Covid-19 hasn't only disrupted the classic agency model, but one of the most hotly touted new ones too. Sharon Whale, chief exec of global markets and operations at Oliver, explains how in-housers are coping with being quite literally in-house.
As a business that builds dedicated, in-house agencies, we see the world changing through our clients’ eyes. But no disaster has forced change on the world, and our industry, the way Covid-19 has. The pandemic pushed us into an uncomfortable, rapid, and enormous period of adjustment. And there’s no going back.
Most incredibly, we’ve seen entire global businesses being run from people’s sofas. It has raised questions about the purpose of office space, of course. But it’s also raised questions over the role and resilience of marketing models such as in-housing – typically designed to be on-site but now at-home and across all time zones.
As we pivoted our people, processes and technology to homes around the world, we learnt many good things about what keeps an in-house team at the heart of clients’ businesses. How we use these lessons as we move into whatever the ‘new normal’ with accelerated performance is the challenge now.
With 78% of ANA member brands having some kind of in-house capability today, the pandemic has offered a real stress test. It proved what many brands already knew, however: that in-housing is not a model, nor an on-site operation, a trend or even a team’s location. It’s a mindset, and one we need to lean into if we want to serve clients more deeply in the future.
We need to adopt a mindset of the following.
In-housing offers a compassionate lens to the challenges that clients face. This is because in-house teams are built to share these challenges with them. They’re treated like colleagues and are leaned on in the same way.
In-house teams know how their client works intimately; the nuances between departments and channels strategies, the capabilities needed as well as what KPIs the work is laddering up to.
Most importantly, they share a common purpose and goal. With physical proximity lacking between brands and their suppliers right now, this intimacy has made the transition to an all-virtual world much easier. Bizarrely, and despite being in different locations, our teams and clients have reported that they have never felt closer.
Because marketing is fast today, in-house teams have speed built-in. During the height of the pandemic, however, things got really fast. Every business needed solutions and they needed them yesterday.
Things like optimising proprietary software to give clients more visibility of global resources and work, as well as launching new products faster than planned, enabled us to be more robust. Clients saw that things can be done well as well as fast.
More than anything, in-house teams have been proven to drive efficiencies from inside a brand. That could be down to spotting a reactive brief, getting a more direct link to consumer behaviour or simply having more water cooler moments (or, should that be Zoom moments?) with the client.
One thing’s for sure: the pandemic has set an expectation that agencies must do more for less, or – as we’ve experienced with our production arm, Creative Shoot – do more with less. It’s easy to see why brands view in-housing as a solution and potential consolidation of efforts – especially as they’ll likely have less budget to spread across multiple suppliers in the near future.
The majority of in-house teams have a brand’s permission to get stuff done. This spurs a mindset of usefulness as well as creativity. The team is encouraged to be more generous with ideas, proposals and suggestions and during a pandemic particularly, is likely to get them approved.
Every business has been forced to be creative at this time, and it’s not only creatives coming up with the good stuff. In our own business, we’ve had many ideas from every discipline and experience-level, leading to hundreds of briefs going live – everything from launching new product lines, to helping a global drinks brand give back to bartenders that are out of work and driving internal communications strategies at a time when you can’t communicate with your staff enough.
Over time, a mindset of creativity ignites whole-team collaboration, entrepreneurialism and innovation. These teams will be constantly looking for new solutions to new problems.
Many agencies offer access to an entire global network of talent and technology. Ours happens via an in-house team, which adopts a borderless mindset because our network has to blend into clients’ worlds. In-house teams therefore have the ability to see when brands need to scale-up their operations, and can advise on the capabilities to call on.
During Covid-19, the walls really came down. Clients had to be able to mobilise and manoeuvre talent based on changing priorities and needs. While they may have questioned where extra capability was located before, the pandemic meant it no longer mattered. Clients simply wanted to know that they could get the work done with the right person in place as soon as possible. A borderless mindset means you can be more creative with your operations, spinning-up virtual teams to tackle very specific client issues whenever they arise.
Every business on the planet is starting from a new playing field today. We have to quickly absorb the lessons that Covid-19 has given us - many of which have been on the table for some time anyway.
What is clear from this collective experience is that the pandemic only accelerated ‘trends’ that were already there: agile workforces, tech-led businesses, new models for new marketing, people with a psychology to match.
In short - we have to be a lot more flexible if we’re to manage the change that is now, as well as the changes still to come. As with anything, it starts with partnering more effectively with our clients, and looking after our people.
Sharon Whale is chief executive of global markets and operations at Oliver.