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Corporations' Creative Groups Are Thriving. Why?

Corporations are building high-quality, in-house design and advertising groups like never before. The In-House Agency Forum, founded in 2005 to provide connections and community for in-house creative groups, now has over 250 member companies. 

Corporate in-house creative groups provide services internally and, sometimes, to external clients. Successfully nurturing talent inside giant corporations is more challenging than in small creative groups yet outstanding work is coming out of seemingly unlikely places like Amazon and Fidelity.

Why are corporations going in-house?

Traditionally, in-house design/advertising groups have been viewed by creatives as producing work that is lower in quality than that of independent agencies. That has changed for several reasons:

  • Quality. Apple, Nike, Starbucks, and others have shown corporate leaders that quality, in-house creative groups can make a significant contribution to corporate success and the bottom line. 
  • Speed. Corporations need products and advertising concepts developed faster. A direct connection between talent and the corporation’s internal product and marketing teams speeds the process.
  • Security. The work of in-house creatives predicts the corporation’s future and provides significant insights that competitors would love to have. 
  • Strategic planning. Design thinking has become a strategic part of corporate planning. Creatives play an important role in shaping success through contributions to the planning process.
  • Money. Corporations attract talent by paying higher salaries and more extensive benefits packages than outside agencies while saving money by avoiding agency markups. 

The result is that internally produced design and advertising is becoming the new corporate norm. Some other considerations include:

Does the size of the corporation affect creativity?

Creatives do their best work in small groups where they feel known and appreciated. The corporation can have hundreds of thousands of employees, but if the creative group is small, company size isn’t an issue. 

What makes being creative difficult in a corporate environment?

Empathy is how the work connects with people. Creatives are motivated by the work and less by the money. Problems occur when creative teams are treated like a service versus a stakeholder. When creatives feel their work contributes to the organization’s higher purpose, they are motivated.

How does a corporation manage hierarchy and veto power in a way that encourages creative groups?

It must be clear to all that managers are making decisions that further the higher purpose of the organization and respect the contributions of creatives. When this is the case, veto power and hierarchy are respected. 

How can managers nurture creativity in a traditional corporate environment?  

Set creative standards and encourage the best possible outcome. Listen to the concerns of the creative team and corporate clients and respond with work that addresses the needs of all.

Are mentors helpful in a corporate environment?

Creatives benefit enormously from coaching a mentor can provide. Creatives often get caught in self-destructive thought loops that, without the help of coaching, are hard, if not impossible, to escape. 

What draws creatives to in-house groups?

Better pay and benefits. But that’s not the only reason. Creatives identify strongly with causes they believe in. Giving back to farmers as Starbucks does or supporting humanistic causes as Apple does are big draws. An in-house designer for MoMA was recently quoted in AIGA’s Eye On Design: “We’d rather sell Picasso tickets than Nike shoes.” 

Does the growth of in-house groups spell the end for design and advertising consultancies? 

Not the end, but it limits the future of outside creative groups who don’t offer significant value. Consultancies owned by holding companies, whose sole purpose is profits for shareholders, are being especially hard hit by the growth of in-house agencies. Talent is leaving agencies for better-paying in-house positions with more creative freedom so in-house employment of creatives is growing strongly.

Frankly, it’s never made sense to turn creative groups into financial instruments. Creatives are motivated by the work, not the money. So if the products, services and communications they create help their company grow and they get a fair share of the money and respect, everyone wins.

1 comment about "Corporations' Creative Groups Are Thriving. Why?".
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  1. Marta Stiglin from Stiglin Consulting, June 15, 2017 at 8:48 a.m.

    Thanks for the article, Ted. As you noted, there are a number of upsides to adopting the in-house model: time and cost savings, quality control, brand integration, institutional knowledge, not to mention a dedicated team. One of the leading advantages is that internal agencies have unlimited opportunities to listen and learn from within, which is harder to do from an external firm. Thanks, too, for mentioning the In-House Agency Forum. As one of its founding members and a longtime consultant in this space, I can attest that IHAF is an invaluable resource -- a community of internal agencies that shares, networks, and grows together. I encourage others to check them out, ihaform.org.

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