The Benefits of the In-House/Agency Partnership

One of the challenges that in-house creative teams can face is being treated less like a partner/collaborator and more like an order taker.

In the corporate environment, marketing departments (or in some cases product areas or business units) tend to own agency relationships. Agencies are used for advertising, brand strategy, developing design systems, content and execution of communications.

Dependent on the culture of the company, I have seen inaccurate perceptions of the in-house teams manifested in the following statements “If they had talent, they’d be working at an agency…” “For any ‘out of the box’ creative, we need to go outside – internal can only follow guidelines…” or “We’ll develop our new creative externally and then the in-house group can execute off the standards created by the agency…”

This couldn’t be farther from the truth, which is:

  • The majority of in-house creatives come from the agency/design studio world. For many, it’s a logical step to transition from agency to in-house.
  • Most in-house creative groups do not have the time – nor the patience – to develop beginners. The pace is too fast and the stakes are too high. So in-house usually has a higher rate of bringing on seasoned and experienced talent.
  • After putting in the time at agencies, the more mature designer (if they want out of the burn-out pace of the agency) either goes to another agency in a more senior role, opens up their own agency/studio, OR goes the in-house route.
  • The choice for in-house is practical – especially for someone more seasoned. Better benefits, better hours, better quality of life (especially for those raising families), longevity and potentially more trajectory for a career path.

Agencies are ideal for sourcing the new big idea, complex integrated campaigns, advertising and strategy. They are structured for this, while in-house teams are often structured for producing large volumes of work. And while the in-house model has less ability to develop young talent, the agency benefits from a revolving door of entry-level talent. This is not a criticism, but it is their model. Due to their pricing structure, agencies are less hung up on time, and they tend to give their junior staff lower-level production/execution – not to mention throwing them work that the more senior people are not interested in doing. This of course is a great benefit, as it provides solid training for the junior designer – not to mention great opportunity. Of course there is no question that the initial creative comes from the top talent in the agency.

On the other side, the in-house team has a vested interest in brand consistency. The in-house team lives and breathes the brand. It is not disputed that there is a benefit to going to an agency when the firm is looking for the envelope to be pushed. It is easier for an agency to push that envelope because they DON’T live and breathe the brand. And quite frankly (coming from the agency side myself), the agency doesn’t really want to be stifled by a brand. This however, can be a double-edged sword and backfire, as the brand can become compromised.

The great challenge is when an agency is engaged without bringing the in-house team to the table. A result can be that the agency work can be “off” from a brand perspective. Also, it’s important to recognize that a brand is not just visual. While visual tends to be pretty cut and dry, brand is also cultural, and the in-house team lives the culture of the firm. If the in-house team does not have a seat at the table with the agency, things tend to go down a very expensive path – either becoming more costly in the end, or worse off, passed through creative that is off-brand and ultimately released.

The in-house team is the conscience and the voice of reason for the brand. Their end-goal is not profit, but everything is for the good of the firm. If the in-house team is included in agency briefings and presentations, a lot of time and money can be saved by getting to a better product sooner. There is tremendous institutional and brand knowledge – not to mention talent – in the in-house team – a huge value-add. That coupled with a strong partnership with a talented agency provides the perfect balance for creating exciting and innovative creative work.

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