When Vodafone decided to in-house some elements of its media buying last year, the move drew inevitable questions about whether the network was paving the way for an agency cull. Far from it, the business has spent the past 18 months scaling up its global digital capabilities with “phenomenal” results, mapping out a fresh way to work with existing – and newly appointed – agencies in the process.
Maria Koutsoudakis, Vodafone’s UK brand and marketing director tells The Drum that the (ongoing) journey has led to a more “blended” way of working between its own talent and that of its creative and media agencies. She was speaking on a panel at The Drum's Predictions 2020 breakfast event, earlier this week.
Since summer 2018, Vodafone Group has been running most of its digital media buying in-house. It now has internal teams serving 11 of its 25 markets, working across biddable media, including search and social.
Last summer, the brand appointed Dentsu Aegis’ Carat to handle the remainder of its media operations, displacing Wavemaker. In the same period, it brought Anomaly on board as its global creative agency, tasking the shop with ensuring its global work had a positive and social impact.
In the UK, the brand continues to work with WPP’s Team Red led out of Ogilvy UK. Koutsoudakis, who joined the brand from M&S in 2019 , has already been working closely with the agency to rejig the brand’s positioning in the market – ditching longtime ambassador Martin Freeman.
Getting the ‘ebb and flow’ right
Koutsoudakis admits that in-housing digital media has been a learning curve. As for creative, the brand is also experimenting with fresh ways of collaborating with both its media and ad partners. So agency relationships, according to her, have actually never been more important.
“It’s a blend and we’re looking at [how to do the same] thing from a creative perspective. We’ve really leant into the WPP family, we’re committed to that relationship… and within that we ebb and flow.”
Although Vodafone UK’s core relationship is with Ogilvy, Koutsoudakis says the current Team Red structure allows her to “pull in and out” the talent she needs to work across the brand’s creative briefs.
“We’ve built flexibility into the model, but we’ve only been able to do that because WPP has our commitment,” she adds.
“If you don't have that commitment with your agency, then everything is based on the last transaction, then it's really hard to ebb and flow. But having that broader commitment allows us to create that bespoke team that we need in Vodafone depending on the job to be done.”
Vodafone isn’t the only brand “blending” in-house and agencies. Arla and Renault and even Unilever, P&G and RBS marketers are all experimenting with various iterations of an internal model. A study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the US in 2018 suggested some 78% of marketers had an internal set-up, a rise from 58% in 2013 and from 42% in 2008.
‘Blending the model’
For Koutsoudakis, though some elements of digital in-housing are working better than others at this early stage.
“For me PPC is working phenomenally well,” she says, explaining that Vodafone initially replicated its legacy agency model by enlisting separate talent to work across strategy and buying in PPC, but that has since changed.
“Now strategy is buying. There’s one person on my team now that does our search strategy. He thinks it, he does it and it’s executed much quicker [because] there’s no longer a handover.”
When it comes to social, though, things aren’t quite yet sitting at the same level.
“On social, we haven’t quite got to that same efficiency because you’ve got that creative integration, so [we need to ask] where does the creative come in? So we’re working our way through that.
“But on that front, we’re looking at working really closely with some of the Ogilvy team to actually come and be co-located with us, because that agility needs to exist every day.
“So we’re blending the model, working with the team to do that and so far they’re amiable because we’ve made that bigger commitment to them.”
‘Sleepless nights’ over talent
Vodafone's in-housing push was spearheaded by its now-departed global brand and media boss Sara Martins de Oliveira, for whom it is still seeking out a replacement.
While the brand is also likely to bulk up its internal team over the coming year, it's also facing another challenge in the talent arena on top of its hunt for a global lead.
As advertisers continue to experiment with in-housing, finding and keeping talent is a top priority. According to media consultancy ID Comms, one-in-five (19%) chief marketing officers have stated a need for greater internal talent investment in 2019.
While the early results from in-housing are pleasing for her brand, one thing that is giving Koutsoudakis “sleepless nights” is how to nurture, and holding on to, media talent with Vodafone’s walls.
She observes: “When you try to bring in people who are media-focused and you only have three or four roles within the organisation that you can offer them, then at some stage they're going to run out of road… so what worries me is retention.”
There’s a similar issue with in-house creatives who at the moment “like the fact they partner with Team Red and get inspiration.
“There will be bits that come in, bits that come out and it will be constantly evolving based on where the business goes, and where marketing goes.”