External v Internal: rivals or partners?

It’s not about competing with external agencies but becoming a vital partner with them to deliver great work, says WDC’s John Owen


One of the perils of championing the role of In-House Agencies is that you risk sounding like an enemy of external agencies. For the vast majority of IHA leaders, this is a dangerous road to tread.

The truth is that most IHAs exist in an eco-system populated by a number of other key players, including external agencies, production companies and tech providers. And it’s in everyone’s interests to get all of these teams working to their maximum potential.

So the question is not: how can we compete with these external agencies? But how can we become a vital partner to them?

For many an ambitious IHA leader, this may seem self-limiting. After all, how do you motivate and retain the best creative people if you don’t aspire to doing more creative and strategic work? And doesn’t that necessarily mean trying to eat into the remit of the external creative agency?

Well, no it doesn’t. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: seeing external agencies as the competition is a big mistake which may limit the growth potential of your IHA.

There are three things to think about here:

  • how to promote partnership with external agencies
  • how to win respect and grow your remit in this context
  • how to define the broader remit you wish to attain

Let’s look at each in turn.


How to promote partnership with external agencies

It’s fair to say that the primary responsibility for this lies with the CMO and the brief owners within the marketing team. They need to set up all their partners for success and the foundation stone for this is clear roles and responsibilities. No team functions well unless everyone knows their job. Nor, indeed, if they are pursuing separate goals. So the entire team need to be invested in a set of shared objectives that are regarded as paramount.

Beyond this, however, much rests with the individual agency leaders – how they engage with each other and how they encourage their teams to behave.

The best all-agency teams understand and respect each other’s roles. To do this, it helps if they dedicate some time to getting an appreciation of what each other does and – critically – reflect on what they can do to help each of their partners deliver of their best.

It’s not always possible or appropriate for the central marketers to facilitate this kind of knowledge sharing and team building exchange – so it may fall to the individual agency leaders to take the initiative. Who better to do this than the internal agency leader – representing the client company while at the same time operating as a peer of the external teams?

In practice, of course, there’s no easy shortcuts to harmonious teamwork. It requires clear, honest and ongoing communication, not just between agencies and marketers but agency-to-agency as well. And not just the ‘suits’. How often do creative leaders at IHAs and external agencies talk together directly? Building mutual respect and rapport, ECD to ECD, is vital.


How to grow your remit in this context

The most important thing to recognise here is that the right to take on a broader remit must be earned.

No IHA leader I know is content for their team to operate ad infinitum as a second-string, downstream executor of other people’s ideas – although that’s often the initial remit, albeit dressed up in nicer language. Working your way up from this position can be arduous. But it has to be done.

Regardless of remit, the key is to ensure your IHA becomes an agency of choice, not of obligation. Where use of the IHA is mandated, marketers will struggle not to feel a sense of resentment. This does nothing to build the trust and credibility needed in order to produce great work and happy people.

Instead, the focus should be on fulfilling your remit, producing good work and – perhaps most important of all – being enjoyable to work with. We’re all human and what we value most in the workplace is people who make us feel good, who keep their promises, and who relieve pressure rather than pile it on. Good work matters, but if it’s been hell getting there, it won’t matter enough to make the marketers want to give the IHA more work.

BBC Creative is a great example of an IHA which went on this journey and is now reaping the rewards. Marketers there have the choice between using an external and internal agency – and more than 90% of projects are now handled by the IHA (including the major campaigns), reflecting the confidence BBC marketers have in this team.

Where did that confidence come from? By delivering high-quality work, consistently, and in a highly collaborative manner. Everything has to start there: show your colleagues that you can perform your current tasks brilliantly and new opportunities will open up.


How to define the broader remit you wish to attain

What are the opportunities you want your IHA to pursue? I’d encourage all IHA leaders to channel their ambitions in ways that play to the strengths of their team and of their situation.

In doing so, you may conclude that displacing the external creative agency is fairly low on your list of priorities. Surely, in the third decade of the 21st century there has to be a higher pinnacle of a creative’s ambition than being the one who makes the telly ad!

As the in-house team, you sit inside the business, physically close to or even integrated within the marketing department. You’re living the brand day in day out, seeing, feeling, hearing about problems that might benefit from a little bit of your creativity. There are so many more interesting business problems to solve, so many product design, customer experience and brand activation opportunities to get the creative juices flowing.

That’s why the best IHAs spend as much time as possible with their colleagues from marketing and other disciplines, helping them informally, above and beyond their role on specific briefs.

And it’s why the smartest businesses, such as Lego and Headspace, formalise this in order to get the most value out of the creative people on their pay roll (as we learned when they spoke at our monthly In-House Life panels, as you can read here and here).

In summary, all IHAs should be very clear about what the business expects of them – what their remit is and how it works within the agency eco-system. But that doesn’t mean that they have to be ‘stuck’ delivering just one type of work. The best work solves a business problem in the most appropriate and powerful way possible, whatever form it takes. IHAs have considerable room to manoeuvre here and should seize every opportunity – prioritising those which don’t encroach on other agencies’ remits.

It’s not a competition, it’s a partnership. Done right, everybody gets the chance to shine and to excel at what they are best at.


John Owen is a partner at consultancy WDC, which helps marketers and IHAs do better work together, and which created IHALC along with Patrick Burgoyne

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