Big brands are bringing work in house. They’re serious this time

I know. I know. We’ve seen it before.

Historically, clients bring work in-house, build up their internal creative services, then the pendulum swings back to the agency side because we’re respected for our thoughtful perspective. We likely understand the media channels a little better, and all the blah, blah, blah reasons we both hear from clients and tell ourselves in an effort to maintain our perceived value.

Well, this time is a little different.

In our own backyard, Amazon hired my friend and former WONGDOODY co-worker, Michael Boychuk, to run its in-house agency. Big deal? Add their video and design teams to their creative department and they just might be bigger than all this year’s ADDY-award-winning agency creative departments. Combined. Minus some help from an overnight script or two, Amazon teamed directly with a production company to make all its own Super Bowl spots (see frame above). Kind of a big deal.

Then there’s my friend and neighbor, Ben Steele, who worked at Copacino+ Fujikado and another shop or two before becoming CCO at REI and helping take #OptOutside to global recognition.

Another former WONGDOODY-ite and co-worker, Tor Myhren, is running Apple’s marketing. Yes, that Apple. It’s a shot across the bow for agencies that rely on big clients as their bell cows. There is no longer a stigma in going client-side like there used to be. It’s not just a bunch of in-house hacks anymore. In fact, it’s where you’ll find some of the better jobs.

Why? I see a couple of reasons.

First, and across the board, in-house creative departments can get work produced in the same amount of time it takes most agencies to set up a conference call. Then, those same in-house creative departments get their product in front of potential customers before most agencies can generate a statement of work. It doesn’t bode well for the way those “most agencies” do business.

Digital platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, largely are driving the change to in-house resources on the client side. The bias of the technology, as we all know, is speed: Think, compose, post and repeat.

In many instances, internal teams for these platforms make perfect sense—why have your creative agency, which excels at creating out-of-the-box thinking, be charged with addressing product-complaint trolls at scale. At probably three times the cost?


Secondly, and this is a big one, the demand for content is high and the consumer expectation for content quality is all but gone. Sour grapes? Maybe. But look at media reality for a second. Over the past 15 years, the vast majority of our personal content experience shifted from cinematic production to Facebook posts, YouTube videos and reality shows.

Technology has put an HD camera in our pockets at all times, and nearly limitless outlets allow us to share blurry birthday cakes and ants on a soccer field. It’s life. We’ve seen a terrific resurgence in TV production value with new-to the-game providers, like Netflix and—ahem—Amazon. But those recent and wonderful spectacles are few and far between.

Finally, as my friend Ted Leonhardt also points out, the marketing landscape has totally changed. Why would a company spend a million dollars in production on something it can’t guarantee will get that return on investment, unless they buy some air time on a football Sunday in early February?

Clients can’t possibly show it everywhere, and content has a minuscule half-life. They just don’t need to make big-money bets on production and media costs with agencies like they used to make.

Though all mediums are effected, let’s look at the digital space for a second. For our agency, new opportunities are found in taking analytics and developing creative around needs revealed by using social-media listening tools.

We’re eagerly looking at every opportunity to make a creative brand impression. For others, like our neighbors W&K in Portland, it means mind-boggling and massive-response production and consumer brand immersion. Teams actively sitting in rooms with clients during Super Bowls and Oscars, using both immediately original and pre-created content to respond to customer engagement.

For agencies and clients to survive and thrive together with social-media platforms, for example, it takes a mutually accepted framework, developed to separate the value (and measurement yardstick) of a customer complaint tweet and a $500k video-documentary series.

We can’t bucket those things together as “social.” Because the bias of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is speed (i.e., easily forgotten and fast), it’s precisely why that quality documentary series can be so disruptive.

Furthermore, the key to developing a framework between agency and client is to view it as a collaboration, rather than a one-size-fits-all agency methodology. To win on “social,” we first have to win with our mutual language.

Clients are saying all the right things these days. And they clearly don’t have it all figured out on their end (See: Jenner, Kendall). As an industry, we need to be proactively collaborative and generate solutions with ideas that other people—in-house or otherwise—simply cannot.

Countless studies show that consumers still buy brands over products the majority of the time. The point is, companies are serious this time about building in-house agencies. We, the industry, must be serious, too, about how we seek to redefine and represent the value we bring.

 By_Cal McAllister 


Cal McAllister is CEO and Executive Creative Director at Wexley School for Girls.


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