And the grand debate continues: should we shift budgets to hire new talent and conduct creative in-house? Or is the work best left to an agency?
Given the decision, I will choose the internal agency every time, hands down.
The biggest fear from the masses is that designs will get tired and cookie-cutter, but there are many ways to avoid lackluster creative – and most of them have to do with how you initially approach it. When you bring creative in-house, your agency is now your company, and it’s important to treat it as such. After building several successful internal agencies, I’ve come to realize a couple of rules that are the determining factors between having creative marketing that is either inspired and on-brand or just plain boring.
Rule 1: Don’t make it about cost savings
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of leading internal agency implementations based on cost savings alone. Not surprisingly, it was a shortsighted tactic that ended up going stale quickly – and we eventually found ourselves right where we initially began.
What I overlooked was the fact that building any great team has little to do with budgets and a lot to do with instilling the right culture. Done correctly, your team will understand the company’s intrinsic values better than even the best agencies, and that will pay off tenfold in the form of finished work that hits the mark. To do this, I had to evaluate customers, determine utilization and apply the company’s goals into the agency mission statement, creating an environment where staying on brand was a no-brainer.
Even though the focus wasn’t on savings, I quickly realized that our company saved a lot of time and money not having to re-educate each individual agency about our purpose, mission and goal of the campaign. Believe me, those are billable hours.
Rule 2: Be driven by passion & purpose
In my years working with agencies, I’ve noticed that they either do exactly what you say, or fight with you before eventually parting ways. It’s a transactional relationship – one where the team wants to do great work simply because they are being paid to do it – and not always one that allows for those trusted, tense conversations that need to happen when discussing the direction of new creative. Bringing that process internally facilitates better work because the people sitting down the hall from you share the same customers and genuinely want to move the company forward.
The challenge here is finding that top-notch talent that is completely aligned with the brand purpose and mission. For me, this was one of the longest parts of the process, but taking the time to find the right people was a key factor in determining our success as an internal agency.
When looking for talent, most CMOs feel like they are competing (ironically) with the very agencies they are hoping to replace. Early on, my team and I gave up that notion – and thankfully. The truth of the matter is a corporate environment simply doesn’t stack up against the internal culture of agencies. So, we focused on the incentives that our company did provide – a bit more stability, better hours, benefits and, most importantly, the ability to impact the world through their work.
Rule 3: Hire a network, not just an individual
In order to continue creating great value across varying platforms and channels, our brand simply couldn’t sustain an internal team of specialists for print, video, 3D modeling and everything in between. Instead, I built a foundational team of 4-5 diverse people who were experts at building a network (or even had one of their own) and could coordinate outreach to freelancers when needed. With these people leading as Creative Directors, our company effectively had a revolving door of trusted professionals for each specialized task that might emerge.
I want to stop right here and clarify one thing: Freelancers does not equal Fiverr (or any similar cheap-labor site). In my experience, that creates a “Bring It On” effect. You know, that teenage movie where the dance instructor sells the same spirit finger routine to different cheer squads up and down the West Coast?
That is the opposite of what you want.
To avoid that, trust is paramount. I know I mentioned this before, but I just can’t stress it enough. I rely heavily on my core team to find the right dynamic that keeps our content looking like it came from several top agencies – when it was all made in-house.
This is one of the huge benefits of having an internal agency – a trusted rapport happens naturally. When someone works at the same company as you, you have an underlying understanding that they are moving toward the same goals. They have skin in the game and the company’s success is their own.
This is also one of the key things that helps our team overcome challenges when writing operational contracts for remote freelancers, managing projects from afar and ultimately striking gold when it comes to delivering on relevant content for our customers.