Commentary

Marketers Can Learn A Lot From In-House Agency Debate

I come from IT. I never thought I’d ever work for an advertising agency, let alone spend the last 20 years at one.

Back in the early '90s, the firm I was with played the role of a hired gun, brought in by IT organizations to help with specific business problems. One of our first ideas was to use an early version of Mosaic (one of the first web browsers) to allow Macintosh and Windows PC’s to share information. I was told by the then CIO, it might have been a year or more before that solution would have come to fruition if left to their internal teams.

IT departments are typically busy running the operation, focusing on risk management, and whatever else necessary to keep the business humming. Realizing early they couldn’t possess all of the expertise in-house to handle every challenge, they focused on core areas of the business, and got great at partner management to deliver the rest. That’s a model that, for the most part, still exists and works today.

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It must be tempting to go down the route of building a robust internal agency. Surely in-house talent can get things done faster and cheaper — right? Perhaps. But what about innovation? What about the overhead required to manage an internal marketing entity? There are many reasons, in my opinion, not to go down the path of keeping everything in-house.

Alternatively, not everyone has abandoned the “agency of record” model. You’ll still see the occasional pitch where the client looks for a one-stop shop. And while selfishly I wish those days were here to stay, the reality is these arrangements are less common than ever. Even companies outsourcing 100% of their marketing rarely partner with one agency. The drawback is clear: maintaining brand continuity is much tougher without at least some internal marketing function.

I contend the best way forward is a blended approach. How can I be so sure neither of the “extreme” models work?

  • I’ve never seen the best creatives go to the client side and stay. I just haven’t.
  • Agencies are hungrier to consistently create “big” ideas. It’s germane to their existence.
  • Agencies struggle to create great work for themselves. I surmise the best in-house agencies will struggle for similar reasons.

At this point, I’ll likely never be back on the “client side.” But if I were, I wouldn’t outsource all marketing. And I wouldn’t be so naïve to try to build it all in-house. I’d create a hybrid by doing these things:

  • I’d own the business side of strategic planning. But I’d leverage my partners to move me away from a myopic viewpoint and stay focused on marketing innovation.
  • I’d own my data (but I’d proactively share it where it made sense — like allowing my agency to use it to find a data-driven insight).
  • I’d hire the best executors for the things we need most often to drive down costs. But I’d find best-in-breed agency partners for high value executions.
  • I’d test and learn in-house, then leverage expert media buying agencies to elevate the ideas.

It’s hard for companies to sustain an innovative approach to the business each year, without looking to the outside for help. While most can eventually build an internal function meeting many needs, agencies are great at forging innovative partnerships at scale. Finding a best-of-both-worlds approach seems the way to go.

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