The lessons Verizon did (and didn’t) take from Apple in building an in-house creative shop

McKechnie’s creative blueprint for this new kind of Verizon has seen him fortify his in-house creative team with agencies

Apple’s former group global creative director Andrew McKechnie has spent the past two years building Verizon’s in-house agency from the ground up. But while he’s drawn on some lessons from his old employer, he’s insistent that multiple external agency relationships are also integral to the telecom giant’s brand transformation.

In 2014, Verizon’s marketing department had a problem: it had 46 agencies on its books. Over the past five years, under the stewardship of chief marketing officer Diego Scotti, it’s slashed that “out of control” number to 18 – building a new model around its own internal creative agency, 140.

Spotting an opportunity to work towards a hybrid proposition that would make Verizon’s marketing nimbler, and more impactful, Scotti poached Andrew McKechnie from Apple in spring 2017 as chief creative officer.

With experience agency-side under his belt too (at Y&R and BBDO New York) McKechnie has spent the past two years growing 140’s team to 150 people, as well as pivoting the brand’s marketing away from pushing a best-in-market proposition to one that’s focused on innovation and “humanising” the technology Verizon provides to its 130 million customers.

140 handles Verizon’s creative production, project management, retail marketing, digital production, and strategy. However, in an industry where the cloud of complete creative in-housing looms large over agencies, McKechnie has found value in a hybrid approach.

“When I joined, part of what I wanted to do was try to create a hybrid model: bringing in the great things from the internal creative group that I wanted to leverage and build out and coupling those with the great things about external agencies, and creatives in general,” he told The Drum.

“I wanted to build an ecosystem that Verizon could tap into - with really solid in-house creative capabilities that focused on the identity and image of the brand – because that needed definition when I first came on board.”

Investing in multiple partners

Though agency holding groups are increasingly offering up wholesale creative solutions to clients (see: Mark Read’s vision for WPP and Publicis’ ‘Power of One’ structure), McKechnie’s creative blueprint for this new kind of Verizon has seen him fortify his in-house creative team with a mixed bag of agencies, each pitching their own unique specialism.

McKechnie has little interest in investing in full-service models, which he said often end up “creating offshoot individual agencies” which can result in a “siloed” processes and “layered” internal structures.

“It's more interesting when you get the strong agency models that are able to think about it more holistically but don't create bloated teams,” he explained.

As such McCann New York works on Verizon’s above the line and TV work. R/GA handles digital, The Community crafts work for the brand in Hispanic markets and on its 5G creative. McGarryBowen and others are brought in for project work and Publicis VM1 remains Verizon’s media agency.

The creative process is properly hybrid too, with the 140 staff meeting daily with agency partners in Verizon’s New York HQ.

Not just a copy and paste job

McKechnie’s tenure at Apple saw him oversee work like ‘Shot on an iPhone’, but though he has drawn on some lessons gleaned from his time at the world’s biggest tech company, his approach to building out a hybrid creative model at Verizon has been far from a copy and paste job.

“Apple is pretty unique in terms on the spectrum of companies that have in-house and external agency partnerships, it has the more extreme version of the in-house team,” he explained. Noting that while its dedicated agency of record, TBWA/Arts Lab, does a “lot of TV work”, Apple’s creative predominantly comes from its internal team.

McKechnie revealed that Apple’s internal creative team is involved in everything from hardware through software, UI, packaging, retail, billboards, digital and product imagery: “A lot more of the upstream work, the stuff that can really influence brand perception.”

He added: “There were a lot of lessons in terms of having the power and ability to stream a constant narrative both visually and from a communication standpoint, that's a great asset for a company to have.”

For Verizon though, lifting this model wouldn’t work – which is why McKechnie has built an ecosystem as equally reliant on external partnership as it is its in-house agency.

“Apple is in a bit of a different position [to Verizon], it's very well established, as is its identity. For Verizon the first thing I had to focus on was accelerating our brand transformation and thinking about how to do that within a couple of years, instead of over 10 years.”

External agencies, he said, have been pivotal in driving innovation and production creation around products like VerizonUp (the brand’s loyalty scheme), showcasing the value of these partnerships for the chief creative.

Humanising Verizon

Having transformed Verizon creative processes, McKechnie, his team and his pool of agencies have been flexing their muscles to pivot the brand’s advertising away from function and competitive pricing, towards a strategy that lays out the more sentimental role the network has to play in customers’ lives.

“Coming in it from a category standpoint, Verizon was very familiar as a brand, but what was interesting for me was thinking about how to humanise that technology in a way that is more meaningful for customers,” McKechnie noted.

As part of this the advertiser has been looking to tell stories that bring a “human face” to what it represents. This has involved shedding long-time celebrity spokespeople like Thomas Middleditch and Gaten Matarazzo in favour of ordinary people. Propositions like ‘Real Good Reasons’ and ‘The Team that Wouldn’t Be Here’ – which highlighted Verizon’s work with first responders – have been the result of this shift.

Showcasing its innovation and technical prowess has also been at the forefront of McKechnie’s creative change of course.

Under the watch of himself and Scotti, Verizon has built out a new strategy focused on ‘Humanability’; designed to demonstrate how Verizon’s tech is a driving force in making the world more connected each day. Under the strapline of ‘We Don’t Wait for the Future, We Built It’ Verizon has been pushing content that shows consumers how its investment in 5G and related applications like IoT and autonomous vehicles is changing the world around them.

“That’s what our customers are also really interested in. Of course they want to know if we have the best devices or a great network. But they're very interested in terms of where companies are leading innovation and their societal perspective and point of view."

It's a strategy that looks to be paying off for the largest US carrier, with the company adding almost twice as many new wireless subscribers in Q4 of 2018 compared to analyst expectations.

And as it gears up to face off Sprint, T-Mobile and others in a heated 5G race, it will be relying on its new hybrid model to express its point of difference in an increasingly crowded market.

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