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Avoiding the insularity trap of building an in-house agency

According to the In-House Agency Forum (IHAF), 78% of organizations surveyed have built some form of in-house agency team (up 28% from 5 years ago). However, some of them are finding that in-house agencies get caught up in red tape. Here's how to avoid this trap.

Red Tape on Businessman

One of the trends of the past 10 years has been towards organizations building in-house agencies. Born out of frustration with excessive fees, limited scopes of work, and a lack of familiarity for the intricacies of their unique business problems, companies looked at the books and thought, “Hey, for the amount I’m spending on these external agencies, I can hire a full-service team of experts in-house!”

The idea was that the in-house agency (IHA) would be able to integrate more intimately with the overall business goals and could be more nimble and move faster from within…all without nickel and diming the organization. The thesis is solid, but there is a catch:

The in-house agency can become trapped in the insularity that plagues many organizations, leading to less agility and stifled creativity.

In an article published recently on CampaignLive, Marta Stigland, an in-house expert and consultant, shared her experience:

“While IHAs may be enabled by institutional knowledge, proximity and creative prowess, they are simultaneously stymied by operating practices and decision-making hierarchies that limit their ability to contribute more fully.” (emphasis mine)

As the article suggests, this can be avoided by creating autonomy for the IHA and demanding the same level of rigor in scoping, planning and implementing projects. Many of these IHA’s are also recruiting from external agencies (and even working in a smaller capacity with external agencies) to bring non-corporate ideas in-house.

So, while having an IHA is a great way to ensure that the marketing aligns closer to the overall business strategy, it needs to be balanced with external perspectives can bring fresh insights and contrarian thinking that shine a light on processes that may be holding back an internal team who “have always done things this way.” 

External perspectives can bring fresh insights and contrarian thinking that shine a light on processes that may be holding back an internal team who “have always done things this way.”

The power of the hybrid model

Just as provincialism is an outcome of social groups not opening up to interactions with outsiders, the same inward-thinking can happen to organizations that cut off any external interactions.

This provincialism can lead to stale outputs and, worse, a myopic lack of self-reflection that could miss out on trends and competition that could disrupt the business. By looking inwards, you may not notice the disruption until it’s too late to recover. If there’s anything that you should be paying an agency or external consultants to do, it’s to be your canaries in the proverbial coal mine.

If there’s anything that you should be paying an agency or external consultants to do, it’s to be your canaries in the proverbial coal mine.

In this capacity, their distanced proximity to the business is an advantage, not a hindrance. They should be told enough to understand the direction, goals, and capabilities of the business, but should never be told to be a cheerleader or sycophant.

In the hybrid model, the team generally looks like this:

  1. Strategic oversight – in-house agency
  2. Research + strategic planning – external agency/consultants (with in-house agency collaborations on planning)
  3. Training + guidance – external agency/consultants
  4. Day-to-day management of the programs – in-house agency
  5. Reporting and analysis – external agency/consultants AND in-house agency (sharing data)

This hybrid team needs to be completely in-step with one another – sharing information and teaching one another along the way. The IHA needs to communicate openly with the external agency and make sure they are as knowledgeable about the business direction, goals and capabilities as possible, and the external agency needs to transfer as much knowledge as they have (research, training materials, planning tools) to the IHA.

Process makes perfect

This is easier said than done, however, this is where communications and process can pave the way for a great collaboration. To make this work you need to:

#1. COMMUNICATE REGULARLY

To make this work, weekly sharing meetings and a day-to-day communication platform (like Slack or MS Teams) where quick updates, questions, and insights can be posted are necessary tools. A lightweight tool (NOT email) will help you keep in touch ambiently and allow all parties to share more openly and having ongoing conversations in a shared channel serves to keep the entire team in the loop.

#2. AGREE ON PROCESSES (and stick to them)

Solid processes are also your friend, and any tools or spreadsheets or documents used should be collaborative and accessible by all. This can sometimes be hampered by IT departments in large organizations (we’ve encountered many aversions to using something like Google Drive or openness to including external teams on OneDrive), but sending working .docx or .xlsx files back and forth over email can (and will) turn into a nightmare scenario.

#3. SET DOWN ROLES/RESPONSIBILITIES

Clear assignments and quick turnarounds will speed up any project. Making sure the roles for each team member are well defined and communicated will also prevent confusion (“who was responsible for that?” or “I already did that thing!”). You can use a project management tool to tie roles and responsibilities to the overall timeline – we use Asana, which shows a calendar view – so that everyone can know how their role affects the overall project. We also use something called a Green Yellow Red Report, planned around 13-week sprints to keep everyone on track.

Whatever tools or processes you use, make sure that you have these topline questions answered: How are we going to communicate? Where and how are we going to collaborate? And who does what when?

The real challenge of building an effective in-house agency: nobody to blame!

The reality is that building an agency, whether in-house or in-general, is challenging. You will face challenges with talent recruitment and retention, staying on top of the ever-changing landscape of marketing, balancing audience needs with brand rules, keeping on time and budget, being innovative while mitigating risks…the list goes on. 

Here is the rub: this all used to be outsourced! Organizations paid their agencies to fret over this stuff (and take the fall when something didn’t work out).

Organizations used to pay agencies to fret over the minutia of talent acquisition and retention, staying on top of marketing trends, balancing audience needs with brand rules, and staying on time and budget…but they are bringing that in-house, too!

By bringing the agency in-house, companies get to experience these challenges first-hand and, potentially, have some empathy for what their agency partners were up against. That being said, nobody (and everybody) was “to blame” for the break-down in communications that led to the in-housing revolution.

You don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Agencies can still play a crucial role in this new landscape. They can help you navigate through all of those aforementioned challenges…and still stake a bit of the fall when you need them to. 😉

And, if you are completely set on cutting-off external agencies altogether, you can always try Phlywheel (we’ve developed tools for in-house teams and are working on a membership product that you can get into the free beta for by filling out the form). It won’t completely replace the expertise of your agency, but it may help your in-house team stay fresh and strategic!

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