Agency in-housing really does work - when it's not 'lift and shift'
It’s no secret that clients are increasingly bringing more of their marketing and advertising services in-house. We’re seeing growing demand from clients in Australia, and it seems other markets are also leaning into in-housing with equal fervour. A couple of months ago, Howard Homonoff wrote an article in Forbes making a few great points about agency in-housing.
- In-housing is so big now that it has its own conferences!
- Companies build in-house agencies because they want to save money.
- Plus their external agencies can’t keep up with the speed of new skills clients need and/or they want full data control.
- In-house agencies should work hard to be the ‘agency of choice’, think strategically not just take orders, stay friends with external agencies and be a bit different from the rest of the company.
In-housing changes the relationship between agency and client from being partners to being colleagues, and often close friends. In-house teams can go deeper into the clients’ world and gain a better understanding of their business challenges, pain points and obstacles.
The headline of Homonoff’s Forbes article was: “Will brands’ in-house agencies solve their marketing challenges?” I’d argue this headline might need a new pronoun. The in-housing trend is getting so strong now that people are trying to work out how in-house agencies will solve marketing challenges rather than whether to give the idea a go!
Clearly there are payoffs for in-housing. CX Lavender is right in the thick of the in-housing movement. Cost saving, data control, speed to market and better collaboration are the main motivators I hear from the lips of senior clients.
There are plenty of in-housing detractors too, mostly agencies that quite reasonably worry about declining creative quality, culture and loss of IP. A few years ago, those were our biggest worries too. It took a lot of work and experimentation to find our way around them and we are still constantly learning from every in-house team we have in place within client organisations.
While Homonoff’s article was all over the growth in in-housing, the model he described seems out of date. Most of the article talks about an in-house agency servicing in-house clients, protected and separate. That’s what we tried to do at the beginning. Early on we sent a pop-up agency in, essentially a full team from strategy right through to finished art walking down the street carrying laptops and screens to one of our clients’ innovation hubs.
That model worked great for short stint projects, but it didn’t take long for us to learn that successful in-housing can’t be lift and shift, especially in an agile or lean design environment. Essentially you need to build a joint capability, not a mini agency.
We learned that helping a company move faster, be more innovative and create truly integrated customer experiences means being bold enough to unbundle and weave your agency capability right through an organisation. It requires a lot of lateral thinking, new processes, the active nurturing of creativity, tight connection back to the main agency and other things, but the payoffs for agency partners are worth it. You can champion creative ideas that would never normally make it through feedback rounds. You can solve business problems and take ideas well beyond communication channels. You can have informed, candid conversations and find a way forward on the spot.
In fact, our creative teams say the constant, direct exposure to decision-makers quickly builds friendship and empathy on both sides. That openness and collaboration can deliver great, integrated customer experiences!
A few tips for successful in-housing are below:
- Protect creativity, not your processes (except for QA)
- Focus on getting the right people in the right places and the rest will come together
- Utter transparency and openness
- There is no end state – constant adjustment and optimisation will be needed
- Fluidity between sites. Not everything can be done well in a corporate environment
- Active support and mentoring of talent, including lots of face-to-face
- Look for high EQ and selfstarters when picking a team
- Make sure to consistently measure and report on the value delivered