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The Business Side of Creative: The Advantages of Transitioning to an In-House Agency

Today there is a trend of bringing the advertising/marketing communications function in-house. Corporate executives are finding that it is less expensive, with additional benefits of convenience, speed and institutional knowledge, to invest in in-house agencies, rather than pay exorbitant prices to outside agencies. So what does this mean to in-house creative leaders? With the investment of the corporation comes the “business side of creative.” Suddenly you need to “prove” your value to executives, as they are investing in your department. Being a business, they want to see a “return on their investment.” Many may say they would rather not become an in-house agency and continue being a corporate creative department, but there are advantages to becoming an in-house agency. Let’s explore them:

You are treated and respected as equal with other departments/divisions.
With the investment of capital, you will need to provide “numbers” of what your department provides. Oftentimes these can be numbers of projects requested, types of projects delivered, numbers of projects per division, number of hours per project, etc. Yes, this will take administrative time from someone or you may even need to hire a full-time administrative person, but you will be viewed by management as contributing to the larger corporation. (Executives many times don’t see the value of corporate creative if numbers or money are not involved.)

You have the opportunity to be valued as “adding to the bottom line.”
Executives are business people where revenues, market share, and brand are what matter. With public companies, quarterly reports to Wall Street and stockholders become paramount. With becoming an in-house agency, your consistency and execution of brand along with solving your in-house clients’ communications challenges have trackable results. Begin tracking those results. How many attendees were there for a client’s seminar based on the materials you produced? How many hits were there for a website you created? What was the shift in perception/addition of sales due to an ad campaign you developed? Work with your clients to set up systems to track those results. Executives will pay attention.

Will there be challenges? Will there be growing pains? Yes, but the growing pains are worth the effort. No longer are you seen as merely a support group that is overhead. And with budgets being tight, you can reduce your risk of cuts. Your department is now viewed as valued to be grown and invested in. So, what possible adjustments may you need to consider? Here are a few:

1. Identify someone (or multiple someones) to be a project/account manager.
With working with the clients to track results, extra time will be needed to spend with clients to set up systems with them to continually/weekly collect and report responses. This may be new to the client, so it may not happen perfectly at the beginning, but persistence will pay off. Remember, these numbers will make the creative department look good, and your clients look good to their bosses. Make sure the results you track are for that project, not anything “bigger” like corporate market share (hard to prove). “Know thy numbers” is a mantra to be taken seriously.

2. You may need to expand further into the “business side of creative” to offer similar ad agency functions.
Ad agencies offer strategic planning and consultative advice to clients based on brand and business objectives. If you have identified someone to provide project/account management, perhaps they can begin to offer those basic services, e.g., put into a database the projects the client normally does in a year. These plans help the client look at their communications from a larger perspective, thus hopefully (with help from you) plan in advance, as well as allow you to plan department work and talent.

3. You will need to ensure attention to the administrative.
Whomever you identify to track creative department metrics, along with project metrics, ensure this is a continuous process. You may need to provide them to management with little prior notice. These are your justification for continued executive investment.

4. You will need to shift client conversations to the value of creative.
No longer is quality creative at the heart of client conversations. Most clients don’t know the difference. If you begin a chargeback system, once clients have to pay for services, they care how much services cost. You will be tempted to talk about costs, but refrain. Discuss value. What is the client trying to achieve? What is the goal of the project? Discuss the value of achieving that goal relative to the investment, e.g., How much is it worth to you to achieve this goal? Thousands, hundreds of thousands? Well then you’re getting a bargain, because this only costs X. Keep the focus on the goal, not the cost.

5. You will need to work closely with Corporate Marketing.
With the addition of planning communications projects, there may be some overlap with the functions of corporate marketing. This is your opportunity to work in closer alignment with Marketing. Become an adjunct to their department. Attend and get invited to staff and yearly planning meetings. Oftentimes their plans involve the creative department. You can help steer them early on. And you can add to the feasibility of the planning goals, with respect to creative timing and delivery. It can be a win/win.

6. You will need to shift or keep your focus on graphic design not fine art.
The emphasis will now be even greater, with greater investment, on business results for creative developed. Again, the quality of art is not the focus, the business results of the project is what the corporation cares about. As long as the Creative department is part of a larger organization, this will be the fact.

In the end, the Creative department will be seen as an invaluable corporate asset. You are saving the corporation significant budget, and having a major, provable impact on corporate outcomes. As you continue to show the value of your contribution to their goals, your department will receive more opportunities and more projects. You will be an integral part of the team that “makes things happen.” And they wouldn’t know what to do without you!


Susan Hunnicutt

Cella Consultant Susan Hunnicutt is an expert in using marketing and communications to achieve business objectives. She works with organizational leaders to assess their needs, determine their goals, analyze their resources and develop an action plan and recommendations to meet these goals. Susan’s value proposition is taking a growing in-house creative team “to the next level,” not only in metrics but also in systems and processes, quality control and increasing the number of high-profile and quality client projects.    

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