Being close to your business and colleagues has both positives and negatives for an IHA: make the most of the former, and the latter will fade away
In-house agencies are, by their very nature, close to the businesses and people they serve. While this proximity has a lot going for it, there are three big disadvantages that it can engender for an in-house agency.
First is that old cliché that familiarity can breed contempt. As an in-house agency, it can be very difficult to avoid being taken for granted by those commissioning the work. While external agencies can command respect due to their reputation, culture and cost, an in-house team that is viewed as being just part of the furniture can find it hard to have the value of its work fully appreciated – while any and every mistake is picked apart.
Secondly, being literally so close at hand gives clients – or, preferably, ‘colleagues’ – the opportunity to micro-manage. When the creative team executing your campaign is just down the corridor, the temptation to hover at an art director or designer’s shoulder while they ‘just make a few tweaks’ can be irresistible. This is where the lack of respect mentioned in the first point can really become evident. When marketers are under extreme pressure, it’s no wonder that they may want to steer projects closely: it’s very difficult to do that with an external agency, less so when your team is on the same floor.
The third issue that can be created by proximity is one of obligation. When an IHA is part of the business, marketers can feel obliged to use them – perhaps out of convenience, perhaps because they are mandated to do so. When a creative team is commissioned simply because they are there, and not because a marketer is excited by the prospect of working with them, great ideas rarely follow.
I’ve seen all three of these issues at work within businesses. The first defence against them is to recognise them and to call them out when they happen. But rather than try to fix them directly, the most effective way forward is to chase the considerable benefits of proximity: do that, and the disadvantages mentioned above go away.
The first big advantage that proximity brings is the opportunity it provides to build genuinely collaborative and productive relationships. The best IHAs recognise that they work with colleagues, not for clients. Of course there should still be formal processes, roles and responsibilities but proximity allows for more informal conversations, problem-solving and helping one another in a collaborative rather than transactional relationship. The more an in-house agency is aware of business challenges, the more proactive they can be and the more the opportunity to be useful. So many times we hear the same complaint about external agencies – “they don’t ‘get’ us”. This doesn’t happen with IHAs because they are part of the same ‘us’.
Which leads to the second major advantage of proximity. IHAs are subject to the same corporate culture, the same internal communications, the same policies, the same working rhythms as their colleagues. This means that far less contextual explanation is required in order for them to respond appropriately to briefs. Therefore work should be more relevant and quicker to turn around.
Finally, because of their proximity to the business, IHAs should be a far better source of insight for their colleagues than an external agency. They will have access to more complete data – often different data to marketing colleagues – which is more up to date. And they will be plugged into the latest trends in terms of media or tech platforms. The opportunity to feed all that back into the business puts them at a distinct advantage to their external peers who would normally only be able to share such information by way of a scheduled, costly update meeting. The best IHAs are constantly feeding back insights and information, becoming a valued and trusted source for colleagues.
Focussing on these three major advantages for an IHA will earn respect, credibility and awareness of the value it can deliver for the business. Make the most of them, and the negatives go away.
John Owen is co-founder of the In-House Agency Leaders Club and a partner at WDC, the consultancy which helps in-house agencies work better.