take with you as you ponder where that next bid adjustment will come from.

In House

Elvis At The Movies
One of the biggest misconceptions about running SEM business in house is that all you’ll do is set automated rules for your campaigns and then sit back and watch the revenue come falling in but then ultimately feel bored and idle. Not true. The opportunity to work in house will provide some more flexible scheduling as you’ll most likely be working within one business vertical as opposed to many, but be prepared to find yourself dividing your time between SEM initiatives but also working collaboratively with non-search teams like SEO, social, email, and affiliate teams.
The in-house world often has dedicated teams for each branch of their direct advertising, so you may find yourself working closely with a wide variety of groups to reach a common goal of improving the business. Having worked in house before, I found a good deal of my time was spent working with a finance team to create accurate forecasting models and KPI projections for upcoming months/quarters. In addition, working in house found me delivering “Search 101” types of presentations to different branches of the organization who wanted to know why and how large budgets were being used to drive such strong data. Although you may have to field the occasional “So you’re in charge of those pop-up ads?” types of questions, you’ll be able to walk away with a great networking experience and an opportunity to get your name and face known throughout the company.
Working in house and collaborating with these different branches of the company will also give you an opportunity to explore other fields of marketing besides search. I’ve had in-house colleagues who in the past began working in search but found that email, social, or creative were perhaps more of their calling. And the same is true for the other side of the equation as well. I’ve had new members of the in-house search team come from anywhere from analytics to affiliates, proving that if you can find an in-house company that values good talent and encourages the freedom to develop your professional interests within that company, the sky’s the limit for where your career can grow.
Another in-house misconception is that the work will, for lack of a better word, be “easy”. Although you may not have the daily grind of demanding clients calling you at work or at home (and even on the weekends) that the agency world comes with, don’t think that just because you’re focused on one business line your workload will be less complicated or your bosses and business owners less demanding.
In house isn’t any different from an agency where you’ll have a team, business owner, or manager who you have to report to and who will be overseeing your work very closely. You’re still accountable for driving good results, and your manager or boss is also accountable for work reviewed by executive-level managers, directors or even a board of directors who will be just as aware and concerned if results aren’t shifting in the right direction. It’s just as difficult to solve an in-house SEM emergency as it is at an agency emergency, so don’t be fooled that since you may not have weekly meetings or QBRs as often as your agency counterpart, that the work requires less effort or accountability.


To take on a role in the SEM agency world is to embrace that yes, there will be some levels of stress involved, especially if you are dealing with larger, more demanding clients, and that yes, the workload will be robust and the hours long but at the same time that may be the perfect environment for you. You’ll be embracing the knowledge that at an agency, you will most certainly get the opportunity to expand your SEM horizons.
In house you simply may not need to run a remarketing, YouTube, or DSA campaign in order to drive your business – which isn’t a knock against an in-house SEM role, but that business objective simply may not call for that type of traffic. In an agency environment, even if you’re not running one of these tests for a client, there is probably another person sitting in your agency right now who is and who can be a great resource to learn from.
The diversity of business verticals is another very appealing aspect of life in an SEM agency. If you’re working with a retail client in house right now, chances are that in 6 months you will still be working on a retail client as opposed to an EDU client. Agencies thrive on new business, and at an agency you can gain the experience of working with several different types of business objectives as well as different types of clients, so if you’re worried that your Rolodex is looking a little slim, the agency world is there to beef it up.
One of my favorite aspects of when I was working in house was the relationships I formed with our vendors and partners in addition to the ones with my talented in-house colleagues. However, as great as those relationships were, I began to question whether they were the best relationships for the business since we had worked together for so long that a type of “group think” emerged and we began to challenge and question each other’s work and strategies less and continue with the status quo. In an agency, you’ll still forge relationships with a diverse and interesting set of characters, but given that you’ll have those relationships spread out across different business lines, you’ll have the opportunity to bring those learnings and strategies from one team to another and truly collaborate on growing a business and making it thrive.
The debate between working in house or for an agency will continue to spark a lively discussion, but ultimately, it’s not as if you have to pick just one and stick with it for your entire career! The journey to finding your ideal role will not only bring out your best work but will also improve the level of work in our industry. So there is no right or wrong answer as long as you approach the question with an open mind to learning from new processes, cultures, business units, tests, and colleagues, you’ll find which type of environment is for you.

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