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Lessons in creative in-housing: ‘it’s a solution, not an objective’

​As in-house creative agencies become increasingly common at large multinationals, The Observatory International‘s Rob Foster identifies five lessons for brands wanting to make it work. 

In-housing is a hot topic. It used to be media-driven but increasingly brands are also exploring the opportunities for bringing creative in-house.

Our recent report with the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) found that 57% of major multinationals already had an in-house agency of some description, with a further 17% considering one. Furthermore, 82% of those that had in-house resource reported an increase in workload over the last 12 months, and the Covid-19 lockdown has contributed to that in many cases.

Of course, creative in-housing isn’t suitable for every business. However, there are some common elements that successful in-house agency launches share, and brands would do well to keep these tips in mind. 

  • In-housing is a (possible) solution, not an objective: A business’s operating structure should be designed to achieve clearly identified business objectives. Whether or not certain roles are suitable to in-house is only one consideration within an overall resource model that looks to achieve the optimal balance between internal capabilities and external partner agencies. If you start with in-housing as the goal, you will likely encounter numerous challenges and complications that hinder potential success.

  • Rome wasn’t built in a day: Don’t try to in-house every single element of creative need at once. Mass changes may be unsustainable. Make a business case for a model that meets a small number of key objectives, and over time, once the model is delivering against those initial objectives, you can look to widen the scope further and introduce additional goals. Building by iteration means that you can review performance regularly, building upon successes and spotting any issues early.

  • You aren’t just in-housing creative people and minds: Bringing creative resource in-house is not as simple as hiring some smart thinkers. It’s a fundamental operational change that requires planning. Key issues to consider and address include the necessary technologies, processes, governance, information management and access to platforms that will allow the creative function to operate from inside the business. If you are unable to address all these issues, you shouldn’t start in-housing.

  • An in-house agency is still an agency: One of the benefits of in-housing creative is closer alignment to the business. Yet that proximity can also breed a lack of formality and, at times, complacency.  It is important that the business treats the in-house resource like an external agency, which means adhering to defined working processes, service-level agreements and undertaking ongoing performance measurement.

    Without the establishment of clear guidelines and processes, you run the risk of the business taking advantage of the in-house resource. Only through proper processes can you manage workflow effectively.

    As one WFA member stated, it can be “too easy for marketing teams to demand work is completed without a process being followed, given they are ‘on site‘”.

  • Flexibility is key: As with any business change, establishing an in-house agency will involve fresh/unforeseen challenges. While it is important to brainstorm potential challenges during the planning stage to help minimise the impact, it is also important to build some agility and flexibility into your model to allow you to overcome any issues. In-house agencies are startups and will need to behave like such.

Keeping these lessons in mind as you consider in-housing creative resource will make it more likely it is built for success. 

There is no single in-house model, but there are two commonly used approaches and a huge scale of grey in between. Brands can recruit headcount directly or they can hire specialist in-housing agencies that will embed their own staff in the business. Both are considered in-housing.

Choosing the right option, however, requires brands to tailor their in-house agency structure to their business objectives.

Rob Foster is a senior consultant at The Observatory International.

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​As in-house creative agencies become increasingly common at large multinationals, The Observatory International‘s Rob Foster identifies five lessons for brands wanting to make it work. 

In-housing is a hot topic. It used to be media-driven but increasingly brands are also exploring the opportunities for bringing creative in-house.

Our recent report with the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) found that 57% of major multinationals already had an in-house agency of some description, with a further 17% considering one. Furthermore, 82% of those that had in-house resource reported an increase in workload over the last 12 months, and the Covid-19 lockdown has contributed to that in many cases.

Of course, creative in-housing isn’t suitable for every business. However, there are some common elements that successful in-house agency launches share, and brands would do well to keep these tips in mind. 

  • In-housing is a (possible) solution, not an objective: A business’s operating structure should be designed to achieve clearly identified business objectives. Whether or not certain roles are suitable to in-house is only one consideration within an overall resource model that looks to achieve the optimal balance between internal capabilities and external partner agencies. If you start with in-housing as the goal, you will likely encounter numerous challenges and complications that hinder potential success.

  • Rome wasn’t built in a day: Don’t try to in-house every single element of creative need at once. Mass changes may be unsustainable. Make a business case for a model that meets a small number of key objectives, and over time, once the model is delivering against those initial objectives, you can look to widen the scope further and introduce additional goals. Building by iteration means that you can review performance regularly, building upon successes and spotting any issues early.

  • You aren’t just in-housing creative people and minds: Bringing creative resource in-house is not as simple as hiring some smart thinkers. It’s a fundamental operational change that requires planning. Key issues to consider and address include the necessary technologies, processes, governance, information management and access to platforms that will allow the creative function to operate from inside the business. If you are unable to address all these issues, you shouldn’t start in-housing.

  • An in-house agency is still an agency: One of the benefits of in-housing creative is closer alignment to the business. Yet that proximity can also breed a lack of formality and, at times, complacency.  It is important that the business treats the in-house resource like an external agency, which means adhering to defined working processes, service-level agreements and undertaking ongoing performance measurement.

    Without the establishment of clear guidelines and processes, you run the risk of the business taking advantage of the in-house resource. Only through proper processes can you manage workflow effectively.

    As one WFA member stated, it can be “too easy for marketing teams to demand work is completed without a process being followed, given they are ‘on site‘”.

  • Flexibility is key: As with any business change, establishing an in-house agency will involve fresh/unforeseen challenges. While it is important to brainstorm potential challenges during the planning stage to help minimise the impact, it is also important to build some agility and flexibility into your model to allow you to overcome any issues. In-house agencies are startups and will need to behave like such.

Keeping these lessons in mind as you consider in-housing creative resource will make it more likely it is built for success. 

There is no single in-house model, but there are two commonly used approaches and a huge scale of grey in between. Brands can recruit headcount directly or they can hire specialist in-housing agencies that will embed their own staff in the business. Both are considered in-housing.

Choosing the right option, however, requires brands to tailor their in-house agency structure to their business objectives.

Rob Foster is a senior consultant at The Observatory International.

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