Truths were Told: 10 Takeaways from the ANA In-House Agency Conference
The Cella team is fortunate to have attended the ANA’s first-ever In-House Agency Conference in Orlando, FL. What a fantastic event! Thank you to the ANA and all of the industry volunteers who produced it. And special thanks to the roster of impressive leaders who dedicated time to presenting their stories to the audience. We always learn a lot from our industry peers at industry events, but this one was particularly rich with insights and learnings. Having had some time to let it all sink in, here are my top takeaways:
- Brand. The opportunity for in-house agencies to build and express their corporate and product brands is growing tremendously. Customers now expect consistently great experiences and two-way conversations with the brands they love. No team in the marketing ecosystem is better positioned to deliver meaningful impact than the in-house agency. We are closest to the business, its culture, data, customers, and of course, the brands. The strength of the brand work being delivered by the companies presenting at the In-house Agency Conference was extremely impressive.
- In-House + External Agencies = Success. To produce great work and remain productive, almost every large company will need to utilize some blend of internal and external teams. This reality was validated at the conference when, by show of hands, a vast majority of the 300+ attendees indicated that their in-house agencies partner with external firms. Cella predicts that partnerships like these will only become more business critical in the years to come. Our industry needs to move past the “which is better” discussion and acknowledge that both in-house and external agencies serve a valuable purpose. The internal teams who learn to partner with their agencies – and get the right players playing in the right positions – have the winning mindset.
- There Isn’t One Right Way. Each in-house agency must support a very unique culture, org structure, industry, product and geography. By default, this expansive mission requires each in-house agency to find their own specific identity. At the conference it was fascinating to jump from hearing the perspectives of speakers from consulting firms to communications companies, to banks, to consumer packaged goods and industry segments in between. These groups certainly shared some structural and operational similarities, but overall they seemed to be more different than they were the same. The best practice is for teams to use benchmarking as a way to inform and validate how and where they are going, and not to get too caught up in how others are doing it. There is a unique best path for every in-house agency.
- Adaptability is in the Secret Sauce. Adaptability is critical to an in-house agency’s ability to evolve quickly with the surrounding environment by adopting new operational disciplines that enable their teams to apply the right people and processes to the right work at the right time. However, the policies and politics of many large corporations can make it very challenging to be nimble. If this problem is not solved their teams’ performance and ability to enhance capabilities over time will be stifled. It is clear that the most successful in-house agencies are tackling this challenge head on, building teams and models that can stay relevant both in the near- and long-term.
- Buy-In from the Top Makes All the Difference. This is an all-time #1 takeaway for the in-house agency, and perhaps the most important point of focus for any company looking to establish or significantly evolve their in-house agency. Managing a successful AND sustainable in-house organization requires the full commitment and active support of the C-suite and senior leadership. Without their support the unique value proposition and competitive advantage that an in-house team can offer a company is usually lost. Nearly all of the ANA conference presenters either directly or indirectly spoke to the guidance and advocacy that their senior-level executives offered to their in-house agencies.
- Brands are Investing in Great IHA Leaders. The expert talent leading the in-house agencies represented at the conference is striking. These people are not just marketing gurus, creative directors or digital rock stars. They are gifted leaders of people and culture cultivators; empathetic, yet assertive and strong. Smart and savvy business people, they also have a deep understanding of how to help creative people do their best work. Brands are significantly raising their budgets to invest in great in-house agency leaders. This trend very clearly showed up on stage in Orlando.
- Agile is Enabling Innovation in a Natural Way. For years, internal marketing and creative groups, like every other area of business, have been trying to figure out the best way to foster authentic innovation within their teams. The mainstream entry of Agile methodologies into the marketing and creative world may be the most natural path to innovation yet seen for in-house agencies. Agile, when applied appropriately, will promote the collaboration, customer-centricity and iterative learning that drive innovative development. Several in-house agencies at the conference touched on their adventures with these new ways of getting work done, and the stories were largely very positive.
- Data and the In-House Agency are Getting to Know Each Other – Data was everywhere at the conference. Speakers commended the use of data to drive tailored marketing and better products. Many vendor sponsors lined up outside the conference hall to promote their data-related products and services to in-house agencies. It was made clear that data management capabilities, emerging marketing technologies and AI are not replacing the need for creativity; they are actually making creativity more powerful. Yet it was also apparent that for most in-house teams effectively leveraging the data assets they own is still an area of growth. The opportunity for in-house agencies to drive competitive advantage for their brands by powering creativity with data is an absolute reality,and the companies who recognize this and invest accordingly will succeed in the long run.
- Talent Acquisition is Not the Issue. Can in-house agencies find good talent? This has been the age-old argument against internal creative groups’ ability to evolve and execute great creative when compared to their external peers. This issue is now a moot point as there was talent galore at the conference and some of the presenters even touted the large number of agency creatives in their groups. With the evolution of in-house agencies, many professionals now find the opportunity to do great creative – within the stable and healthy business environment that working in-house provides – to be extremely attractive. Now that the recruitment of top-notch talent has become a reality, in-house groups should put their focus on talent development and retention.
- Should it Still be Called the “In-House Agency”? Lastly, some controversy. It’s unsure whether this “in-house agency” title is going to be appropriate for much longer. It is clear that the most developed teams are doing far more than simply lifting and shifting bodies of work from traditional external agencies. Together we are building custom-fit, internal creative ecosystems that combine both traditional and new-to-the-industry roles. Additionally, internal teams are introducing data and analytics, emerging client-side marketing technologies, new channels of communication and new collaborative practices to our roster of competencies. This is beginning to look like something entirely new. Why continue to tie the names of these departments to such a traditional descriptor when we are truly becoming sophisticated strategic partners?
Did you attend the conference, too? We’d love to hear your takeaways! Thanks again to the ANA for producing a great conference. We are already planning on making the trip to Cali next year for round two!