Feature

Inside Sky Creative Agency – an in-house giant fit to rival traditional agencies

The UK’s second-largest advertiser, Sky, has built the UK’s largest in-house ad agency as it takes control of work once carried out externally. A tricky task according to the man in the driving seat, but the result is a formidable and trusted unit that works hand in glove with show creators, rather than simply delivering against the brief.

Sky believes in a better creative process. Over the past three years it has incrementally in-housed its entire programming advertising business with Sky Creative Agency (SCA), rerouting work once serviced by the nation’s largest agencies.

SCA managing director Simon Buglione is candid with The Drum when discussing the “quite tough” task of transforming the broadcast services unit into the UK’s largest in-house ad agency to service the UK’s second-largest advertiser.

He says it was “on merit” that the agency won the business for NowTV, Sky Arts, Sky Sports, Sky One, Sky Sports Football, Sky Cinema, Sky News Raw and Sky Sports F1, as well as responsibility for Sky original shows. It has now taken full control of Sky’s content advertising business.

Buglione, who before SCA worked his way up from technical operator at BBC News to creative director at BBC Sport and then creative director at Sky News and Sky Sports, believes his time between the worlds of advertising and broadcast have helped him forge the operating model for SCA. He has doubled staff to 300 to build a dynamic in-house advertising wing that compliments existing promo and design teams.

He has centralised resources, hired account managers to adopt what he says looks like an agency operating model, and urged staff to collaborate more organically. Talent has been arranged horizontally to work across Sky brands on a project-by-project basis.

“We get everyone who will use a brand or execute an idea involved earlier to mix and match ideas. Sometimes creative ideas come from our design teams, sometimes design ideas come from our creative teams – I don’t believe in the creative process where each person has their ‘bit’.”

The benefits

“We now have the rigour of an agency. We are run as a business, albeit not a profit-making one, but we know who we are serving.”

Underspend goes back into the business, and costs are clearly laid out – in-housing comes with substantial upfront costs but, Buglione assures, down the line it gets cheaper.

“There are cost efficiencies – but it’s a benefit, not a driver. With the amount of media Sky buys, it’s not worth it just for that reason.”

Away from potential savings, there is a creative reason why Sky started looking inward. “We work from within. When we do a campaign for Sky Sports, we really understand that brand. There is an inherent understanding that is important in content."

Unprecedented access to the client is also a positive. “We know the people commissioning the shows, we can walk across the road and have a conversation, we can break down the formalities. We are in-house and trusted, not just delivering against the brief.”

Marketing discussions now start while Sky’s original shows are still in production, whereas agency partners would traditionally come to the table later in the process. “We are thinking about marketing a show as it is being made. We talk more about managing franchises, not campaigns. The idea that you can segment the work into neat little bundles is wrong. It’s too complex for that.”

Buglione calls this the “proliferation of outputs”. He believes SCA is delivering a diverse range of work that would require as many as six or seven agencies to turn around. “We are at our best when we have the rigour of an agency and the collaboration of a broadcaster.”

He offers an example of how this is executed. “Using the virtual set from Super Sunday’s football coverage, we could have a Game of Thrones dragon protrude from the screen.

“We have many opportunities to expand campaigns. We have all these outputs available; we can solve problems thanks to the diversity of our skillset.”

The creative

In the Sky Sports Festive Football campaign from Christmas 2018, Chelsea star Eden Hazard fronted an ad exploring the range of emotions winter football can evoke, whether on the training ground, on tour with fans or during high-octane matches at Stamford Bridge. It was SCA being able to lean on Sky’s relationship with the sport that really made the spot. It opened up access to Gary Neville having his media make-up applied, manager Roy Hodgson giving his players an old-fashioned good-luck handshake and Hazard’s moment of contemplation before taking a vital penalty. Real fans from across the UK also feature heavily.

“It is much more behind the scenes and natural, much less about actors and more about real people. It’s the kind of work you have to be in-house to make.”

Taking 16 days to shoot, the spot “lives the brand”, says Buglione, and blurs the line between advertising and production. “We understand how to get things done away from stage sets. We travel across the country to gather material and do things in a different way to the traditional advertising agencies.”

And then there is SCA’s latest work for F1. This decade-hopping pan through the sport’s most iconic pit lanes was shot and styled authentically for each era and expresses nostalgia for the sport’s past and excitement for its future. SCA’s access to F1 made it easier to acquire authentic cars and props. It is the first sign of the agency’s ambitions to go against the top agencies.

“It is a big staged ad. We can scale up and do the big adland stuff as well. We aren’t tied to a single model.”

Friction?

The expansion of SCA, and the growing interest in in-housing generally, could threaten the established traditional agency model. While SCA oversees content advertising, external agencies still handle product, including Mother, which won the TV brief from Brothers & Sisters late in 2018, and WCRS, which holds Sky’s broadband and mobile accounts.

“There isn’t an endgame to have everything come in-house,” says Buglione, who admits SCA couldn’t manage the scale.

“We can’t think of everything or handle all the different types of work. Sky would miss the challenges and perspectives an external agency provides.”

However, now that SCA is in charge of the Sky master brand, it oversees how partners use Sky’s brands, monitoring tone, aesthetic and even logo size and placement. “I am open to collaborations with external agencies and think it is clearer now than ever who is responsible for what, and that’s really helpful.”

However, a senior agency source with knowledge of Sky’s creative business believes the in-housing will continue, and that things will get to the stage where it ‘cherrypicks’ agencies for select external briefs.

When it shed Adam&EveDBB mid-2018 to in-house the sports brief, telecom rival Virgin Media was quick to snap up the agency. This, the source says, shows two very different strategies. Sky could squeeze “eight out of 10” work from an in-house agency, but will have to go external to hit greater heights. There is a caveat however: “The big benchmark will be to see what Mother manages to produce. If it is really groundbreaking, then we will see that there is still space at Sky for great creativity. If it just finishes up looking like another Idris Elba spot with a different font, then you can’t help but feel that will go in-house. In that instance, all the in-house guys have to do is prove they can work with the really huge budgets.”

Endgame

Buglione is coy when it comes to what the agency has planned for the future. “World domination,” he laughs, before setting out his ambition to establish creative “cadence”, “consistency” and “rhythm”.

“What does an ad campaign even mean any more? It is about not having false barriers. We need to combine skillsets and think differently – we can’t be siloed.”

If breaking down silos is SCA’s ambition, it may be looking hungrily at Sky’s 25 million customers across Europe, or even at Sky owner Comcast in North America. In which case, “world domination” may not be a joke. It may well be the case that Comcast takes great interest in the model Buglione has created. Could its marketing briefs, like its content, be more global in nature?

Whatever happens, in the short-term Buglione is on the hunt for a new executive creative director who can match his ambition. Applicants, he says, are just as excited to see the model in play as they are to work across its entertainment briefs. “They are interested in working in a different way and influencing the direction the Sky brand is taking.”

This feature first appeared in The Drum magazine’s Future of Media issue in which we talk to broadcasters and publishers including Bloomberg, The Financial Times and CNN about how they plan to futureproof their businesses.

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