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An Outsider’s Inside Perspective: An Interview With Mike Papson (Part 2)

This is the second in a 3-part interview with Mike Papson, the Director of Merck Creative Studios. Mike brings a unique business-centric perspective to his management of the group. This segment digs into perceptions (both internal and from the client side) that impact MCS’ business.

Andy: With regard to managing perception, how did you shift perception within the creative team to take on a more business-minded rather than just creative mindset, where taking a deliverable to the highest level possible might not be the appropriate response to a project?

An Outsider’s Inside Perspective: An Interview With Mike Papson (Part 2) Andy Epstein
Studio Manager, The BOSS Group at Merck 

An Outsider’s Inside Perspective: An Interview With Mike Papson (Part 2) Mike Papson
Director, Merck Creative Studios

Mike: I think it goes all the way back to where we started in the beginning of this journey—defining the process that we have and the services that we’re going to perform. We spent probably a good six months saying, “Okay, what are the services that we want to provide, and what is the process for creating those sets of deliverables? What types of people do we need?” Then setting up the budget and the financials to match that. As you know, we then were able to create department budgets. We had people allocated for that. We knew what our cost structure was. We were able to create the rates to be able to recoup all the costs that we needed based on previous years’ volumes.

Then we set up operational review meetings with metrics on a monthly basis, where we were able to then assess how we were doing with that. That allowed us to really apply that structure to the process and the team to get them thinking about the logical flow of that structure and process, both of which can be measured. We took metrics that we were able to gather in the beginning and put them in a system that allowed us to collect a lot more information; we automated some of the assessments that were more manual in nature.

Then at an operational meeting, we were able to say, “Okay, are things getting better or getting worse?” If things were getting better, we would continue them. If they were getting worse, we asked ourselves why. We looked at what was occurring and how we could fix those breakdowns. We put fixes in place to improve things, and then we monitored the impact of those solutions, because usually what you measure and monitor will get better.

Andy: Then this created accountability.

Mike: Right, there’s accountability, and you’re focusing on it to make things better. Operational issues that are not measured and addressed along with accountability have a tendency to not do well for that reason.

Andy: So far, all we’ve discussed addresses internal operations. Now though, one of your goals is how we manage our relationships with our clients. Why did you choose that order, and what challenges have you been seeing that drove you to establish a goal around client relationships?

Mike: Again, it is about our journey. You don’t want to go and start to work with your clients and promise them things if you don't have the operations in place to deliver on those promises. It was important first to establish a solid foundation with a good team that could deliver, have the right cost structure and process in place to manage it, and have the creativity around the deliverables to motivate the client to want to work with us. Now we have that in place. So now, as you’ve mentioned, the next part of the journey here is, how do we work with our clients? As you know, they have a choice. They can choose to use us, or they can go outside.

We’ve taken away a couple of clear client objections around our cost structure. I think we're in line with or better than our competition. We also have the reporting and project management in place that is on par with any of the outside agencies. Because we reside within Merck, we have internal knowledge and additional capabilities because of that knowledge. Now it’s a matter of understanding our clients’ businesses better; understanding what their needs are for communication, what their strategy is throughout the year, and then putting a program in place to maximize that for them.

I think this year in our journey is about really trying to get a seat at the table with the client, understanding them and their business, and showing them how we can help them drive value to their business. We’ve talked many times about not wanting to be just the in-house agency where we’re waiting for those one-off jobs. We really want to be a valued business partner. That’s the next part of our journey: how do we demonstrate that we’re a valued business partner? We have to get them to see the value that we can bring above and beyond just handing them that deliverable.

Andy: That’s a perfect segue into my next question: What do you see as MCS’ or any in-house creative team’s value proposition to the company as a whole and to its clients specifically?

Mike: Whether it’s creative or other services that I’ve provided, whether it’s financial services, or meeting services, or travel, it really comes down to understanding the business from the client’s perspective. Whatever business they’re in, if that’s GHH (Merck’s pharmaceutical division) or Animal Health, we need to understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and we need to know their business as well as they do. They don’t know the creative side, so we need to bridge that gap—that’s where we bring value.

If you know their side of the business, you can walk into their office or sit at the table and really talk like they do, but bring all of the knowledge of what you can give them from a creative perspective, because otherwise, you're just sitting and waiting for them to ask you for something. If you know that business, then you can be driving it for them and providing them that insight showing where they need to go and what type of communications they should be using.

The third and final post of the interview will bust the traditional in-house value proposition myth and identify the real benefits corporate creative teams bring to their organizations. The key insights in part two include Mike’s focus on assessing the need for and then defining the types of services his group has chosen to provide to the greater organization, and the team’s commitment to gaining an intimate understanding of their clients’ businesses. Clearly, proactively positioning your group to provide creative services and deliverables that you’ve determined best serve your organization and leveraging your unique relationship with and access to your clients’ groups’ businesses ensures your continued relevance to your company.


Andy Epstein

Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.

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