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Rod Sobral on why in-housing doesn’t compromise creativity

The global CCO at Oliver – the agency that runs agencies for brands – talks to us about the unstoppable rise of in-housing and why it doesn’t mark the end of creative agencies

“We’re having I think one of the biggest disruptions our industry has seen since the internet was invented or since Bill Bernbach decided to put a writer and art director together,” says Oliver global CCO Rod Sobral. No, he’s not talking about the pandemic or recessions or artificial intelligence. He’s talking about in-housing, which, based on the number of brands around the world launching their own wittily named creative agencies every year, is enjoying some newfound popularity.

Much of Sobral’s 25 years in the industry has been spent in agencies, including R/GA and AKQA. While in those roles, he made it his mission to get as close to working brand-side as feasible, as seen in his intimate relationship with Nike or his lauded work on Beats by Dre at R/GA. For a while, Sobral was running the Beats account from London but eventually relocated to California to be closer to the brand (and its time zone). R/GA founder Bob Greenberg accommodated the move by renting a stylish office space in Santa Monica, but what Greenberg didn’t realise was just how little time Sobral would spend in that office. “I literally took my team and moved to the Beats by Dre office without anyone knowing, and that was what was needed to really create the voice of that brand and culture. So for me, coming to Oliver and migrating fully [to] driving in-house creativity was just a natural evolution of something that I always believed that I was doing already.”

Founded by Simon Martin in 2004, Oliver specialises in designing, building, and running in-house agencies on behalf of brands. The model typically involves growing a bespoke team within the brand, which is “always built around our clients’ business needs, not advertising needs”, Sobral says. “We are there on the day-to-day doing the business as usual stuff, which allows us also to collaborate really well with the agencies of record,” he adds. This, he explains, is because “we’re seen as part of the brand”.

Put it this way, four or five years ago, not many people returned my calls when I was talking about in-housing. Now we can’t handle all the demand

On top of that is a secondary creative layer that can assist outside of the day-to-day needs when “they want to increase the firepower”. Finally, they have access to “always-on” production teams around the world as well as other resources within Oliver’s parent organisation, the Brandtech Group. Sobral says that the in-house agencies belong to the brand – Oliver just creates and maintains them. “So in short, they all work for Oliver but you’re always representing that brand. You’re a partner of that brand and you’ll be evaluated on the success you’ve brought to that brand, not necessarily Oliver.”