How to design an effective in-house agency

21 Mar 2022

So, you’re thinking about embarking on the in-house agency journey? Great decision. And in an ever-changing marketing landscape, it’s good to be aware of all the different models. In-housing is a path well-travelled. Many brands have done it successfully, many more will follow, often driven by the perceived cost and speed benefits it can bring. It may well be right for your brand and can be a quality play as much as a practical one. 

Having worked in creative agencies and in-house, I respect both models and their strengths and weaknesses and also know the pitfalls. And at AAR we know the challenges brands face around resources, skills, and briefing so are well qualified to help you with some advice on how to design it. A couple of words of guidance to begin with, though. 

Is the in-house agency model right for you? 

Thinking about which model is right for your brand should be a constant question. Recent research commissioned by The Drum and AAR showed that 36% of CMO’s review the people, processes, platforms and partners in their marketing ecosystem every 2-3 months, and another 27% review every month.

Reviewing at that frequency gives you the ability to have an agile right-housing model where, rather than have all channels managed internally or externally, you combine the right mix of external agencies and in-house capability that works for your business at that time and gives you the best of both worlds. That accounts for the statistic from the same survey that 60% of CMOs who have moved part of their ecosystem in-house are considering moving some or all aspects of their model externally again. This corroborates research undertaken by AAR back in 2016, which suggested there were just as many brands doing less in-house as there were brands doing more.

Managing change with an in-house agency

So, it’s not all one-way traffic. But change is inevitable and, positioned correctly, exciting within a business. Reducing the frequency of big changes like this, and ensuring they make an impactful, meaningful difference will help to avoid ‘change fatigue’ and drive the business forward. 

In a Financial Services company I previously worked in there was a major change in the business every 6 months, which more often than not came with a marketing restructure. That frequency led to it becoming formulaic, and greeted with an eye roll. Not a great first step on the journey.

The guiding principle here – and for any change – is that if it is worth doing, it’s worth doing brilliantly! That gives it the best chance for success, and the ability to do a like for like comparison when you come to assess the efficiency of the new model versus the old.

So how should you design your in-house agency to set it up for success? Assuming you have agreement on in-housing and the business case for it, and its role has support across the business, there are 5 key next steps:

1. Write the brief

Whether the change is driven by you, or is coming from your CEO or CFO, do you have a clear brief to work to? Great briefs from the business to the in-house agency are going to become standard practice when you’re up and running – and they should be in place for your existing agencies - so don’t fall at the first hurdle! 

The brief should define what effective means. What are the KPIs? Is this about memorable creative, award-winning marketing, and brand building? Market share or client acquisition? Smooth processes or happy internal stakeholders?

2. Establish ways of working

How does work get prioritised, scheduled, briefed, reviewed, signed off? Do you have different processes for different types of briefs or business units? How do they brief you and do they know the process and SLA’s? What about costs and timings? These must be part of the process with your external agencies, so should be part of your in-house ways of working. 

Briefing and Ways of Working aren’t the place to save time and/or money. It’s a false economy, doesn’t set you up for success, and means you’ll be going around the loop again in short order. Bearing in mind this is a cyclical, ongoing process, when reviewing your system, you won’t be comparing apples with apples, either.

3. Manage expectations

Now you know what needs to be done, you need to communicate when it will be done. This isn’t just a flick of a switch! The time and effort needed to set up and maintain an effective team shouldn’t be glossed over. Ideally it should be in line with other change projects in the business. What timings and language does the business normally work to? Mirroring those will give it the right level of gravitas and strategic priority.

4. Develop a roadmap

This gives the team a chance to perform and hit set goals. As Ainhoa Robles, global brand experience and service design lead at Reckitt, said in a recent article in The Drum “Working in-house widens your point of view. You get to understand the challenges and frustrations of the daily running of a brand and the markets it is facing. It expands the way you think and allows for more agility and flexibility.” It shows the business that there is a long-term plan and, in my experience, takes the sting out of the change. Share it, publicise it, refer to it. And make sure there are performance reviews factored in, just as you would with an external agency. Our advice would be that the first one should be around the 6 month mark.

5. Get user buy in

With your vision and roadmap in place, it’s time to over communicate within the team, around the business and with the other agencies. Running workshops with your key internal clients to talk them through the vision and roadmap builds understanding and appreciation for what you are trying to achieve with the in-house agency. Develop a mantra or shorthand for the new model – it acts like an end line and comes in handy to summarise what you’re doing and why. The pressure is then on to bring that mantra to life and demonstrate it IRL!!

You’re now ready to launch! Make a big deal of it. When you onboarded your previous agency, how was that announced? This should be equivalent to that at least. As I said at the outset, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing brilliantly!

If you’re considering making the change to an in-house agency or optimising your existing one, get in touch with our in-house expert for an initial consultation on how best to approach it.

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