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Agencies Inhousing Strategy

Creative isn’t in-housing’s problem – a lack of planners and strategists is

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 6, 2023 | 6 min read

A new survey suggests in-house agencies believe they can match indie and network shops for creativity, but fall down on strategy and planning chops.

The frame of a house

In-house agencies still have plenty of gaps relative to external shops, a survey suggests / Unsplash

There’s been a long-held belief that in-house agencies struggle to attract creatives; an unshakable narrative that, despite many accounts to the contrary, a CCO that moves to work for a single brand risks stagnating their creativity.

But, it turns out, hiring creatives to work in-house is no longer the biggest issue for brands. Instead, they're struggling to find planners and strategists that want to make the move.

A new survey of the sector has found just 35% of in-house agencies employ any planning specialists. With 60% now producing above-the-line campaigns, the findings suggest that while creative chops at in-house units are maturing, lack of effective planning and strategy is holding brand-owned ad agencies back.

While the majority of in-house agencies had recruited creative roles such as creative directors and designers, far fewer had hired staff with expertise in UX (14%), data analysis (61%), media buying (10%) or media planning (16%). Strategy and copywriting positions were also relatively under-filled, with only 61% of in-house units employing staff for the latter.

The figures imply a gulf between the capabilities of in-house divisions, and external agencies with a full complement of roles. Most in-house agencies reported that they still worked with external agencies due to their wider array of staff (77%) and greater expertise (63%).

According to Liz Baines, head of planning at Specsavers’ in-house agency, the lack of planners stems, in part, from a lack of long-term forward planning at brands. “A lot of in-housing has been born out of necessity,” she said. “At Specsavers, it started with the need for some pamphlets and has grown to where we are today. In this context, you don’t technically need planning in the same way you need a designer.”

She predicted a “shift” towards investment in strategy and planning “as in-house agencies start to lift their sights slightly more and start to really think about effectiveness.”

The survey polled over 50 in-house agencies at brands including, Specsavers, The Body Shop, Reckitt and Citi. The study was conducted by the In-House Agency Leaders Club, an industry body set up in 2020 to promote in-house agency practices, and Adobe.

In line with the findings around strategy and planning roles, the survey found just 42% of in-house agencies had over 30 staff. Most in-house agencies were dedicated to social, content and digital display advertising, the survey found. Only 41% provided performance marketing capabilities to their parent brand.

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Despite that, the survey found 47% of in-house agencies aspire to become their brand’s primary agency supplier. Only 15% of in-house agencies said they were currently a ‘lead agency’ for their parent brand.

According to Patrick Burgoyne, co-founder of the In-House Agency Leaders’ Club, in-house agencies “need to address the talent of gaps that there are there in order to be able to exploit that opportunity.“

The sector has struggled to make the case for hiring planners and strategists. “It’s not always easy for in-house agencies to make a business case for bringing in an expensive hire like that. There’s a very obvious need for say, a designer, even to someone not familiar with the way advertising works. When it comes to planning, it’s less immediately obvious to people who haven't worked in the industry why that person is valuable.“

Burgoyne says that “many in-house units are “on a journey from being seen primarily as a service department... to being a genuine strategic partner that’s able to solve business problems further upstream.“

He adds: “As they make that transition, they’re going to need to add certain roles and abilities into the mix. Adding planning, as well as senior creative talent and resource, is a key part of achieving the lead agency status that 47% say they have the ambition to do.“

Agencies Inhousing Strategy

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