After a decade of steady growth, in-house agencies are finding their place in the sun. In March, marketers from some of the world's best-known brands took the stage at the ANA In-House Agency Conference in Orlando to celebrate the evolution of their departments from transactional "creative services" shops to high-value divisions that drive growth and customer engagement in a changing media and consumer marketplace.
The ANA has been tracking internal creative and media functions since 2003, releasing new data every five years. Last year, 78 percent of ANA members said they had in-house agencies, up from 58 percent in 2013 and 42 percent in 2008, when the financial crisis made in-housing an appealing way to cut costs.
Cost-efficiency remains top-of-mind, but today the focus is more broad, encompassing everything from brand creative to media oversight to creating a better foundation for distributing creative everywhere across an increasingly fragmented landscape.
Here are some key takeaways from conference speakers.
In-House Agencies Are No Fad, and There Are Numerous Reasons to Build One
"When a company like Bayer is doing it, it's no longer a trend, but instead represents a fundamental shift in the marketplace," observed Joshua Palau, Bayer's VP of media strategy and platforms, at the ANA's first-ever national industry conference focused exclusively on in-house agencies.
Successfully managing the shift to an in-house solution is a tall order and of course no one size fits all. While the first steps toward in-housing have been natural and organic for most enterprises — bringing more creative, video production, and brand identity work inside — today's in-house leaders are eyeing more strategic (and challenging) functions such as programmatic buying, visibility into media, data-driven targeting, and a more effective and streamlined approach to creative asset workflow.
Bayer, for example, began building its own proprietary digital and programmatic media planning, buying, and execution capabilities two years ago. Similarly, as the call for data protection has become more pitched, Bayer has explored internal ownership of its coveted data. For guidance, Bayer turned to consultancy MightyHive for fresh thinking in building the functionalities from the ground up.
Video game giant Electronic Arts has employed a different approach to programmatic and personal data in-housing, adopting the practices in baby steps, and relying on its own Global Head of Media Belinda Smith to get her team to the level of expertise where they could manage the media buys across more than 40 countries.
On the creative front, Warren Chase, VP and COO at Verizon's in-house agency 140, said the internal team is well-positioned to seamlessly communicate brand narrative and brand experience because of its institutional knowledge. This ability is a tremendous benefit when managing social campaigns inside brand walls with all the speed and agility required for such communications.
The Best Results Will Come with a New Balance of Internal and External Resources
While the division of labor between internal and external teams is sure to shift going forward, the new equilibrium will play to the strengths of both internal and external teams, according to Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A's. Of all the data points in the ANA's most recent study, the fact that 90 percent of brand marketers surveyed also employ outside agencies speaks to the hybrid model as the most likely long-term view.
To underscore the point, Scott Grenz, VP and global head of media at GlaxoSmithKline, delivered his in-house agency presentation alongside Helen Lin, chief digital officer at Publicis, GSK's external agency, who is shepherding GSK through the company's in-house agency development. Lin acknowledged the arrangement seemed a little unorthodox at first, but when the swim lanes are distinct and the roles and responsibilities of all team members are well-defined, clarity — not confusion — follows.
For his part, Grenz emphasized that GSK didn't bring functions in house simply to follow other brands' leads, but because GSK performed an assessment of its marketing activities and recognized the need to be more accountable in pushing for media transparency and protecting consumer data.
Smarter Workflows Are a Competitive Advantage
Finally, conference speakers and survey respondents in the ANA's study identified managing workflow as the No. 1 challenge associated with effecting this shift in marketing approach. While it's clear that participants were speaking of workflows in the broad, project-management sense, the ways in which marketing is evolving are making sophisticated creative asset management solutions more of a necessity than ever.
At Nationwide Insurance — another one of those large, established, conservative organizations like Bayer where fads are few and new directions are generally the result of a significant market evolution — Mike Boyd, SVP of enterprise brand marketing, worried out loud about the pressures resulting from the new media world. Noting that many avenues and marketing models can be adopted to address new marketing challenges, he stressed that one thing is incontestable: "We are being asked to produce more content, to put together more creative assets, to develop more media plans at a level and pace we've never encountered before."
With marketers telling more stories in more formats and sending them to more platforms, a secure clearinghouse with permissions-based access to all the assets will serve as the glue holding multiple teams — external and in-house, often both working in tandem — and campaigns together across locations.
With traditional agency models being broken up and the way forward not always clear, finding a workflow that links disparate parts together seamlessly is an effective means of being the voice of calm in a sea of change.
By Melinda McLaughlin is the chief marketing officer at Extreme Reach, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.