This past fall I asked a sizeable group of in-house creative leaders, “Why did your company start an in-house creative team/agency, and why do they continue to invest in you?” The majority of the audience, a significant majority, was not able to answer that question. It’s easy to understand not being privy to the history of a team, especially if the team existed long before your tenure with it began. However, it’s almost inexcusable not to know why your company continues to invest in an in-house creative team.
We all can state “time, cost and quality” as our value proposition, however it’s not specific and therefore won’t drive an appreciation of your team’s value. There are likely several reasons your company continues to invest in the in-house agency, and I expect those reasons vary based on whom you ask. It’s really important to understand what those reasons are for each key stakeholder group—the two most obvious of which are addressed below.
Finance and Procurement
The money people at your organization are likely to point to cost savings or cost avoidance as a primary reason for the in-house agency’s existence. Often these terms (cost avoidance and cost savings) are used interchangeably, though they are different. However, at the end of the day, they’re both rooted in the fact that the in-house agency is able to provide creative services less expensively than external agencies—if you’re not, that’s usually a problem. Procurement teams typically have annual goals focused on identifying new or increased opportunities for cost savings/reductions. Theoretically, the head of creative and the marketing procurement team member should be BFFs as they have complementing goals. Unfortunately, sometimes the manner in which savings are calculated, dis-incents procurement team members from redirecting opportunities to the in-house agency. Unlocking this enigma could be the key to expanding the in-house agency’s capabilities and value to the organization. But as many of you may have heard me say, cost savings opens the door to opportunities; it will not keep the door open. Other value drivers are what keep the in-house agency in business.
Other cost drivers are speed and efficiency, though these are harder to prove in the context of comparison with external agencies.
Our clients, while cost conscious, tend to value time and quality ahead of costs. Potentially their assumption is that the cost value is a given with the in-house agency—especially for those clients of in-house teams who do not charge back. Our clients appreciate the direct access they have to our team and the ability to submit hot (aka quick-turnaround, high impact) projects without jumping through hoops. In addition, because our team knows the brand and the archive we are able to develop deliverables very quickly when the situation calls for speed.
In seven years of consulting, I’ve rarely (if ever) heard a creative team say they don’t have time pressures. Outside of the print vendors, we’re last in line when it comes to the marketing/product/content development process. It often feels as though clients forget how much time we need to do our best work…even when we have documented service level agreements. But in all honesty, we always get it done; it’s just not always pretty how we get it done. Of course, we don’t want to be the heroes who go to the end of the earth to make it happen at the expense of the quality of our work or our teams. We want our people to have appropriate work-life balance, we want enough time to be able to develop multiple concepts, we want enough time to feel confident we aren’t introducing mistakes because we are rushing… and our clients want it yesterday. Our ability to deliver quickly, to collaborate on the fly (our brand, and only our brand, is our client—no one else to compete for our time), and to reprioritize based on our company’s hottest priorities is a huge value to our clients. Our vested interest in our company’s success positions our team to want to excel, even under the toughest of constraints.
Quality is a must—our work must be accurate, effective, and reflect our brand. Our clients appreciate they do not need to do a deep dive on the brand, corporate values, strategic priorities and the company’s products or services when working with our teams. Our intrinsic understanding of the company and required approvals (legal, regulatory, etc.) is a key value driver that facilitates timely on-brand, on-message creative. We are positioned to deliver this more quickly than our external agency partners. Most of the in-house agencies we consult for have external agency partners and it makes sense how the work is divided between the various creative resourcing options, however we know of more than a few in-house agencies who are the sole agency of record for their company. In these cases, the companies have not figured out how to work with agencies because they have significant challenges concisely communicating the brand, corporate values, strategic priorities and the company’s products or services—their in-house agencies provide a huge value in their embedded status. In addition to quality work, our clients also want (…demand…) quality service. They want an external agency-like experience within the in-house agency.
A New Year’s Resolution
Quality work, amazing service, quick, at a fair price. We can’t be all things to all people, that’s why it’s important to understand what your clients value most. If you’re going to focus improvement opportunities, it makes sense to do so in places your clients will appreciate (and to solve existing pain points).
As creative leaders, we can all point to the various values in-house agencies bring to their organizations. The list is much longer than the above-mentioned value drivers. I’m certain each of you can identify the value driver you believe to be most important to our own organization—but do you really know why your company continues to invest in an in-house agency? When was the last time you asked? Who did you ask? Start with your boss. Then ask your most prolific clients, then perhaps a few of your less frequent clients who also use external agencies and even your peers in other departments.
Consider how you are talking about your team’s value, how that message changes based on who you are talking with, and how you prove out your team’s value. When you have those answers, boil it down to an elevator pitch and preach it to your team. Connect what they do to corporate goals and priorities—we all appreciate being part of the bigger picture and having purpose, and they’ll be better positioned to be effective evangelists for your group.
In her role as Cella General Manager, Jackie Schaffer has consulted for Fortune 500 clients with more than 400 in-house team members and for teams at mid-sized businesses, government entities, and educational institutions with teams as small as four designers. Her management competencies lie in operations assessments, financial management and talent management. Prior to joining Cella, she led an international “mega-sized” creative team through an evolution of production studio to strategic partner.