How to successfully grow an internal design team

At Reckitt, the in-house design team has broadened its remit to help shape the future of the business. Ainhoa Robles explains how


We all appreciate the variety of in-house design teams. They can range from a tight-knit group mainly tasked with production and execution, to an incubator where creative ideas are given freedom and space to grow.

Within our brand experience division at Reckitt we’ve always had the ambition to build an in-house innovation hub, where innovation will be led by design and design has a permanent seat at the business decision-making table. Our aim is to drive creative and transformative change from the inside out. We ultimately want to inspire and work collaboratively with other teams across the business, including senior leadership.

But getting from zero to making that vision a reality doesn’t happen overnight. Even with the best intentions, you need a measured approach to building your in-house team.

Such teams will always have to be embedded in a wider business culture. They need proximity to the business, knowledge of its brands and access to data and insight. This will allow them to come up with better responses to briefs, get upstream and be proactive in solving business problems in a much more agile and intimate way.

It’s a long journey, getting there. We all want to be driving change upstream, but you need to do that through measured steps in the right direction while keeping your eyes on the goal.

Our path has taken us from initial pilot to production studio, swiftly transitioning into a small-scale content creative studio. By initiating small tactical projects that have enhanced productivity and efficiency, we began establishing trust across the broader business. We are now undergoing a transformation towards a more ‘lead creative agency’ model, with the ultimate goal of evolving into the innovation hub/incubator aligned with our ambitions.

This path is very much tailored to the needs of Reckitt, and every in-house team will need to create their own. But there are some key steps everyone can take to successfully grow an effective in-house design team.

Nail your ‘why’
It should start with knowing why you’re building the team in the first place. Yes, saving money is important, but that cannot be the only reason to grow an in-house agency. What is the purpose, mission, fight and vision for your team? You need to ask yourself, ‘Why do we exist and how will our work help the business?’

This will determine what kind of work your team should focus on and what processes, tools and people you need. Every business has different needs, so every in-house agency should be set up slightly differently to meet those.

Build your culture
What should be at the heart of every team, however, is a positive work culture. As an in-house team it’s easy to get drawn into the wider corporate business culture, but you should always look to adapt that for your creative team. Consider bringing in and embracing diverse talent and viewpoints to fuel innovation and drive an environment that rewards a learning mindset and promotes collaboration.

Borrow the start-up mentality of being agile and adaptable, allowing for quick adjustments to market changes, and embrace calculated risk. Focus on building a space that promotes creativity and allows ideas to flow more freely – and be sure to recognise and reward creative achievements to motivate and retain top talent.

The wider corporate business culture is important but allow yourself to be politely rebellious. Have fun and be fun. And leave your ego at the door.

Get your process right
On a more practical note, you do need to get the operational basics right. Creatives are generally well suited to face the challenges of a more unstructured environment, but not everyone is comfortable without robust processes or structures in place.

To facilitate design quality, you need to set consistent toolsets and processes. This will help your team make decisions about what projects to work on, and when to work on them. It ensures everyone can work from the same shared understanding and build common ground.

The proof is in the pudding

Knowing why you exist is one thing but proving that you are needed is just as important. It’s difficult for a large corporation to commit resource when something is intangible or hard to measure. So, starting from the bottom and convincing decision-makers with hard facts and figures will lead to more understanding and collaboration. It shows people how the design function can work – how it adds value beyond the visual execution.

As an example, one of our recent initiatives involved our team identifying a gap and untapped potential across the entire business – Reckitt’s brands were not fully exploiting digital opportunities.

With numerous local marketing teams in play, establishing a robust strategy, shaping messaging and user experiences, and ensuring a consistent digital presence for our brands posed challenges. Consequently, we devised a more unified strategy, providing a toolkit, and a suite of customisable assets, to empower local teams and unlock creative potential and engagement across the entire organisation.

Designed to win on digital, while maintaining a strong brand presence and coherence across all channels, the suite can be used to guide, inspire, build on and streamline a market launch.

Anecdotally, the project was hugely popular among those local teams. But crucially, we could also report a marked uptick in sales and engagement. On the release of Vanish’s Multipower Tabs, for example, use of the toolkit led to a threefold increase in clickthrough rates (with no ATL support).

Making your own opportunities
The potential to initiate change and improve processes exist continually through intentional design.

Projects such as these highlight the importance of actively seeking and creating your own opportunities instead of waiting for the ideal brief. You need to foster a culture of innovation and transformative change from within – completely aligned with why we built the team in the first place.

Yes, it is daunting growing an in-house team if you want to have impact on the wider business. But with each stride, the recognition of design’s value within the business becomes increasingly pronounced.

The ongoing journey of testing and learning positions design to wield influence further upstream. The challenge of consistently proving one’s value at every juncture may be demanding, but it is immensely gratifying. This process brings us closer to the ultimate aspiration of envisioning a future where businesses and their brands are reimagined. Embracing challenges in this way is the very essence that propels creativity.

Ainhoa Robles is global brand experience design and operations manager at Reckitt and part of the In-House Agency Leaders Club community

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