The rise of the in-house strategist

Following Ainhoa Robles’ recent article for The Drum about life as an in-house creative, Jo Rolfe explains why planners also have great opportunities in-house


Reading Reckitt Global Brand Experience & Service Design Lead Ainhoa Robles’ brilliant article in the The Drum – Why moving in-house at Reckitt hasn’t stagnated my creative career – inspired me to write on the same subject, but from a planner’s perspective.

More and more strategists are moving from external agencies to in-house. A more favourable work-life balance and the opportunity for a greater sense of control, where everyone is working towards the same goal, are commonly-cited factors. But the chance to do great, effective, creative work – long seen as a problem in-house – is now just as big a factor.

High-profile in-house success stories are proving that brands can in-house creativity and do exceptional work. Within 18 months of launch, BBC Creative had moved the organisation from being the least creatively awarded broadcaster to the most-awarded and saved a seven figure sum in the process, whilst also improving effectiveness.

Specsavers, Lego, Oatly and Google all add weight to the argument, proving that it’s not only creative industry businesses that can do this.

As we see in-house agencies mature and fine-tune their structure, talent operating model and culture in order for creativity to thrive, we will see many more examples surface.

Generalist Vs specialist

Evolution in the communications agency world has seen a shift from full-service to specialist. I would argue that one of the reasons for this is that the inverse is happening in client businesses. Why is this?

With the rise of ‘The Experience Brand’ and as customer expectations grow while the customer journey becomes ever more complex, there are huge demands on the CMO. They (and their team) are expected to have a POV on every brand interaction their user will have, to ensure that the customer journey becomes a growth engine for the business.

That’s why the ‘T shaped strategist’, with the ability to shapeshift from Brand into Experience planning, is so in demand. This rounded skillset is hugely beneficial to the CMO.

Allied to this, we are seeing clients ‘top up’ their in-house expertise by outsourcing specialist strategy skill requirements to external partners. It’s a smart tactical move due to the lower volume and frequency of their need.

Perhaps this is why, according to WARC, 63% of strategists do not think their next role will be in an agency (2019).

There are two opportunities for planners here: Join an in-house creative agency or marketing team where you will be able to hone your expertise as a ‘T shaped strategist’, or find what you excel at and become a specialist strategy consultant to clients.

More embedded, greater agility

External agencies are renowned for having cultures that are fast-paced, fun and exciting. Historically, that’s not always been a characteristic of client businesses or IHAs. But, in an effort to respond to fast-changing consumer behaviours and demand patterns, the pandemic forced client businesses to be more responsive. Many hurriedly implemented agile practices and operating models so they could deliver ‘of the moment’ customer opportunities at minimal or zero cost.

Bearing this in mind, planners today need to be connectors and collaborators who can try new things and make stuff happen. People who can build and orchestrate teams, people who are pragmatists not purists. As an in-house strategist you are more embedded and collaboration with marketing colleagues, who may be very close by, is easier.

But where should planning sit? Pretty much every external agency has a strategy team of Account Planners but, in-house, Marketing often provides the strategic thinking.

Are in-house agencies missing a trick here? BBC Creative has a strategy team alongside creative as well as having strategic thinking in the marketing department. It makes the whole process much more efficient and the output more effective. Expect more in-house agencies to adopt this model.

Data and marketing strategy

A ‘consumer-centric’ mindset is key today, where consumer data drives decisions. Because of this, ownership of the customer relationship and selling direct to consumer (D2C) have become core business growth drivers for brands.

The foundation of this is capturing first party data along the customer journey, and knowing what to do with it. So if you are that way inclined as a strategist, this is a big opportunity. And it seems logical that the place to be is in-house, where they own the data and you can build out that skillset.

Shared learning

Finally, shared learning is a major benefit of being in an external agency. As a strategist you expand your horizons with day-to-day sharing of intel and inspiration – the latest research, case studies, innovations.

This can be less easy to do in-house. Yes you’re building deep sector knowledge that you’d struggle to do in an external agency, but you may feel siloed. That’s why IHALC was set up. It’s a space where members from in-house agencies can learn from and inspire each other, share best practice and problems, ask and answer questions. IHALC is there to provide the inspiration and shared learning that those working in-house may lack.

Particularly as they align with a number of wider marketing trends, the opportunities for in-house strategists make me as upbeat as Ainhoa: just like creatives, planners can really benefit from an internal move. For a strategist, in-house is shaping up to be an exciting place to be.

Jo Rolfe is Senior Consultant at WDC, the consultancy which helps in-house agencies and marketers work better and which is a founder of the In-House Agency Leaders Club. Find out more about WDC and its work here

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