IHALC meets James Cross

For our latest online In-House Life session, James Cross (pictured above) joined us to talk about his time as a Creative Director at BBC Creative and Meanwhile, the new agency he has set up in Manchester with his creative partner Tim Jones and Alastair Marchant as MD.


You can download a recording of the session here but I wanted to pull out a few themes from our discussion that are particularly relevant to our IHALC community.


1, Being inside but not being insiders

In terms of culture, it’s always a tricky to balance to strike at an IHA – maintaining some of the external perspective and questioning mindset of an external agency versus feeling part of one team with the rest of the business. James said, “if you want to move a business or brand on in any sort of way, I think you’ve got to bring a perspective that doesn’t exist within that organisation. [At BBC Creative] we always told our teams not to ‘go native’. I always considered myself as working with BBC Creative, not the BBC in a weird way. I think it’s so important that you keep that separation.”


2, The Power of Proximity 

Even if you do try to keep some distance culturally, being close to colleagues is a major advantage of being in-house. “The BBC taught us that being close to the decision-makers is just such a massive advantage in-house. It’s no coincidence that maybe our best work at the BBC came from direct contact between the creatives and the marketeers,” James said. “We didn’t have that account management layer at BBC Creative and I think that was a massive advantage of being in-house – marketing people want contact with creatives. I think that’s the problem with most agencies, and it’s a big motivation of Meanwhile, to give clients close contact with creatives. It’s good to appreciate the work that goes in. I also think, psychologically, it’s harder to say no to an idea when you’re talking to the person who came up with it.”


3, Why broadcasters are seen as the most attractive IHAs

The likes of 4Creative and BBC Creative are often cited as the most attractive IHAs to work at. As well as the obvious benefit of having very rich cultural and sporting brands and events to work on, James said that part of the reason is that, “In the ad industry, everyone’s trying to impact popular culture, that’s kind of the job when you’re advertising carrots for Aldi or whatever. At the BBC we were already in popular culture. The other thing you’ve got being a media provider is that you’ve already got a ginormous audience. So the advantages are huge. And I think that’s why it’s probably easier for the broadcasters to attract talent away from the traditional ad agency world. Those organisations can’t compete on salary with the Wieden and Kennedys and AMVs, but the exposure of the work and the volume of work makes them attractive. A junior creative at BBC Creative can jump three years of their career in a single year because of the amount of work they get through. We used to joke that you could fail on Monday on a pitch against some other teams, and then there’s an amazing opportunity Tuesday morning.”


4, Talent and the value exchange

Following on from the previous point, James also highlighted the value that BBC Creative can offer to talent beyond financial rewards: “The advantage we had is that the work was so high profile. We’ve seen people come into the BBC to freelance for six months, and then you can’t get hold of them after that because the work they’ve done has taken them to another level. So it’s a good investment in your career working at the Beeb. With staff, the best analogy I can give is that if it was a football club, it’d be Ajax, where it’s developing the talent to their mid-20s and then they’ll go and do their own thing, get their payday at the big London shops…As soon as someone does a World Cup campaign, you’ve probably got three months until an agency will be sniffing around. The positive of this is that we’re doing a bloody good job with our younger members of staff and launching these careers. We were able to put time into them and unleash their talent.”


5, But attracting conceptual creatives is still hard 

James told us that “Maybe the more conceptual talent isn’t necessarily attracted to in-house unless you are Channel4, the BBC, or ITV for that matter. I think attracting those people is hard. You’ve got to be able to offer a fantastic scope of opportunities in-house to attract that sort of talent. There’s a business in Manchester called The Hut Group, they’ve got this huge stable of brands, so you could see how you could be attracted to that for example. But if you’re, I don’t know, a tyre manufacturer, then I I’d be surprised if a conceptual creative would would be into that. That said, people do work in agencies on just one account, but that’s something I don’t think I could have done.”


6, And that’s what Meanwhile can help with

James explained that part of the offer for his new agency will be to use the experience gained at BBC Creative to work with in-house teams. “What we want to offer is the expertise that isn’t necessarily a common thing at in-house agencies, which is something a bit more conceptual for those bigger brand jobs. And that’s why we want to help to curate and then work with in-house teams. We can bring some external expertise, with the advantage of knowing how these things work in-house. We are working with a broadcaster in Europe where we did some projects for them, but at the same time, it feels like we’re kind of training up their teams in-house to get to the point where they don’t need to call anyone like us.”

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