Breaking the In-House Mold: Why There is No Longer a One-Size-Fits-All Solution to Creative


Article ImageMarketing has always been a constantly evolving landscape. One of the latest shifts is in how brands do creative marketing and advertising—a world that used to be primarily led by external agencies and partners, which is now being brought in house by many leading brands.

According to Digiday.com, 56% of brands plan on moving more of their creative in-house over the course of 2018 and 69% of brands already conduct over half of their creative marketing and advertising internally. In a recent ANA study, 44% of respondents said that their in-house agency was created in the past 5 years, showing just how quickly this trend has disrupted the market. Leading marketers—including Target, The GAP, and Spotify—initiated the wave of large brands bringing marketing in house, and many others have quickly followed suit.

This shift in the creative model—as well as new advertising and marketing technology driven by artificial intelligence, natural language processing, cloud-based systems and more—is forcing agencies to think twice about their position in the market and their future strategy. These shifts also open doors for other players such as consultancies to find their own place.

As the landscape is rapidly changing, there are a few key issues that all players must consider. But for brands, in particular, marketers must figure out the right balance between in-house teams and agency support to operate most efficiently.

Every brand is unique in finding the best fit as there are many factors at play, ranging from size to location. Here are four considerations for brands evaluating how and if they should break the agency model mold and bring creative and advertising services in house.

Reassess, Reorganize, React

One of the luxuries of outsourcing creative work is that the agencies already have the headcount and overhead. When brands evaluate moving these services in house, they first have to consider how they will build an internal agency from the ground up. This includes finding the budget to hire creative talent, being able to find the right talent in a competitive labor market, and acquiring the physical overhead (i.e. office space) to support a new internal team.

As all of these moving parts take time to come to full fruition, brands may continue to outsource creative work. For example, Bank of America’s Enterprise Creative Solutions keeps 50% of contracted workers on for 12-18 months. As brands get their in-house teams up and running, it’s important to keep specialized creative and advertising talent on board (or at least on contracts) to maintain their brand, efficiency and value. Turning creative projects over to less-experienced teams right away can lead to longer project turnaround time and lower-quality work.

Location, Location, Location

One of the biggest considerations, and therein challenges, for brands bringing creative services in house is staffing. Brands are struggling to find the talent they need as they headhunt for culture fit, try to maneuver archaic hiring processes and try to to find quality candidates outside of a few coastal cities.

Part of this staffing trouble may be attributed to a company’s location. For brands without offices in major cities, finding the amount of talent needed to start an in-house creative team may prove too difficult a task. This forces some companies to rely on agencies because of the talent gap. For example, Kimberly Clark is a large CPG company with headquarters in Wisconsin. However, as they continue to bring more of their work in house, they use their office in Chicago to tap into a bigger pool of creative talent.

Another important factor is creating a separate location mentally for the creative team. When a new in-house creative team is staffed, they’re also going to need space to work creatively. This means developing a new space, turning it into a creative environment, and making sure the new department is comfortable and ready to work.

The Separation of Corporate and Creative

On top of creating a new in-house creative department, it must also be separated from the actual company in some cases. As is with Church and State, a separation between a company’s corporate and creative goals is important because it increases creative freedom and doesn’t favor any one sort of method as does freedom of religion.

To not lose objectivity and maintain a level of independence from a brand’s business-oriented departments, working autonomously in a completely different space or culture is sometimes encouraged. For example, the work done at companies like IBM and Bank of America doesn’t exactly promote creativity or spontaneity. In Bank of America’s case, its creativity is already limited as their in-house team is forced to work under agencies that control the company’s media planning, spending and buying. This leaves their in-house team “free to be creative” within a template, as they must stay consistent with other materials produced by the contracted agencies.

But, when working within a template, how creative can one really be? Sometimes companies in these very black-and-white industries don’t even develop or promote a culture, which is becoming increasingly important to the workplace environment and productivity. Company culture should represent the brand’s products, feelings and attitude toward their work in a positive way. Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist who studied culture even said, “If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organization.”

