Today, over 82% of brands have some form of in-house creative team and, while the perception of creative in-housing may once have focused primarily on delivering cost savings, times are changing. Brands are producing more high-impact creative in-house, across a broader range of channels, and with this shift comes a change in emphasis from simply ‘more, faster, cheaper’ towards excellence.
While perhaps the agency model of old conjures images of overworked young creatives suffering burnout, brands of today seem more focused on in-house staff satisfaction. For Kelly McConville, global director of marketing production at N26, “one of the big things for us is our ENPS score, which measures employee satisfaction. We care very much about whether our teams like to work with us.”
We want to give our own people our best creative opportunities.
McConville was speaking on a panel at MikeTeevee’s recent Mike & Friends event in London, exploring how to lead in-house creative teams to achieve excellence.
The audience also heard from Gymshark head of production Jenni Harrison, who argued that staff motivation starts with championing excellence from within. “We want to give our own people our best creative opportunities,” she said. “We don’t always want to say, ‘Oh this is a really exciting project, we’ll work with an external agency on this one’. We want to flip it a little bit, so the exciting billboard campaign, the big adverts, the glossy stuff with celebrities – we keep that in-house.”
Harrison is playing the long game with this approach. As well as creating development opportunities for her existing team, she’s fuelling Gymshark’s talent pipeline. “Giving my team these opportunities makes them feel valued. They’re excited to share their work with their peer network, and they become our biggest advocates. And that attracts more great talent. We always want to be people’s first choice. We want to be the people that people want to work with.”
POWER TO THE PRODUCERS
A less traditional route to achieving satisfaction is to pull creatives closer into the business. Challenging the approach of “protecting” creatives from the daily grind of bureaucracy, McConville explained: “We love to embed our creatives in the business because we’re a product-led company. Our creatives work with our product managers to understand the customer journey. I bring my creative team to a monthly business review. When they can see how their work is translating into business, they get excited. They want to move the needle and see the impact they are having.”
Putting the power into the hands of producers is an extension of this process, and Harrison has learned the hard way that high production value doesn’t always equal high performance. “I remember one time we’d been to America, done this amazing glossy shoot, and then a picture that someone had taken on their phone, outside, against a shutter, was posted on our socials and outperformed everything we’d produced. My team was so deflated, because they’d worked so hard to create these beautiful assets that barely got to see the light of day.”
I bring my creative team to a monthly business review. When they can see how their work is translating into business, they get excited.
Authenticity and open collaboration is now the team’s focus. “We want to embrace everybody’s ideas, listen to them – because you never know where the next great idea is going to come from. But it’s also about looking at each brief as it comes in, and not jumping straight to thinking ‘this needs to be a big shoot, this needs a big budget’. Instead, we work with the producers and wider creative studio to figure out how to create something fit for purpose, but different. It gets them thinking and they have a lot of fun with it. We’ve had talent meet photographers and they’ve wandered around a city, and they’ve come back with some high-converting Instagram images.”
Harrison’s experiences resonate with McConville, who said: “I think people are still so used to the old way of advertising, spending massive amounts of money on a TV spot when, actually, a lot of the audience they’re trying to identify with don’t even own a TV. My parents are watching TV, but none of my friends are. We need to really look at what our best-performing channels are and break down budgets so that they best reflect how content is going to be seen, utilised and responded to.”
CREATING MORE CONTENT
Vicky Hope set up LOOP Agencies with her co-founder about a year ago, but has watched as in-housing has grown over the past 10 years. At the panel event, she added: “I think that even when you’re in an in-house team, there’s still a tendency for people to think that TV’s the sexy stuff. But actually, you’ve got the email experts and the people who have really mastered SMS push notifications, who are just as crucial to success. There’s a real perfection and knowledge in using each channel to the best ability of the brand.”
Today’s multichannel, always-on demands mean that producing an ever-increasing volume of content is a universal challenge. As Harrison pointed out, it’s helpful to have trusted partners on hand. “My team has the best knowledge of the Gymshark brand. But it’s tough because, despite now being a team of around 60 people, we can’t do everything.”
