George Parker: confessions of an in-house creative

Why am I not surprised to read that the number of marketers with in-house agencies has grown sharply over the past five years, according to a new study from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA -featured in last week’s MAA.) In fact, more than three quarters of these marketeers have some form of in-house agency.

And yet, the idea of an in-house agency is not exactly new, the first was Lintas, founded as the in-house agency for soap maker Lever Brothers in 1899 and it only became independent after a merger created parent company Unilever. What remains of it now exists in India as MullenLowe Lintas Group, a subsidiary of holding company Interpublic’s Dark Star Empire.

So, why the current explosion of in-house operations, rather than using independent agencies? Simple really, ‘cos most of the advertising produced these days is shit, wherever it is produced, and whatever it might be, digital, social, experiential, phantasmagorical, whatever. Plus, if you’re dumb enough to use an outside agency, twenty percent of the money you pay them goes directly to their holding company to pay for their executive’s “expenses” such as yachts, mansions in the Hamptons, and excursions in Shepherd Market.

I can remember when working full time at an in-house agency was the kiss of death. It meant you didn’t have the stuff to get a “proper” job in an agency. It also meant that the person you presented your work to was also the person who signed your salary check, so the last thing you wanted to do was piss them off. Having said that, I’ll admit that I freelanced for a while for Borland’s (the now defunct Silicon Valley software company) in-house agency. The work was fucking dismal, but I made a shitload of money. Yes, I am an AdHo!

Borland was owned and run by Frenchman Philippe Kahn (above), a Silicon Valley legend in his own time. I worked with him when he was founder, Chairman and CEO of software company, Borland International. In common with far too many of the CEO’s I’ve worked with in high tech companies, he considered himself to be some kind of twentieth century reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci. ‘Cos, this was a guy capable of everything from software development, to music creation and performance, to “Master & Commander” sailing ability, to painting, to spinning twelve dinner plates on a stick while solving Fermat’s Last Theorem on his etch-a-sketch.

In other words, Philippe was a classic Silicon Valley CEO. What you have to understand is that when he first founded Borland, not only was Philippe on a tourist visa, he was broke. So, when he did his first tiny ads in such esoteric publications as Dr. Dobbs, The Software Bugle, and Programming Development for Dickwads, he had to do them himself, as he couldn’t afford an ad agency. Consequently, when he sold a shitload of software, he quickly realized he was an ad genius and didn’t need no stinkin’ ad agency.

This is why Borland’s developed an in-house advertising agency capable of producing some of the most mind-numbingly horrendous advertising you have ever seen… But, they paid really well, and I only lived about a mile away. So, as I’ve said, being an AdHo… It was, for me, a marvellous arrangement.

Meetings with Philippe took place in the giant conference room adjacent to his giant office. Present would be myself and a couple of people from the in-house agency. There would also be about a dozen of Philippe’s henchmen; who did exactly what, I have no idea, except perhaps to reinforce Philippe’s conviction that he could walk on water!

During one memorable meeting we were discussing the launch of a series of videotapes (remember those?) that would demonstrate for developers the various product benefits of the language products. Some wanker in the in-house agency had come up with a graphic on the opening screen shot that was a human eye. Don’t ask me why, just assume that it makes as much sense as anything else in the most fucked up business in the world. Anyway, after looking at this for a couple of minutes, Philippe silenced the chatter with a wave of his Gallic hand and announced… “I have an idea!”

The room fell silent and all the “Henchmen” leaned forward in expectation. After a suitable pregnant pause, he said, “Why don’t we make the eye wink?” There was a pause, and then the “Henchmen” whooped, jumped up and down, and started high five-ing each other. Believe me, I swear to God I am not making this shit up. I looked at one of the in-house agency guys; he gave a faint smile and shrugged his shoulders. Apparently, this was par for the course. So, obviously, we made the eye wink.

Welcome to the world of in-house.

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