The antithesis to these banking and IBM-like firms would be a company like Apple. A significant part of Apple’s success is how they have branded themselves as innovative, creative, and futuristic. This is seen in all aspects of their brand from the brick-and-mortar experience to product packaging. This culture comes back around, and reinforces the value of innovation, ingenuity and invention. In a creative environment this obviously has positive effects. For this reason, Apple is able to attract talent— such as Tor Myhren who left Grey in 2015 to lead Apple’s marketing communications—that typically wouldn’t go near an in-house creative department. This is because of the stigma surrounding in-house teams until very recently—a lack of freedom, resources, and surrounding talent to produce good work. However, as stated, not every company is the same in this way.

Channeling Creativity vs. Controlling It

One of the biggest perks of having creative resources in house is the increased governance over your brand across multiple channels. Total transparency and control of the creative, as well as the ability to see exactly where budget is going, is extremely attractive to any company for obvious reasons. It is sometimes seen as the safer alternative, but this can also lead to a loss of objectivity or an outside point of view.

Take Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner campaign as an example. The commercial was seen as extremely insensitive, sparking outrage from people, social organizations, and even other companies. According to Libby Brockhoff of Odysseus Arms, this tone-deafness and inability to truly push creative boundaries comes from no one being able to ask the tough, objective questions in-house. Because the brand’s executives are directly above the creative department, creatives sometimes feel the need to conform to what the executives may want, instead of thinking as freely and creatively as they should.

Another perspective is that in-house bureaucracy and the “group think” that comes with it naturally stifles creativity. Working on the same brand doesn’t encourage the same creativity that working for multiple brands does, as creatives are able to draw inspiration and ideas from different industries and companies. In some cases, companies who have only partially come in house still have outside agencies contracted to do their media planning, buying and spending, and to provide an objective POV on creative concepts and execution. According to an ANA study, 90% of respondents worked with an external agency as well as their in house team, with an average of 58% of work being done by the in-house department.

While this hybrid approach seems to bring together the best of both worlds, it can also have its pitfalls. It can restrict in-house creative, as they must remain consistent with materials put out by the outside agency. This model can also potentially pit the agency against the in-house creative by pushing the two to outperform each other. This may sound like it could produce good results, but, in reality, it creates an intense competitive environment. With this approach, you risk diminishing creativity and putting too much focus on competition rather than creating good, customer-focused content.

On the other hand, it can be argued that in-house marketers who live and breathe the brand every single day truly understand it and what it means to consumers. In essence, this makes them the best possible people to lead brand goals, convey the brand message, and portray what the brand truly represents (or wants to), often called the “in-house advantage.”

The ability to replicate the culture of the brand into their creative work was a huge part of Spotify winning Ad Age’s 2018 In-House of the Year. According to Mark Ray of AdWeek, “in-house creative departments will always beat agencies at knowing their core loyalist audiences better—especially as the media landscape has shifted rapidly from broad, impression-based traditional media to digital ecosystems where success or failure reports itself in real time.”

Clearly there are some creative upsides to in-house teams as well, but these depend on organizational structure and the company culture itself, as different environments can encourage creativity more than others.

Agency or In-House: Which Approach Is Right for You?

While the “agency vs. in-house” debate is a tough one, there are hybrid approaches to consider as well. Finding the right balance between leveraging both in-house creatives and agencies has proven very effective for many companies, using their in-house team to promote their brand and message while outside agencies help provide objectivity and the strategy to reach their goals.

One of the ways agencies have pivoted to make themselves amenable to this approach is by specializing in consulting, project-based work and more short-term options. These arrangements work well when there are well-defined boundaries, both sides have specific roles, and both are open to working with each other.

Another option, which adds a third player, is to work with consultancies such as Deloitte Digital, PwC, and Accenture. These consultancies have created a new role for themselves in the creative space by offering to help with the organizational restructuring that comes with bringing creative in-house. They help with the transition by providing structure and some of the digital tools needed to quickly and efficiently become effective in this new space.

With the correct resources, a good understanding of a company’s position on all of these issues, a solid vision or plan, and a willingness to invest in the future, companies, or agencies can do their best to position themselves for success in such a quickly changing environment. Whether it’s an in-house team seeking outside consultation or an agency that takes on more project-based work, adapting to the role that fits best or even creating the best possible role for the company or agency is crucial.

The classic advertising agency model is clearly changing and evolving rapidly, leaving agencies with the choice of evolving with it or dying off. Finding the right balance of all elements we touched on is key, but there is nothing more valuable than the ability to adapt efficiently.


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