Know your customer and the case for specialism

John Owen reflects on key topics from last week’s Creative Operations London event. Above, from left to right: WDC’s John Owen, Natalie Brewster of The Body Shop, Katie Farmer from Charlotte Tilbury, Ed Morris and Three’s Mat O’Brien at Creative Operations London. Pic: Henry Stewart Events


As we gear up to IHALC’s one-day summit on the In-House Advantage, it was fascinating for me to spend an hour last Friday exploring this topic with four in-house agency leaders.

The setting was Henry Stewart’s Creative Operations London event and I was lucky enough to be chairing a panel debate with some of the most experienced and eloquent practitioners around: Natalie Brewster, Director of Global Creative Operations at The Body Shop; Mat O’Brien, Creative Director at Three’s newly formed in-house agency, Generation; Ed Morris, most recently Creative Director at DraftLine, InBev’s in-house agency; and Katie Farmer, Director of Creative Operations at Charlotte Tilbury.

The subject was ‘From External Agency to In-House: Learnings From Making the Leap’ – and the four panelists had all spent time in big agency groups as well as in-house. So, what are the big differences? And how do you turn them into opportunities?

The conversation was wide ranging and I’m not going to do it justice here. But I want to share three insights which I found really striking.

1. Know your customer

No, not just the ones you’re making the advertising for. The ones buying the work. And, beyond those directly doing so in Marketing, the ones generating the core business needs which drive those marketing briefs: the product teams, the retail buyers, the store managers. The chances are you’ll meet a lot more of these people working in-house than you would in an external agency. And you’ll need to know how to deal with them.

To do so, it pays to think of these stakeholders like an ‘audience’ – taking time to understand them, to identify their needs, tastes and motivations, so that you can figure out how best to influence them.

The good news is that you have every opportunity to do this – for example, follow Mat’s lead in asking to attend meetings as an observer, just to see how they work, what they prioritise, what their core focus is.

Alternatively, you could ask for an induction into their part of the business (and offer one back to them). According to Katie, “onboarding is a massive opportunity” – one which is systematically addressed via a 4-day programme at Charlotte Tilbury, but what’s stopping you from initiating something a little less ambitious all by yourself?

And when it comes to taking briefs, always ask ‘why’ a particular request is being made, or a specific objective being set. Not to be difficult, but to understand better the intention and motivation behind the brief. Of course, this may also give you reason to challenge the brief – but that’s what being a strategic partner (as opposed to a service function) is all about.


2. Address the language divide

It’s important also to accept that people who don’t work in marketing might have very little knowledge about what you and your team do.

Marketing is an esoteric business, full of jargon. So, for that matter, is pretty much every other area of business! And sometimes, the same words are used to mean different things.

For example, a “proposition” on a creative brief means a simple sentence defining what the focus of the message should be; but, in other contexts, it could be a product or service line, or the description of a customer benefit. Without explicitly defining these terms, people apply their own usages – and things quickly become very confusing!

As Ed suggested, it might be sensible to design meetings with stakeholders such as these in a way that allows for more extensive introductions than normal. Don’t assume anything. Set the scene, revisit the brief and clarify the objectives to ensure everyone knows why they’re here and what they’re expecting to see. Maybe even provide a glossary of terms. Then take things slowly, allowing for questions and being prepared to offer explanations.


3. Explain the need for specialisms

Similarly, the roles people play in creative agencies can seem very alien to people from other disciplines. A lot of corporate cultures are generalist – actively encouraging managers to spend time in different units to broaden their perspective and develop their business acumen. It doesn’t work like that in creative agencies – no-one would ever hire a creative director and then request that they oversee account management for a couple of years to develop their career! But the level of specialism we find so natural can seem wasteful and weird to those unfamiliar with the way agencies work.

As Nat said, one of the biggest areas to suffer from this generalist culture is the art of brief writing. The general view is that this is not where the time and money should be focused. Anyone can write a brief. The skill is how you respond to it.

As anyone who attended Will Humphrey’s IHALC briefing on how to write a good brief will know, this is nonsense. But, unfortunately, it’s what you might call common nonsense in the world of the in-house agency. To build a successful IHA, you have to pick the right battles to fight – and this is one of them. But it might help you to win the battle to hire some planners in your team if you first understand why a generalist culture is likely to resist it.

These three insights feel fresh to me – providing some new ways of looking at, explaining and perhaps even solving a set of problems that will feel familiar to all: taking meetings with people when you haven’t a clue what they do; unfathomable feedback from people who appear to speak a different language to you; terrible briefs and the utter refusal to do anything about it.

In tackling these problems with understanding and imagination, they really can be turned into opportunities – building relationships based on mutual understanding and respect, leading to better work to the benefit of all concerned.

I look forward to uncovering more such insights at next week’s summit.


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

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