If you listen to the doomsday cults of the ad world, traditional agencies have met their killer many, many times in the last couple of decades. The internet was most certainly going to kill ad agencies as was social media, Google, and the advent of DVRs that can skip commercials with the click of a button. The most recent assassin-to-be, according to many, is the rise of the in-house agency.
As the technology we rely on became more accessible and the demand for content more constant, many companies did some basic math and decided that they could do what we do, better, cheaper, and right down the hall. They assumed that cutting out the middle folk would cut down on costs, delays, meetings, and overall hassles. Some even alleged that by becoming more immersed in their brand, in-house creatives would be better than the agencies they used to pay.
I believe that some of this change came from an underlying devaluation of what agencies do and a feeling that anyone with an ounce of creativity and Adobe Creative Suite could do it just as well. It also came from an inaccurate (or at least outdated) view of ad agencies as large bureaucracies that move slowly and waste clients’ time and money. Those agencies will die off, if they haven’t already, but today’s modern agency is nimble and sleek and brings to the workbench a vast array of skill sets that would cost a brand a fortune to have on-staff.
Still, I must acknowledge that there is some wisdom to having at least some of your creative output come from within. From penning frequent emails to consumers to managing multiple social media channels, the sheer volume of content that brands must create in this age of digital deliverables means that having writers and designers on-staff is imperative. Modern companies should have in-house talent who can produce daily consumer interactions, protect intellectual property, handle sensitive communications, and be hyper-responsive.
I would argue, however, that an in-house agency cannot do everything, even when the company hires big-name creative talent (and some agencies have been able to do that as the stigma of going in-house has worn off — think of Google Labs getting Richard Wong and Andy Berndt or Jonathon Mildenhall going to Airbnb). I don’t care how talented you are; if you eat, sleep, and breathe one brand, you get stale.
In-house bureaucracy can zombify a brand, entombing it in layers of internal subjectivity. It’s a fantasy to believe that creative people can show up to the same place day after day and produce brilliance. In my experience, creative people need shiny new objects and quirky environments — not a single product, job security, and stock options — to produce their best work.
Moreover, when the creatives and the brand people speak the same language from the get-go, as they inevitably will in an in-house agency—there’s no one to push back, no one to ask the tough questions, no one to nudge the brand (forcefully sometimes) outside its comfort zone. What can start off as myopic, can end up being tone deaf and embarrassing the brand and all involved (a la the now infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi spot).
Last June I was brought to Cannes to debate this very issue in a session cleverly titled, In-House vs. Agency: The Melee in the Palais, I argued not that in-house agencies have no value but that brands will always need outside agencies. They need us to be objective, to help them look beyond their point of view, and to figure out where their message fits into the broader context of what is going on in the world (a perspective one quickly loses in an insular and insulated environment).
Of course, it goes without saying that outside agencies need brands — without clients, we indeed will cease to exist. Unfortunately, both sides often approach these partnerships with bitterness and skepticism as if working well with the other team undermines our value.
What if, instead of looking at this as an either/or situation, we acknowledge that we’re all here to stay? What if we recognize that today’s consumers are so involved and so evolved that neither one of us should go it alone? What if we check our egos at the door and agree to share the sandbox? What if, we lock arms together to create the exciting innovations that today’s sophisticated consumers demand?
What if, we do this right?
I have worked with many in-house agencies in recent years for brands like Facebook, Ubisoft, Amnesty International, Hotel Tonight, and E.J. Gallo, and I like to think I’ve learned a few, essential lessons that can supercharge these efforts and allow the entire marketing team to thrive.
Start at the beginning. We get calls all the time from CMOs who are not getting what they want out of their in-house creative team for whatever reason. While we’re more than happy to help, bringing us in as emergency room docs who have to stitch up the situation stat is bound to cause resentment and confusion. Forced marriages never work. And a late start means both teams are playing catch up. CMOs should decide to bring outside agencies at the very beginning of any project or campaign.
Date before you get married. Agencies might have to ditch any formal protocols they have for onboarding new clients to explore the potential for working together before they commit. The relationships between company staff and agency staff have to work — tension, resentment, and pride can kill creativity. Get all the players together before anyone signs the process off.
Recognize talent where you find it. It is okay to go in with some preconceived ideas about who will take on what role. In these relationships, agencies often take the lead for the initial creative and let the in-house create and control the large-scale digital machine that comes out of it. But staff at in-house agencies are often forced to be jacks-of-all-trades and may not even know their own strengths. Use talent wherever you find it. If the in-house agency has a great writer on staff, terrific—give them extra pieces to do, help them do it, and let them shine.
Play nicely with others. This one should be obvious, we’re all grown-ups after all, but it's worth saying. The arrogance and condescension that agency creatives are known for must be left at the door. In-house staff must also let down their guard and let the agency help. No one should put up walls or get territorial. When the brand succeeds, we all succeed.
The reality is that modern companies, especially large ones, require a delicate blend of dedicated insider talent and external creatives to get it all done. In-house agencies are not going away — many companies have them nowadays — but they’re also not going to be the death of ad agencies any more than the internet or TiVo turned out to be. We merely need to adapt, as we always do.
And, adapting is not the same as giving in or giving up. I see it as exciting. If you’re open to team dynamics and put in a little effort to work well together, this collaboration between in-house creatives and outside agencies can be the x-factor that pushes marketing forward and multiplies results. I have witnessed the power of this type of partnership and believe it is the way of the modern agency.
Libby Brockhoff is chief executive officer and co-founder of Odysseus Arms in San Francisco. Read her last column on never giving up on the power of good, part of The Drum's roster of senior industry leadership opinion.