If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two years of building the In-House Agency Leaders Club community, it’s that, when it comes to in-house, there is no single model for how to do it. Every business has different needs, so every in-house agency is set up slightly differently in order to meet those needs.
There are, however, some common principles for success. With the help of leading members of our group, I’ve been pulling them together in the form of an In-House Agency Manifesto. It’s a list of ten (plus one) guiding principles, requirements – demands even – that are key to success in-house. They overlap, they’re not necessarily in a strict order, and they vary in importance, but they all matter.
Let’s start with the most basic – Remits and North Stars. Not to be overdramatic about it, but any IHA needs to ask itself ‘why do we exist and how will our work help the business?’ Out of this most basic form of self-analysis should come the remit for the agency. It will determine what kind of work the agency should do and, therefore, who it needs in order to do it. Yes, saving money is important, but that cannot be the only reason an in-house agency exists.
Not to be overdramatic about it, but any IHA needs to ask itself ‘why do we exist and how will our work help the business?’
There’s a broad spectrum of IHAs in terms of remit. The most basic will be a Production Studio which spends most of its time adapting concepts created by other (usually external) agencies, producing local language variants, multiple formats and so on. It’s tasked-based, so-called lower tier work.
The next step up is the Creative Studio, which may contain all the capabilities of a production studio (or it may outsource these services) but will add an ability to originate design and copy-led solutions, usually in response to relatively contained, single-channel briefs.
Then the Creative Agency adds the ability to conceive and extend multi-channel ideas – whether campaign ideas or content programmes that require distribution across different platforms. This is where conceptual creatives and (hopefully) planners enter the mix.
Finally, we have that rare beast, the Lead Agency, where the IHA is the undisputed go-to agency for devising the strategy, the big ideas, and driving the brand forward at a very upstream level. It might then brief out the activation of those ideas, or do this internally.
It helps to agree on a North Star – a unifying purpose and objective that, used well, gets everybody aligned and collaborating toward it
Any and all of these models are equally valid. If it makes most sense to the business to have a very limited remit, then stick to that. But some will have an ambition to move along the spectrum described above, adding capabilities as they go.
In order to embark on that journey, it helps to agree on a North Star – a unifying purpose and objective that, used well, gets everybody aligned and collaborating toward it. What’s our ambition? What kind of work do we want to do and why? How do we want to behave and have others behave toward us?
North Stars (and remits for that matter) are only successful if there is agreement and clarity between the agency and its clients in the marketing and brand teams. If you do want to take your agency on that journey toward more ambitious creative work, that is where the next four points in our manifesto come in: find your allies and build trust; prove your value (beyond just cost-saving); get upstream; and understand what it means to bring in creative.
The first three are interrelated. A huge part of the role of an in-house agency leader is to go and talk to people in the business and find out what it is that they need. You have to earn their trust and confidence, particularly if they are used to thinking of the in-house team as one thing, and you want to transform it into something more ambitious.
A huge part of the role of an in-house agency leader is to go and talk to people in the business and find out what it is that they need. You have to earn their trust and confidence
They might be nervous about working with an in-house team or there may be barriers in terms of existing external relationships, concerns about budget, or concerns about resource. The in-house leader is on a never-ending mission to surmount these obstacles, educating colleagues as to what they are there for, how they can help, what their titles and roles mean, and how the creative process works.
Often it takes just one breakthrough project. Convince a brand team to give you a chance and, if it’s successful, other teams or business units will want something similar for themselves. Confidence in the IHA grows and the briefs start coming in, allowing the IHA to build out its capabilities and resources.
Once you bring in conceptual creative teams and a creative director, relationships and culture change. Marketers may have been used to dealing with a studio that simply carried out tasks. Now they have creatives asking questions, pushing back, challenging briefs. The business needs to be prepared for this and understand why it is valuable. If it sees creativity as a lever for growth, everyone has to be prepared for what that means.
If a relationship of mutual trust and shared ambition is built between the agency and its colleagues/clients, it can unlock some of the core advantages of having an in-house agency. Proximity to the business, knowledge of its brands and access to data and insights should allow the IHA to come up with not just superior responses to briefs, but to get upstream and be proactive in solving business problems.
If a relationship of mutual trust and shared ambition is built between the agency and its colleagues/clients, it can unlock some of the core advantages of having an in-house agency
If agency leadership is in regular contact with heads of other parts of the business, and if they are seen as partners, rather than the agency being looked on as just a service, transformational work can follow. Creatives have permission to bring the questioning culture of an agency into the business: to ask why, to be disruptive, in the right way. To be politely rebellious, as Nicola Wardell, MD of The Agency at Specsavers, has put it.
IHAs at Lego and Specsavers have reached this point. Along the way, they have paid attention to three more points from our manifesto: understanding that great processes enable great work; building a culture; and having the ambition to become the agency of choice for the organisation.
Process is a real bugbear in-house. Marketers often lack skills and experience in how to brief and give feedback. Work requests can come in from all over the place, including the dreaded desk drive-by (‘could you just do this thing for me?’). And where IHAs don’t charge for their time, the temptation is to treat them as an all-you-can-eat buffet where there are no consequences to endless rounds of amends and wasted time. Not every IHA has them but account management or client services teams help to instil discipline, manage stakeholders and smooth out relationships.
Building a culture is an essential but sometimes tricky challenge, particularly for those IHAs based within a business that is not in itself particularly ‘creative’. It often helps to name and brand the IHA – at Pepsico, for example, the agency is known as Sips & Bites, at the Body Shop it’s The Greenhouse.
A marketer’s time with their in-house agency should be the most enjoyable meeting they have all week
Some also either have a different location entirely (Sips & Bites is based in Farringdon, while the rest of Pepsico is in Reading) or at least a space that looks and feels different to the more corporate environs outside its doors. The right space promotes a team culture, makes creatives feel comfortable and confident, but also conveys the impression to colleagues coming into the space that they are entering somewhere different, a place to be creative, to have fun.
Which brings us to the last point. It may be a cliché , but a marketer’s time with their in-house agency should be the most enjoyable meeting they have all week. If an in-house team can achieve that, as well as proving that their work is more effective and cheaper than going to an external agency, they are going to become the agency of choice.
So those are the ten (+1) points in our IHALC In-House Agency Manifesto: Nail your remit; Find your North Star and follow it; Understand what it means to bring in creative; Build trust; Prove your value; Get upstream; Be politely rebellious; Build your culture; Get your process right; Become agency of choice; Have fun and be fun!
Running an in-house agency can be hugely challenging: a lot of leaders feel that they are having to make it up as they go along. We offer this manifesto as a roadmap. There will be lots of diversions and stops along the way, there are many ways to get from A to B, but for those who are leading an IHA, use this as a guide and you might just get to a good place.
Patrick Burgoyne is a writer and editor and co-founder of the In-House Agency Leaders Club, ihalc.com; Top image: Shutterstock/Paper Trident