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3 Insights Marketing and Creative Leaders Need to Build Successful In-House Agencies

Alex Withers

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An active, strategic partnership between marketing and creative teams is crucial to their prosperity

CMOs have increasingly responded to the need for high-quality creative content efficiency by building in-house creative agencies. Studies by Forrester Research, the Association of National Advertisers and The Creative Group, as well as countless anecdotes reported in the trade media, suggest that the trend continues to move in this direction.

Conceptually, this makes sense for several reasons. First, in-housing creative teams will naturally help them better align with their colleagues across the hall in marketing. Second, the co-location will provide more opportunities for high-touch collaboration. Finally, in-house creatives who are dedicated to a single brand will develop deep and intimate knowledge of the brand that helps the whole machine run smoother.

But any leader who has planned or supported a major organizational transformation knows that change requires active management. Bringing creative in-house may promise greater efficiency, but organizations can’t just bolt on a creative team and expect miracles. In order to reap those benefits, creative and marketing teams must develop a strategic relationship.


This necessity stood out in a recent study. Earlier this year, my organization, in partnership with InSource, an association for in-house creatives, published an annual report exploring the state of in-house creative management. We polled more than 550 creative and marketing professionals, including detailed open-ended commentary that provided context, and also interviewed a handful of key leaders executing on this today in the creative and marketing trenches.

The results revealed some surprising challenges and opportunities for marketing leaders as they build out in-house creative expertise. The combination of data and commentary provided some important insights for pulling off this creative transformation successfully.

chart displaying the top challenges faced by in-house creative teams in 2019

1. Treat In-House Creatives as Strategic Partners, Not Service Providers

Some of the most surprising findings homed in on confidence in management: Both creative and marketing leaders received marginal grades while creative teams reported low morale. Just 64% of respondents said their creative leadership is effective and even fewer (54%) said their marketing leadership is effective. Less than half (45%) said morale on the creative team is high.

The notion that one third (or more) of a team lacks confidence in their leadership is jarring. When we traced the issue through the data to the comments and commentary, the likely causes emerged: culture and a lack of true partnership.

“As in-house creative services departments mature and become more embedded within their organizations, more is asked of them on an almost daily basis,” said Andy Brenits, president of InSource’s Board of Directors. “However, as the needs of the company become increasingly urgent, we need to remind our marketing partners that the name of the department is Creative Services, not Creative Servants.”

Brent Chiu-Watson, senior director of product management at Adobe, also emphasized the importance of partnership. Creative working hand in hand with marketing is what really drives effectiveness.

“Both parties need to share an interest in performance analysis and be open to surprising insights,” he said. “When the teams find insights, learn, adapt and iterate together, you see real business impact.”

For organizations struggling with this, a unifying common denominator may well rest in values like mutual respect, according to Timm Chiusano, a vice president of production and creative services at Kernel, created by Spectrum Reach. He suggests “putting all the little squabbles between creative and marketing into perspective” by underscoring the common goals creative and marketing work toward, and the privilege of doing such work in the “grand scheme of life.”

2. Implement Best Practices and Streamline the Collaborative Process

The survey revealed several opportunities to improve process and collaboration. Consider the following statistics derived from respondents:

  • 60% said their creative team uses best practices
  • 51% said collaboration with marketing is effective
  • 46% said creatives don’t get enough information to begin a project
  • 72% said obtaining the necessary information to get started on a project is the single largest task that soaks up time that could be better spent being creative
  • 79% said they rarely or never receive feedback on the performance of their creative
chart depicting survey results of respondents commenting on effectiveness of collaboration between marketing and creative
chart asking respondents what administrative tasks they spend the most time on

In reviewing the data and speaking to creatives and marketing leaders, it’s clear that some processes have been lost during the transition in-house. In other words, when marketing teams relied more heavily on outside creative agencies, those agencies imposed many of these aspects because they were essential for efficient agency operations and healthy margin. The lesson is that processes and best practices don’t become less important just because you’ve brought the team in-house.

The upside here is some process improvements can be implemented and have an immediate impact on productivity and morale. A proper creative brief should be an obvious target.

“Many marketing professionals have never learned to develop a proper creative brief,” said Joe Carmon, a senior creative specialist at VSP, a vision care health insurance company. “Instead, their training ends after producing meaningful marketing briefs and communication plans.”

If a creative brief even exists—and it’s clear from the data it often does not—it becomes a check-the-box style exercise devoid of audience definition, storytelling or emotion.

“Emotion gives insight into the story of a defined audience, which tells us how brands can connect, drive results and foster loyalty,” Carmon noted. “To make this transition, creative leaders must frame what the creative brief means to their marketing partners and internal customers.”

He recommends standardizing the creative brief and boiling it down to three pages or fewer. The brevity naturally facilitates constructive and critical thinking about audience and message. More importantly, this simple idea can have an outsize impact on the organization because while it’s not easy, “it can be fun and the positive energy that goes into it will be infectious.”

3. Create Space for Creatives to Be Creative

The top challenges for in-house creatives were a) the volume of work and b) the velocity or speed at which marketing needs that work completed. In and of itself, this wasn’t a surprise as it’s consistent with the findings from the same survey the previous year.

chart depicting time spent by creatives on administrative tasks

However, nearly half (48%) say they spend about one day a week or more on non-creative work—that’s up 14% from the same survey last year. In addition, an astonishing one-fifth (22%) indicated they spend 10 hours a week or more chasing down information, feedback and approvals—and that too ticked up 6% from last year’s survey.

So, marketing continues to ask creative teams for more and more creativity under tighter and tighter deadlines—while also reducing the amount of time to be creative. Simply stated, creativity doesn’t work that way: creatives need space to be creative.

How do you create space for your creatives? For Cassidee Owens, creative services manager for the Denver Broncos, it comes down to time-tracking. By tracking time, her team has developed a better understanding of how long creative projects take and uses the data in resource planning.

“This helps stakeholders see the big picture of all the work that’s happening in creative,” she says. “It also lets us better prioritize projects and even experiment with how we divide and conquer creative tasks. For example, the time tally might show a new logo takes one person a week or more to complete, but if we put three people to work on it, we can get it done in a couple of days.”

The Makings of a Successful In-House Creative Agency

Where should marketing and creative leaders begin?

The survey findings and commentary all point toward parity between the creative and marketing teams as the unifying foundation of success. This means healthy communication and mutual respect for each other’s expertise, according Adobe’s Chiu-Watson.

“It takes a partnership between the creative and marketing teams to really increase the effectiveness of creative,” he says in the report. “A mutual interest in understanding creative effectiveness begins to provide better insight through dialogue. Both marketing and creative grow new respect for the other discipline and all of a sudden, you start having interesting conversations and can take action based on data.”

Image courtesy of Pexels.

Alex Withers is the CMO of inMotionNow, a leading provider of workflow management solutions for marketing and creative teams. Withers is a seasoned digital technology and marketing executive with more than 20 years of leadership experience.