Debates about the efficiency, authenticity or good sense of in-house agencies versus external partners have raged for years. But Miguel Vara, global senior comms strategist at The Lego Agency, argues that the biggest benefit of in-housing is the creative itself.
A few weeks ago, surprising even myself, I decided to get into the external agency v in-house agency debate that ensues weekly on Twitter. But rather than trying to argue for or against one structure or the other, I wanted to shed light on why in-house agencies don’t get the love and respect we deserve from the industry.
If you’ve ventured into the endless threads that have shaped the debate over the last few years, you’ll have noticed that The Work seems to be in-house agencies’ eternal flaw – we just don’t seem to produce work that’s on par with what traditional external agencies put out (at that point, pundits will reference campaigns by Wieden+Kennedy and Uncommon as the industry’s yardsticks, failing to bring up their own contribution to The Work – but that’s a story for another day).
Now, before we get into it, full disclosure: I work at The Lego Agency, an in-house shop at the top of its game, and I feel immensely lucky and proud to call it home. But I’ve spent most of my 10-year career at externals – big and small, global and local, holding and independent – and after over two years with The Lego Group, I’ve learned to appreciate quite a few of the differences and nuances of working client-side.
This write-up isn’t about the client-agency camaraderie that forms when client equals colleague. It isn’t about being closer to the brand, the products and the culture. Nor is it about being closer to the data. Those are all wonderful upsides of going in-house, but those have been mentioned enough already. This is an attempt to demonstrate that you can’t judge us by The Work, because you’re probably not seeing The Work. And that’s because it’s probably not for you.
Our industry relies on exposure for growth. Agencies need to take their work on the road and participate in the awards roadshow to make it on to Top 10/50/100 lists. They pay to have their brightest people on panels and juries. They put out press releases whenever new clients are won, or new campaigns are launched.
And while I’m aware that awards are a very efficient way to attract talent, the reality is that we don’t need to partake in the entirety of the external dizzying dance to guarantee the survival of our employer, which is why adland probably isn’t seeing most of our output. Our P&L and the exposure and recognition of our work are not intertwined. And it feels good.
Now, no one’s explicitly said this to me so humor me for a second, but I’m inclined to think that when The Work is constantly named in this endless debate, it’s generally considered to mean traditionally-shaped campaigns, with 30-second TVCs as the standard port of call. Without letting the cat out of the bag too much though, our remit at The Lego Agency extends so far and wide that that perspective is flawed and, frankly, old-fashioned.
In-house agencies are born as much out of budget efficiencies and reducing overheads as the need to think differently about where and how we reach people. We have tonnes of highly-engaged Lego fans across the globe and an immense playground in our own backyard to play with them, as well as millions of families looking at play, building and creativity in new ways and in new places. The meaning of The Work has changed.
Which takes me to my third point, inspired by a contribution from my colleague and sidekick Beau Encarnación: on the instances our work does reach the industry press or some other corner of adland, it’s generally The Lego Group who gets credit for the work, blurring the lines between client and agency.
That’s a good thing. Our goal is to guarantee the success and growth of the Lego brand – our very bonuses depend on it – so we’re more than happy to stay out of the spotlight as an agency after our work gets some attention.
Miguel Vara is global senior comms strategist at The Lego Agency.