Originally published in The Inside Scoop by the In-House Agency Forum on August 2, 2021.
Before the pandemic, there was a steady rise in the number of companies reining in aspects of marketing that an outside agency would normally handle. Some, like Coca-Cola, Red Bull, and Kind built content studios to drive the creative process. Others, like Liberty Mutual and Clorox, built in-house media teams to end the game of telephone between creative, media planning and agency execution. This applies particularly to fast-moving programmatic campaigns where the promotional aspect is based on first-party data and campaigns are constantly in market and continuously updated to optimize performance.
During the pandemic, when costs needed to be cut quickly and jobs were on the line, internal teams took on many previously outsourced roles. As we enter this post-quarantine phase, labor shortages and unpredictable market dynamics have made long-term decisions challenging. This need for agility has caused leaders to pause and reconsider the best path forward for assigning projects to internal or external teams. Why? Because hiring people with specific skills like search, graphic design or video are important to the makeup of an agile in-house marketing effort. Yet finding, hiring, training and managing those resources is proving harder than it looks.
The real benefits of an in-house team, whether it’s creative or media, acquisition or retention, channel-specific or channel-agnostic, comes with a different set of challenges. There are three issues that marketing leaders face with in-house teams: adaptability, role definition, and true resource savings.
1. Teams need to learn new tricks. No, this doesn’t mean sitting for a treat. But, it does mean that the title “email specialist” may have to be changed to “digital communicator” as the same person or team evolves to communicate on the customers’ terms. Existing team members need to learn to flex all the marketing muscle they have, and new joiners should be screened for their ability to remain agile and learn as responsibilities are tossed their way.
2. Agencies will still get involved, but when and where requires discipline. Having an external agency of record may not apply once the in-house team is built, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. If there is a need for a social agency, a TikTok influencer team or an SEO expert that is not in house for reasons of skill or speed, in-house teams should be able to call on a resource as needed. The question should not be, “do you do everything in-house or not,” but rather, “what portion of your marketing budget are spent on internal resources?”
3. Agencies aren’t always expensive, and in-house isn’t always faster. The time to bring resources in house is when the economics and output support it. Playing telephone with an external agency is a cost, whether it’s hard dollars or time. And, when the need for speed is limited by the search for available talent, agencies still represent a valid solution.
When in-house teams are established, they are often brought together based on skills the company is mature enough to manage and that are important enough to hold close. In the fast-moving world of marketing, the specific skills needed change quickly, whether it’s learning how to market on a new platform like TikTok, redoing plans based on the impact that cookie degradation will have on various levels of the funnel, or managing the approvals when there is no office culture in which to walk through creative output. Agencies know they need to keep pace to win (and rewin) business, but internal teams need to keep pace as well.
To keep in-house teams on top of their game, there are some things that can be managed with process, technology, and focus.
Recast the creative process to be digital-first. A digital-first attitude requires thinking about how consumers see messages in digital environments, not how to take a TV commercial and digitize it. As Brad Jakemen, former President of PepsiCo, has said of this new era, “Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000... Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2 million, it needs to cost $20,000.” Starting with a traditional approach is costly and less impactful than starting with a set of assets and using technology to create the on-brand assets needed, at scale, for each type of placement.
Identify ways that technology supports that process. Automation is a buzzword that over-simplifies the need to streamline operations. According to Forrester Research, agency demands for people will shrink as AI and automation push the boundaries of creativity by optimizing copy and dynamically compiling digital advertising. The same became true for media planning and buying. But for automation to really deliver, routine processes need to be remapped and technology must be realigned to drive efficiencies in the production process and collaboration with media.
Focus teams on their primary roles and away from mundane tasks. Creatives are hired to turn ideas into ads that drive business. Media teams are hired to analyze and assess audiences and placement opportunities. These experts have been drawn into the effort to produce and code ad units, a laborious part of the advertising supply chain. These expensive resources should not get bogged down. As in-house teams grow, they do best to allow people to focus on what they have been trained to do, and let technology do the rest.
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