Specsavers and the in-house life

One of the major creative shifts in recent years has been the rise of the in-house agency. Here, Nicola Wardell, MD of The Agency at Specsavers, talks about the challenges and rewards of in-house life

Wardell joined Specsavers in February 2020, after a long and distinguished agency career, including stints as CCO at Havas and managing partner at Grey London.

Guernsey-based Specsavers has had an in-house creative function since 1988. Under former Creative Director Graham Daldry, who joined in 1999 and wrote the famous ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ line in 2002, it has produced some of the most notable campaigns from any in-house agency. When Daldry left the business in March 2020, Specsavers’ in-house team had grown to 90 people, encompassing everything from data analysis to retail interior design.

This interview forms part of a series from the In-House Agency Leaders Club, created by consultancy WDC and ex-CR editor Patrick Burgoyne, which will explore the unique opportunities and complications of working in-house.

IHALC: When you were thinking about this role, what was it that attracted you to it? And what kind of preconceptions did you have about it?
NW: I think the ability to influence the clients is greater. I’ve always, like I’m sure most agency leaders, believed that what’s best for your client, is best for the agency. But there are sometimes the inevitable conflicting agendas. So, the thought of just being able to be 100% single-mindedly focused on what’s the right thing for that brand, and the business with nothing else getting in the way, was really appealing.

I think the other thing is, (and maybe this is just a personal thing), as I’ve got older, making a positive difference through the work I do has become more important. So, the Specsavers brand was a real draw to me. I remember when the job description came through, I said to my husband, ‘Oh my god, this is like my dream job’, because it’s doing what I know I can do but in a client-side organisation, for a brand that makes a difference. Our brand purpose is all about making a positive difference to the lives of all through sight and hearing. Throughout my career I’ve done the confectionery, the snack foods, the booze, all great fun and still important work. But what we do here as an organisation really does impact people’s lives properly. And that meant a lot to me. It really is quite a special business. It’s still family owned and it has a great culture.

IHALC: For those people who aren’t familiar with Specsavers, can you explain a little about how the in-house agency function has evolved there?
NW: We’ve had an in-house creative department since 1988. It started as, effectively, a studio that sat alongside the marketing department. But I suppose the shift came when those creatives started to generate ideas as opposed to just execute. And the conceptual work continued to be done out of the marketing department, as opposed to using external creative resources. When Graham [Daldry] joined he was really passionate about making a kind of geographical shift, in that the creative department sat separately from marketing, and for a period of time they moved to another building. They wanted to build a creative culture and make themselves distinct from the marketing department.

Under Graham’s tenure, the creative product really started to shine. We launched the ‘Should have’ campaign, which competes with any brand campaign out there for cultural impact and overall effectiveness, and is clearly brilliant.

Up until last year the team functioned very much as a creative department – conceptual teams, designers, digital capabilities and a studio. In the last year, I think we’ve evolved from being a creative department into an agency, so our model is now much more similar to what an external full-service agency might look like.

IHALC: How do you maintain that distinctive creative culture at The Agency but not in such a way that people don’t feel close to the rest of the business?
NW: It’s a really fine line. We’re still in a different space, but we moved into the main Specsavers building. However, it’s very much a distinct area.

People now refer to us and our space as ‘The Agency’ and what’s great to see is our clients will choose to spend time working alongside us, because there’s a different sort of feel and working atmosphere. Critically, it looks different and it feels different from the rest of the business. The Agency team have got a control over the environment, we just have to exercise that control in a way that works with the rest of the business.

Mood board inside Specsavers’ in-house agency

IHALC: A lot of businesses start with a creative services department and then try to become a strategic, creative agency partner, but it seems that with Specsavers it was the other way around?
NW: Yes, it’s almost the opposite. It’s because we’ve never relied on an external agency to help set the direction of the brand, and we’ve never given an external agency ownership of that brand. However, we’ve got great agency partners. So, we partner with Manning Gottlieb as our media agency, Tangerine as our social agency, as well as Proximity who have partnered our CRM team for a number of years. So whilst owning the brand and its development is super important to us, when we need to augment our skillset, then partnering with external agencies is the right thing to do.

IHALC: Have you noticed that the nature of the briefs is different in-house?
NW: The big briefs are exactly the same. But what’s different is the level of small, reactive briefs that we get through. There’s a lot of content-first briefs coming into the agency, particularly driven by Covid. We have had to be much more reactive to consumer sentiment, what’s happening out on the high street, and therefore evolve our comms to reflect that.

IHALC: And in terms of how work is evaluated, and the KPIs you use, the processes that you use, how’s that different to your previous experience?
NW: There are lots of similarities. So we have brand tracking, we do pre-testing in exactly the same way, but it is proximity to the results that’s the game changer. I’ve always felt [at an agency] there’s been a bit of distance or at best a lag, between the results and the agency team. Whereas we are privy to the business results every week. You can very easily track what impact your work is having on the business when you are so very close to it.

Specsavers also has a huge focus on its people. We’re all evaluated not just on what we do, but how we achieve it. So, like any leader within Specsavers, I’m also evaluated on how I deliver against our people agenda. So that’s a huge amount around staff development, retention and training. I’m not just being judged on the work. I’m being judged on how I’m operating from a people perspective, which is a bit of a shift.

IHALC: Do you have an internal recharging model?
NW: Yes, it works exactly the same way as it would on most external accounts – on a percentage of time basis. We service the UK, Nordics and ANZ marketing departments and then there’s various other stakeholders that need us to deliver for them at a group function level. So they will estimate what they’re going to need from us, we estimate people needed to deliver and that becomes a cross-charge. So it’s really, really simple.

