CMO Barometer: What are brands most likely to outsource in 2023?


In 2021, a Gartner survey found that 29% of external agency work shifted to internal teams. With marketing budgets slashed more severely the further we plunge into the recession; brand leaders may be tempted to prioritise in-housing.

However, findings from UNLIMITED’s recent CMO Barometer 2023 study, in which we took the temperature of marketing leaders on their agendas for the year ahead, indicate that certain capabilities still sit better externally than in marketing departments across the UK.

To delve deeper into the insights behind the numbers, UNLIMITED recently led a roundtable in partnership with The Drum Network. With TMW UNLIMITED’s CEO Chris Mellish at the helm, the discussion centred around the data which, when analysed to map CMOs’ implicit priorities against their outsourcing preferences, reveals the future opportunities for brands and agencies alike.

But before we dive in, we wanted to address the elephant in the room. Namely, are brands likely to lean on agencies at all in the current economic climate?



As the cost of living crisis expands and company budgets shrink, the powers in charge are likely to consider turning inwards. While a temporary tightening of the purse strings may help finance departments sleep better at night, the state of play isn’t likely to change any time soon. As such, brands may want to prioritise long-term growth over short-term gains.

Economics aren’t the only factor at play here. Despite some appearing satisfied to in-house insight, many of our own clients admit that they need the agility of an agency partner to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture of what everyone else is up to for inspiration. Even if we are living in a world where more of a consultative relationship between brand and agency will arise, agencies are needed to come in as the agitator for internal creative and strategy teams.


“[Agencies] provide certain marketing inspiration and […] facilitate the implementation of new innovations in the future.”


To avoid resorting to only the lowest hanging fruit, brands can look to external resource to feed in-house marketing departments with innovation, fresh thinking, and alternative perspectives. Taking this into account, you may be wondering what exactly brands should be looking to outsource. Read on to get the highlights from our discussion with The Drum Network below.





According to our analysis, brands are likely to look outwards when it comes to creativity, presenting one of the surest areas of opportunity for agencies. In fact, a whopping 68% of brand leaders stated that creativity should sit either with agencies or a mix of agency and in-house teams.

While this isn’t surprising in itself – agencies have traditionally been sought for an injection of creativity into client challenges – our discussion shone a light on what exactly this might mean going into this year. There was a perceived difference between the type of creativity that agencies should bring to the table:

  • Big creative ideas that can transcend.
  • Little moments that can be tested, optimised, and scaled as needed.

The attraction of the mini moments was grounded in the importance of data and insight. More specifically, customer insight. Acting as miners and masters of consumer insight, agencies can learn from and optimise these bitesize ideas, landing on the right way forward with the aid of real-world data. Our roundtable debate pointed to social channels as a useful testing ground for this. In utilising social as a research engine, brands can be confident that the ideas stem from real-life insight, rather than a subjective whim generated in a superficial environment.

Whether the business need calls for support in creating the big moments or little flashes of inspiration, it’s clear that outsourcing creativity in some form should continue into the year ahead and beyond.



The story with behavioural science was slightly less straight forward. While it didn’t place especially highly on the list of CMO priorities, it did rank decidedly well as a technique for which brands might turn outwards, with 67% of survey respondents deeming it better with agencies or a combination of both. As such, there is certainly potential for outsourcing in this space, especially as more and more brands appear to be catching on.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this, we asked the question: has be-sci long been a quiet constant, ticking along behind the scenes of marketing departments, or is it currently in the midst of a sudden resurgence? The research science is certainly having its time in the spotlight of late. Despite this, behavioural science is not new. Rather, the techniques and technology behind it have become more accessible over time. It is no longer just something that industry giants, like Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland, can afford to do at scale. As a result, brands are finally beginning to see its full potential as a vehicle for driving genuine cut-through and getting under the skin of consumers to fuel and influence human decision-making.

At UNLIMITED, we’ve long been attuned to the impact of research sciences on brand performance. Integrated across all our connected capabilities, our Human Understanding Lab injects value, insights, and science into client briefs to solve challenges, define strategy and drive performance across increasingly complex customer journeys.

From developing and testing ads that resonate with audiences emotionally, to validating strategic propositions across target markets; we’ve found that with seasoned experts in the driver’s seat, behavioural science can be used as the wind in the sails of brands looking to push conversion.



A somewhat surprising finding of the data indicated that not only may sustainability not be a capability that brands are looking to outsource, but it may also not be something that brands are looking to action at all. Only 34% of CMOs are truly convinced (when implicit testing is applied) that sustainability comms programmes are a priority for 2023 – a notion backed up by Serviceplan’s CMO study across 9 European markets, where sustainability was rated lowest in the UK when compared with other nations. On top of this, 35% prefer to keep these initiatives in-house and 7% admit to not having them in place.

With the pursuit of sustainability taking centre stage for brands and consumers as the environmental impact of climate change is beginning to be felt more severely in the UK, this disconnect is difficult to decode. We know from behavioural science that the closer an issue becomes and the more it touches our lives, the more we pay attention and feel the desire to act – a stance demonstrated in UNLIMITED’s research into consumer mindsets around sustainability in our report, The ‘S’ Word. So where is this hesitation from CMOs coming from?

One theory is that the ‘S’ Word has become more of a hygiene factor, a part of the everyday narrative of a brand rather than a specific marketing challenge to be granted special effort. But with instances of greenwashing regularly colouring the news, brands don’t appear to have the issue completely in hand.

It’s more likely that there’s still a gap here for CMOs, one very much evidenced in their responses. The majority may grasp the importance of action at the same time as being too nervous of backlash to communicate this and move forward. This is where outsourcing has and will continue to play a big part. Rather than originating from the brands themselves, the push towards sustainability is being driven by agencies for the time being. They are leading the movement, encouraging proactive involvement, and keeping the conversation alive until brands are confident enough to take over.

Every brand’s sustainability journey is different – whatever stage you may find yourself, looking to external experts for guidance is a solid place to start. So, our discussion concluded, brands may in fact be missing out by not planning to leverage agencies on the sustainability question.



What else are CMOs looking to pay special attention to going forward? Which areas are they choosing to overlook? Our expansive study of the UK’s marketing elite is now available for download. If you’d like to explore the data further, check out our full research report here.

Alternatively, if you have a challenge for UNLIMITED to get their teeth stuck into, please get in touch! Contact Chris Mellish at