Why culture is everything for in-house creatives

Robbie Black, head of brand communications at M&S Food, and Pete Miller, global creative director and co-founder at Octopus Energy, discuss how they’ve built environments that foster freedom of thought and brilliant ideas

Ask a dozen different companies what they define as work ‘culture’ and you’ll get a dozen different answers covering everything from employee benefits and flexible working, to business ethics and office atmosphere. Robbie Black, head of brand communications at Marks & Spencer Food, defines it quite simply: “If strategy is what you do, then culture is how you do it.”

In 2021, M&S Food took its advertising in-house, ending its relationship with Grey and bringing in former Grey ECD Rich Robinson as head of creative. It now collaborates with external teams on a freelance basis, which Black says has liberated the business to work “in whichever way we choose, with whoever we choose to work with”.

But what about the culture? For years, agencies and studios have thought of themselves as the superior creative environment, offering all the bells and whistles necessary to get people dreaming up the biggest and best ideas. In stark contrast, Black tells CR that M&S Food is the most creative organisation he’s ever worked in – and that’s after 20 years of agency experience. He says this is particularly true of the extremely agile product teams, who tweak recipes, ingredients and packaging at speed. The in-house creative team did something similar for M&S Food’s Fresh Market Update campaign – a stream of 72 individual ads, spread across 18 weeks and adapted over time.

It’s not just about adopting a more agile culture, however. Black says offering “psychological safety” – a term he says he’s heard more in the last 12 months than the entire two decades of his career – is absolutely critical for letting in-house creative teams make their best work.

Top image: Octopus Energy outdoor ad; Above: Still from the M&S Food Eat Well, Play Well campaign