ESP and Agency Hybrid: The best of both worlds or an organizational nightmare?


Despite software platforms getting easier to use, many companies still rely partly or entirely on third parties for services. We’ve looked at the strengths and weaknesses of ESPs for services and agencies as email marketing services providers. If neither the ESP nor the agency solutions sound appealing there is another option. Go hybrid.

Go hybrid using an marketing agency AND an ESP

Rather than looking for a one-stop shop wherein a single organization endeavours to meet all your needs, buy the strengths of multiple providers. At first blush this may sound ideal. Get the executional efficiency and expertise of an ESP with the creativity and marketing savvy of an agency.

It certainly can be a good outcome, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch and there are some trade-offs. If it’s not properly managed you may get the sales mentality and meat grinder approach of an ESP and the limited platform and channel expertise of an agency with a side order of backbiting thrown in for good measure.

The Key to a great email marketing Hybrid solution

The key to success is in identifying the specific strengths and weaknesses of the particular ESP and agency you’re dealing with and then clearly delineating who does what and how the process will work.

Unfortunately to some extent you’re going to be playing referee. Revenue is revenue and both vendors will want as much of it as they can get. Then there’s the thorny question of accountability and reporting. Do you want “one throat to choke”? That certainly avoids the finger pointing recriminations when things go wrong and gets you away from saying the business equivalent of “don’t make me pull this car over!”.

On the other hand it puts one party (typically the agency) in the power position and shortcomings may not be visible to you. The non-power party may also endeavour to undermine the power party and good luck figuring out if it’s deliberate or accidental.

Is there a right answer here? As is so often the case it all depends on what you need and your priorities.

A clear view of your third party team

If you have a team that’s sufficiently resourced and skilled to do hands-on day to day management you can play the referee. The benefit of this is that you get a very clear understanding of who is doing what, who is performing and who isn’t. You can put work to the companies that give you the best results and keep them all accountable to you.

If you do need to get a one stop shop there are a growing number of ESPs and agencies that have forged existing partnerships. Companies who have aligned their value propositions and their incentive programs to ensure they work together effectively. Some of them are specialist email agencies, some are closer to ISVs who whitelabel ESP technologies and add value on top of them. These can be a good alternative if you want a single point of accountability but are concerned about competitiveness, inefficiency and power dynamics.

The key in all the hybrid situations

The key in all the hybrid situations is in accepting that there will be some overhead in managing multiple vendors and then determining three things.

1. What does success look like for you?
2. What is the role of your team in reaching that success?
3. How are the third party players incented to reach that success?

Once you know what success looks like you need to figure out how to measure it. Those measures become your key performance indicators for your internal team and vendors.

Clearly defining the role of your internal email team and the roles and interfaces for your vendors is essential. The more cooks you have in your kitchen the more clearly defined the roles, responsibilities and handovers need to be.

Agency strengths and Weaknesses

Finally, in business people do what you pay them to do, whether they’re an employee, an ESP or an agency. Good companies will take a long term view and try to ensure your success but they’re companies and their own success ultimately comes first. It’s important therefore to ensure that their remuneration is tied to your key performance indicators so that you’re paying them for your success and not inadvertently incentivising them to undermine it.


Each option has its strengths and its weaknesses, its pros and its cons. In general they break down as follows:

ESP Agency
Account Management Weaker Stronger
Creative Weaker Stronger
Marketing Strategy Weaker Stronger
Platform Knowledge Stronger Weaker
Channel Expertise Stronger Weaker
Execution Efficiency Stronger Weaker

Which way you should go depends very much on what matters to you. You need a provider whose strengths will complement those of your in-house team and not just overlap with them.

Finally never underestimate the importance of a strong cultural and emotional fit. If you and your team get on with a provider’s team on an emotional level there’s a much better chance of creating an effective working relationship.

Image via David Wall (cc)

Derek Harding

About Derek Harding

Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.

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  • Alchemy Worx

    Hi Derek,
    Agree with your central point that resourcing email with both an ESP and an agency gives the benefits of both. However we’d beg to differ on your overview of the weaknesses of agencies – there is an exception: specialist email marketing agencies make platform knowledge, channel expertise and efficient execution as much a part of their core business as account management, creative and strategy. This is certainly our approach at Alchemy Worx and we have a team of expert users of ESPs such as Cheetahmail, ExactTarget, Responsys and Silverpop.
    Abigail Boswell, on behalf of Alchemy Worx

    • Derek Harding

      Thanks Abigail. Obviously I’m speaking in generalities, it’s not possible to address every variant. However as an agency CEO who has worked for an ISP and run an ESP I know for sure that agencies can never have the same insider knowledge and backend access that an ESP’s own teams can.

      I also know that many agencies claim they’re platform experts while also claiming to be platform agnostic. Similarly there are ESPs who claim their creative and agency services match those of true agencies. These two claims are… optimistic.