The big difference is that I have one conversation about that at the start of the year. And that’s it. If I think back to how much of my time was spent in external agencies talking about the numbers, and the budgets, that conversation just doesn’t exist at all. So it means the Specsavers business is utilising me to focus far more on the work and the people than it is on any numbers conversation. And for me, that was a massive shift and a delight, quite frankly.

IHALC: You mentioned before about the how the nature of the work that the team does is changing, could you talk a little bit about the new skills or the new competencies that you’re adding?
NW: Our starting point was a studio with some conceptual people, so the transition’s quite massive from then to now. We’ve got brand and CRM strategists that sit alongside a sizeable team of data analysts and digital analysts. We’ve got massively broad design expertise, which is important if you think about us as a retailer. As well as our traditional brand and campaign designers that sit alongside our UX and motion designers, we’ve also got people who design what the in-store environment is like. So again, that’s a classic example of how you’re responding to what the business needs. It’s not your classic agency design department but one that’s fit for purpose for Specsavers. We also have a web dev team that sit alongside our analysts and UX-ers and are continually optimising our owned channels – again, bespoke for our business.

And there’s constant evolution within our conceptual team, and we’re continually injecting more digital expertise within that area. It’s happening naturally anyway, because of the work that we’re required to do and the media landscape, but we’ve just been more intentional about doing that. And then we have really strong creative production now – that’s made a massive difference. And we’ve got a huge studio function. Again, that is bigger than you’d probably have in a normal agency and is reflective of the fact we’re a retailer servicing multi-markets. It’s a really bespoke model, and it’s all about what the business needs from us. One of my most important KPIs is efficiency. And this is a really, really efficient way of working.

IHALC: What about your relationship to the marketing department – how is that different to what you have experienced before?
NW: There are more similarities than you’d think. We debate the briefs, we challenge objectives, we stress about cracking the brief, and the feedback if we don’t crack it can be just as brutal. And I think because the clients are also your colleagues there is an even greater sense of accountability. The big shift in dynamic is that there is a psychological safety around it because it’s in everyone’s interests to make our agency successful, and to make the work, work. So the conversations feel very similar but the atmosphere within which you are having them is very different.

IHALC: Being on Guernsey, you must have some very specific issues around recruitment, how do you attract talent to the agency?
NW: You do find yourself acting a little bit like a tourist information office for the island. Within the talent pool that we’re trying to recruit from, the awareness of this island is virtually non-existent. So there’s a job to be done in just describing what the island life is like, really. So we start with that conversation.

But the more important conversation to have is about the work, and sometimes there’s a concern about lack of variety. I just encourage candidates to reframe that, because what you are trading in, in terms of breadth, you’re gaining in depth. And there is real breadth to our business. We offer ophthalmology and we offer audiology, so you’ve instantly got two completely different categories and customer bases. We also offer ‘domiciliary’, which is a service for people who can’t leave their homes, so there’s a beautiful depth of care story attached to that as part of the brand. And of course these three component parts of the business have all got very, very different customers. We’ve also got 10 markets. And within those 10 markets, we’ve got completely different competitor sets. So although you don’t get a variety of brands, you will get a variety of briefs. It’s very far from being the same brief given to us every day.

The other dynamic is of course, the work-life balance, because that’s the big question, isn’t it? My friends in the agency world are always asking the killer ‘you’ve gone client side, is it a much easier life?’ question. And I think the answer is no. It’s not easier at all, but it’s a good kind of different.

Inside Specsavers’ agency

IHALC: Agencies traditionally have not been great at career development for creatives – training, mentoring and so on. How is that different within a corporate environment?
NW: It’s one of the biggest differences. I think I’ve had more positive people-based conversations in the last nine months here than I’ve had in nine years in adland. And that’s no disrespect to any agencies I’ve worked in, it’s just not such a prominent part of the culture. I wonder whether that’s because we have to work harder to attract the talent and therefore we work harder to retain them? But it’s also about the importance of people to Specsavers. Whether every in-house agency would say that, I’m not sure, but in our organisation, we are part of the same career development conversations that the rest of the business are having, so there is constant review of performance, of training,(which is like nothing I’ve ever experienced), of progression. We had a whole month in September dedicated to development, not just specific to creative skills but still really valuable content. So that’s a huge difference.

IHALC: What about awards: what importance do they have for The Agency?
NW: I’m literally writing the awards strategy as we speak. The difference in-house is that the lens is all about people rather than new business. I want us to win awards because that will help people here build pride in what they do and it recognises their work, I don’t need them for a new business drive. There will be a real breadth to that – the awards the creatives want to win won’t be the same as the ones that the analytics team want to win. We have to make sure that everyone across the agency has the chance to get recognition. It’s also a talent pipeline driver for us, so the awards we win have got to mean something to people who are in external agencies who are in our talent pool.

IHALC: The IPA recently published a report on future agency-brand relationship models, proposing five different set-ups ranging from pure in-house, to hybrid models, to a single external agency handling everything: how do you see things changing?
NW: As an in-house agency, you’re so mindful of what the business needs, so for us the best agency model is the one that best reflects our business. We are a hybrid model, but in an interesting way because we are not relying on an external partner to set our brand direction – we do that ourselves. I don’t think there are many hybrid models that have no brand creative agency in their constellation.

It’s not just about saving costs – there’s a seamlessness to how we work and if efficiency is one of your drivers, and you want agility and proximity to the business, meaning the ability to influence with really tight turnaround, then an in-house model is worth considering. Would we ever be 100% in-house? We’ve built a really efficient model with the partner agencies we have. As long as we can drive efficiency with them, we will continue to have external partners.

Join the In-House Agency Leaders Club LinkedIn group here