McConville echoed this experience. “We’re very much in-house first, but you also want a roster of partners who understand your brand. I want partners I respect, and I want low attrition. I don’t want to be constantly onboarding people; I want a partner that knows me well enough that they can look at my planning with me and say ‘here, look, this is where we can optimise’. Those are the scenarios which help us deliver with excellence.”
LOOP Agencies specialises in building in-house capabilities for brands, identifying the best possible creative and operational solutions for clients’ needs. Hope’s experience has given her a deep appreciation for the fact that every in-house set-up is different. “When you’re working on high-value, high-concept campaigns, I would say that excellence is about giving creative teams that time for the high-touch thinking that the asset demands.”
But there’s no one size fits all. She went on to explain: “I came from running a large in-house agency for NatWest Group. I think at the time it was one of the UK’s biggest, dealing in extremely high-volume content. When you are delivering hundreds of briefs and thousands of assets each quarter, delivering with speed and quality while meeting demand represents excellence.”
We’re very much in-house first, but you also want a roster of partners who understand your brand.
Can automation and offshoring help? The general feeling is yes, but work remains. Experimentation is part of the workflow, but optimisation is a work in progress. As Harrison explained: “We partner with a third party, but I think we vastly underestimated the amount of preparation, the templates, the briefing system, all the tools and processes that you need in place to make it successful and worthwhile.”
McConville added: “We tried to offshore, but we found it quite difficult. Working for a bank, we have very strict compliance.” She continued: “We decided that learning how to bring creative automation in-house was more interesting for us. Putting a systematic thinker behind it who can build those structures can get you to a place where you can get things out really, really fast without the need for offshoring.”
The investment in bringing this skill set in-house has seemingly paid off for N26. “When you’re able to really throw things out to test and learn at scale, you’re not A/B testing anymore, you’re A/Z testing, and the insights that you can bring back to the business are game changing.”
BUILDING A CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT
One notable aspect of leading with excellence is rooted in culture. But how does one create an effective culture for a team that is essentially a company within a company? For Harrison, it’s about being positioned as an extension of the wider business: “We’re never considered an agency; that would feel too transactional for us. I think it would block some of that cross-functional working, which we are quite good at.”
That said, operating from a physical environment that feels creative is important. “We’re constantly exploring what we need to make our space feel creative. We want people to feel ‘Yes, we’ve come into this bit, and it’s creative and it’s fun. This is a place for great ideas’,” she said.
“Our culture is supported by our rituals and routines,” McConville shared. “We have our Monday morning warmup, which brings us all together and creates a sense of connectivity, especially for those working remotely. One of the team will share a bit of creative inspiration from outside of our industry, we go through what’s happening this week, and then everybody goes off and does their work.” The week is bookended with a creative cooldown at the end of each week. “On Friday we regroup and look at the work created that week, review metrics, and then we all have a virtual beer together.”
Have respect for every discipline.
“I’m very proud of my team” says Harrison. She believes success stems from building diverse teams and includes hiring from different professional disciplines as part of this approach, “Most important to me is someone with a good work ethic, who wants to be a part of what we’re building. They don’t necessarily have to come from the exact same industry background; they can learn that. I want that person who wants to be really good at their job, who wants to make amazing stuff, wants to give their best”.
Hope equates great culture with respect. “Don’t have a tiered hierarchy of what channels are seemingly more important, because that’s certainly a way to kill your culture.” she warns. “Have respect for every discipline in the funnel. Be it hybrid, be it fully in-house, whatever combination you have, every brand is different. Value the person who does the trade digital display. When you do the brand pitch, don’t forget to have the email channel in there. Champion the full mix of communication channels. If everybody feels that their contribution is respected, you’re in a good spot.”
It seems clear that there is no one-size-fits-all route to in-house excellence, and every brand is unique. But Hope’s closing comment feels to be a universal truth.
Her advice for maximising chances of success? “Be all in, right?” she says. “You can’t just dip your toe in the water when you’re in-housing. You need the right talent who wants to live and breathe the brand. You’re all in.”
These insights were shared at an event presented by in-house agency production partner MikeTeevee and hosted by Kerrie Finch of The Finch Factor Global.