In-House Agencies: Maybe The Grass Isn't Greener

Not too long ago, MediaPost Agency Daily’s Larissa Faw shared insights from a study by the In-House Agency Forum, a professional association for internal agencies IHAF and Forrester Research. As you can read from her excellent summary, in-house agencies have problems, too.

This should not really come as a surprise, of course, and it’s  a good reminder for marketers that moving “agency stuff” in-house is neither a magic bullet nor always the best solution. I have written about this before, but here are some of the myths that need dispelling.

1. It won’t solve for poor marketing management (media strategies, creative output). If you are thinking of moving agency services in-house because you believe your agencies “suck,”  I can tell you that they “suck” at least in part because your organization sucks some as well. 



Late briefings, vague briefings or constantly changing briefings are all reasons for your agency to deliver sucky work. If you don’t change your own ways, moving all or part of the agency in-house will not make things better. 

The study from IHAF/Forrester tells us that “42% of corporate marketers are unaware of what their in-house agency’s mission, purpose and/or objective is.” I don’t think these in-house agencies are set up for achieving great success.

2. In-house agencies put a major additional burden on your organization (process, people, systems). 

One of the biggest problems outlined in the IHAF/Forrester study is a lack of actual support for the in-housing organization, from lack of funding to insufficient or nonexistent career plans for its staff.

 A little over half of the respondents say their structure does not have adequate funding, while over 80% state they need to start planning for career moves for their staff over the next two years. 

This is something I cannot emphasize enough: Just as a puppy isn’t just for Christmas, an in-house agency structure is not just for now. Once you build it, you now have responsibility for its funding, its people and their careers and its tech until the day you retire, or your company decides to retire the in-house operation.

In-house agencies all report taking on a lot more people over the last few years, and having to resort to adding on external talent, especially for specialty roles (sourced from their agency pool or as independent contractors). 

The same needs to be considered for ad tech. Buying something today means it will be outdated tomorrow, especially in the digital media space. Keeping systems cutting-edge and tuned specifically for your needs takes time and money, in perpetuity.

It’s no wonder that many organizations opt for hybrid or white-labeled solutions as that alleviates at least some of the burden to keep up with the Joneses (who are, in the case, Facebook, Google, Amazon, the major agencies and consultancies).

You will also need an HR plan for the talent you have in house. If you have been successful in attracting talent, you will need to nurture, grow and incentivize them.

3. It is not necessarily cheaper. I think it’s clear from the previous point that moving marketing or advertising (partially) in-house is not necessarily cheaper. It isn’t right for everyone, and requires careful consideration, planning and evaluation. And that is true not just for the go/no-go decision to do it in the first place, but for the ongoing management and stewardship of the potential monster you are creating.

5 comments about "In-House Agencies: Maybe The Grass Isn't Greener".
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  1. Carole Walker from Integrity Marketing & Media LLC, February 21, 2020 at 1:37 p.m.

    I found it disturbing that "42% of corporate marketers are unaware of what their in-house agency’s mission, purpose and/or objective is". While new departments build teams by creating the final version of their mission/purpose/objectives, I am surprised these in-house agencies were approved for funding without aligning on at least an initial/good faith version of the departments' Mission, Purpose and Objectives?!

  2. David Adelman from OCD Media, February 21, 2020 at 2:02 p.m.

    I wrote about this issue just under a year ago. You can read my thoughts on this here: 

    I worked in an in-house group for five+ years and I left because there was no professional movement. 

  3. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, February 21, 2020 at 2:13 p.m.

    Incentives to prevent fraud outside of in house dont really exist.  Every fraudulent impression makes money for everyone but the advertiser.  Can the advertiser do a good job of taking care of this themselves?  At least there is incentive to do so.

  4. David Kohlberg from Varick, February 21, 2020 at 2:33 p.m.

    I agree 100%. I have seen first-hand companies stop running what has been successful in acquiring new customers to try to take it in-house and use a new strategy. There are many reasons, such as the team trying to show that they can do it better and management needs to show that they know better. I guess no risk, no reward, but not in this case. GOOD LUCK!

  5. Marta Stiglin from Stiglin Consulting replied, February 27, 2020 at 9:01 a.m.

    Hi Carole. The IHAF study indicates that 42% of corporate marketers are UNAWARE of their IHA’s mission, purpose and/or objective, not that it doesn’t exist. There is a communication gap between IHAs and their clients, indicating that IHAs would benefit by socializing their mission internally and corporate marketers would benefit by taking gaining a deeper understanding of the IHA’s reason for being. Increased awareness and alignment among the two is essential in order to optimize their potential as partners.

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