Oliver CEO Sharon Whale: how clients can avoid becoming inmates of in-housing

It’s been quite the journey. In-housing still isn’t understood in the way I’d like, but there’s no denying it’s become a valuable, mainstream marketing operation today. Household names have adopted the practice in recent years – the likes of Sky and Airbnb have built dedicated in-house offerings – and industry honchos as respected as former Unilever CMO Keith Weed have come out singing its praises.

And that’s why this recent report from the Data and Marketing Association surprised me. A couple of lines into the Executive Summary, and the landscape doesn’t look great: 37 per cent of marketers feel in-housing leaves them trapped in an echo-chamber with no outside perspective to innovate; the same percentage think too many people are involved, with no clear process; and only 27 per cent believe creativity has been improved as a result of in-housing.

I’m well aware of the challenges marketers face when bringing their creative operations in-house, but these stats shocked me. As I read more, however, I realised it wasn’t necessarily in-housing that was the problem. It’s marketers’ expectations of the model – its benefits as well as its limitations.

37 per cent of marketers feel in-housing leaves them trapped in an echo-chamber with no outside perspective to innovate. Not a stat you want to see when you work at a company that builds in-house agencies for brands. But the worry of isolation does come up every now and again. The reason for this is relatively simple: teams are isolated – but only when the process, model and service is substandard.

In-housing has many different models. The echo-chamber effect often happens when brands build in-house teams themselves, because an external “hub” of skills, fresh ideas and innovation is never built to support the model. Perspective and creativity can become insular. Clients will be the first to admit that they lack the time and know-how to setup an in-house agency in the way that they’d like to, which is why they need this constant tether to the outside world.

And it’s not only the brands that lack this external hub of inspiration and specialism – many in-house agency providers do, too. They often assemble teams, put them inside a brand and wait for the magic to happen. There is no pre-consultation, no ongoing support and education, no plan for growth and no way of bringing the outside in for the long-term. The brand’s expectation is (and understandably) set on the path of ‘quick-win.’ This expectation can’t be fulfilled by the in-house team, and shouldn’t be. In-house teams need external support, and brands need to work to create a bespoke partnership that solves their needs as they arise.

The biggest quick-win expectation is that of cost. Sure, over time, in-housing can help reduce marketing budgets without reducing quality and quantity of output. But there are bigger picture benefits too. In-housing can actually help the brand to futureproof.

Coming back to Keith Weed, he often cites a time in the industry where it was passable to use data that was three months old. Today, creative teams are expected to engage in real-time, with first-party data, at scale. In order to be fit for the future, brands need to adapt to changes driven by the increase in technology. At the same time, they need to make the lives of their marketers simpler. Traditional, external-only models aren’t always able to access the brand at this deeper level in order to achieve this. In-house teams are.

When done right, it allows clients to become more involved in the creative process and more effective in their day jobs. In-housing frees them up to do what they need to do, whilst remaining plugged-in to the development of key campaigns. My point being: the model is not supposed to isolate, least of all suffocate, teams. The model just needs the right infrastructure, technology and expertise.

37 per cent feel too many people are involved with no clear process. This links back to the previous point. Today, brands need more content across more channels, more often and with more potential for engagement than ever before. And that process can become congested if not handled properly – it requires a bespoke solution and team of experts that’s built for the task at hand. If a brand’s process is slowing them up, they will fall behind their competitors. Process is key, but it’s also the hardest thing to optimise, whether with an in-house or traditional agency.

I do not believe that in-housing is the cause of poor process. It’s all about how you set-up the relationship at the start.

Brands need to be onboarded properly. Workflow processes must be established early on; streamlining people and technology is critical; as is solution design, in order to map processes already embedded in the brand. It is the marriage of two tribes, and the in-house team either has to establish new ways of working, or complement existing operations. Either way, it’s all about dialogue, taking a long-term view and having a joint strategy in order to reap rewards.

But this one’s the real kicker: only 27 per cent believe creativity has been improved by in-housing.

Creativity is about breadth as much as it is about depth. Over the past fifteen years, OLIVER’s been put forwards for countless industry-specific awards alongside Cannes Lions; we won three golds at the DMAs in 2018, and are frequently shortlisted for the industry’s best accolades. This happened because we have great talent, of course. But also because we know our clients and are in it for the long-haul.

So my question is: who, or what, are in-house agencies being compared to when it comes to creativity?

My feeling is that this is a broader issue. The agency landscape is vast and convoluted, and in-house teams often work with a brand’s full roster of creative agencies to chaperone and craft campaigns. Any deficit in creativity cannot be down to the in-house agency alone.

If creativity can’t be canned, then it can’t be limited to types of agency either. Internal or external, creativity happens when nurtured, given the right support (external hubs of expertise as well as access to technology), and the right process. Again, it comes back to the brand and in-house agency working in tight partnership towards a common goal.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, in-housing is a relatively new way of working – and we all know it takes a long time to get really good at something new. Much like an iPod from fifteen years ago won’t work as well as its 2019 equivalent, the OLIVER from 2004 couldn’t keep up today. Because we iterated, failed, improved, tested, failed, improved, then improved some more.

Each brand is different, therefore its needs from in-housing are different. But, after fifteen years’ worth of learning what to do and not to do when setting up in-house teams, I can confidently say that we often ask the wrong questions. Instead of asking ‘to in-house or not to in-house?’, we should ask: ‘Why are we looking to change our model in the first place?’

Without clarity, it’s easy to see why some brands feel like inmates of in-housing rather than a victor in this new marketing landscape.

Sharon Whale is UK Group CEO at in-house company Oliver.

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