Internal agencies need to avoid the low hanging fruit


“Agency ivory towers are falling. And how creative is delivered is being shaken up.  Many of us will remember the move towards internal agencies after 2008. But this time it feels like the ground is really shifting”
Dave Edwards

The trend

We all know the trend over the last few years is for costs to be driven down, timings tightened, procurement hurdles raised. Add to that an insatiable hunger for content and of course, data: ideas now have a shortened shelf life; where campaigns would have taken months, ‘agile’ makes it happen in weeks if not days. Some campaigns of course still need the agency, the bigger ideas and ambitious strategies will still warrant the bigger investment and an outsider’s eye, but the pressure is to keep more of the execution in-house, and to deliver more of the creative in-house too.

But if the objective is just cost savings, then I think you are missing a trick. The creative director of one well known, highly successful internal agency puts it well.

“The agency wasn’t created as a way to cut costs. We have always had an in-house agency, it was part of the early business model. Of course, it makes sense from a commercial perspective, but there was a more practical reason too. We grew at an astonishing rate and was (and still is) very committed to a ‘glocal’ approach. Different locations can have very different marketing needs and trading conditions and competitor environment can change very quickly. Our ability to respond at speed is a massive benefit here”

Fintechs and new entrants should take note. Being able to move accurately and with speed in highly regulated markets is what a dedicated creative resource can offer.

But when entering new markets, or encouraging entrepreneurialism, it isn’t just about quick and low cost and accurate, it’s about quality. What’s important is getting the messaging right, propositions spot on. Being able to dedicate effort to crafting the creative strategy because you’re not sweating delivery means you’re testing the right thing. As a creative it’s frustrating when MVP means cutting corners on the creative, how on earth are you going to give your ideas a fair outing if audiences aren’t experiencing what engagement with your concept really is?

“When you’re inside it’s inevitable you’ll get a better feel for the customer, the company, the direction of travel”

Insider insights

But supposing the internal agency isn’t just about cost saving and getting out there quick. Supposing you want to tell your story better. After all, this is what our discerning swipe-left audiences are after. The internal agency offers authenticity. “Being able to get under the bonnet of what’s going on” is what in-house CDs in successful internal agencies talk about. This is the gold external agencies have to work a lot harder to get at.

It’s little wonder the smart entrants are designing their businesses this way.

When creatives can stroll over to speak directly to the sales team, customers and partners and intermediaries are less likely to be just a set of data points on a Gantt chart and more likely to be human beings with real needs, hopes and fears. Data Profiles tend to be more realistic, insights more useable because they are filtered by those who will turn them into what the customer actually sees and responds to.

When there’s nothing stopping the creatives from talking to the guys who actually designed the product, they’ll know what they were trying to get at. Strategic planning becomes more meaningful, and when you do need to reach out to agencies, you’re suddenly tighter and more effective and less likely to be bamboozled by their spin.

“We know our customers, we know our business and we’re able to take a longer view.”

But Inside, it’s not all roses

The only problem is that those things that make perfect sense can sometimes be a bit, well, boring.

Creative should be interesting, engaging, entertaining even, and the best has a light touch – my mantra has always been that you can’t bore people into buying your product.

One creative director friend referred to it as ‘wit not shit’.

The trick is to remember not to get bogged down, not to become too brand-worthy, try not to say everything, and don’t try to satisfy everyone and every stakeholder – you’ll only be overcome by the weight of an organisation, maybe a little set in its ways, towering above you. Worse still, you’ll forget your context and fail to see beyond your bubble.

The bubble is an important point. If internal agencies do authenticity, external ones do objectivity. It’s the cold eye that finds fresher ideas. What a lot of internal agencies seem to forget is a strategy for the creative teams to get close but to still hold the brand at arms-length so their field of vision is bigger. Failing to do this is when marketing execs start to feel oh so creative – because they can second guess what the creative teams are going to come up with.  Nice for them, terrible for the business, soul destroying for your creatives.  It’s all downhill from then on.

We’ve all seen when this goes wrong: the culturally blind Pepsi campaign; the government’s way off the mark reskilling in time of COVID ads; content strategies that slip into generics; campaigns that are a rehash of something ‘the agency’ produced a few years ago. Predictable, functional creative. You’re back to being an artwork studio not an internal agency and your reliance on external starts to creep up. Design by numbers. The creative bar inched lower on every cycle, the low hanging fruit becomes palatable.

Dave Edwards