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We Are Great…But We Can Be Better

In a post last fall on the forbes.com site, Michael Lee posed a critical question for corporate creative groups in the title of his piece: “Can in-house agencies ever be great?” The assertion, or rather assumption, implicit in his query is that in-house agencies have yet to be great. I believe Michael’s proposition is both true and false.

Some of the data included in the article based on a recent ANA in-house study clearly contradicts Michael’s take on reality. The percentage of corporate clients using in-house teams jumped from 42% to 60% between 2008 and 2013. 56% have actively moved projects that had gone to agencies over to their internal creative services group, and 40% have brought creative strategy, traditionally perceived as a weak spot of in-house teams, into their corporate creative departments. This type of client migration from agencies and design firms to in-house doesn’t occur unless there has been significant improvement in the quality of creative deliverables and accompanying customer service—two hallmarks of greatness in the context of creative services.

Other clear signs of the rise of in-house teams approaching greatness include:

  • A greater share of the industry awards pie
  • An ever-increasing number of industry thought leaders coming from the in-house ranks
  • Serious focus on the integration of design thinking being spearheaded by internal creative teams
  • Increased engagement by the in-house team in corporate strategy and in the management of outside creative resources

Yet even with these successes, there are critical opportunities to achieve greatness in the context of providing value that in-house groups as a whole have yet to capitalize on. I’d assert that in-house teams have yet to effectively and seriously implement strategies targeting the enhancement of operational and organizational efficiencies. Most teams have organically and reactively responded to the immediate business needs of their companies by creating ad hoc infrastructure and staffing solutions.

The proof is in the lack of SOPs, poor digital and content management practices, and nonexistent file naming and archiving conventions that exist within many internal groups. Even more telling is the dysfunctional array of poor project management solutions, or rather non-solutions, in play for many corporate creative teams where designers and other functional staff are often taking on those responsibilities with questionable results. I’ve seen little emphasis or expertise in the area of metrics on the part of in-house teams. This results in an inability to provide data-driven adaptive strategies that might better drive hiring and restructuring decisions that would position internal departments to better meet the creative business needs of their clients.

Finally, there is one overriding gap that if not bridged will forever block an in-house team from greatness: the lack of a well-crafted and implemented business plan. Without the clear vision, goals and accompanying strategies and tactics housed in such a plan, internal creative teams are doomed to a reactionary, chaotic existence where those teams will be forever putting out fires, rendering them incapable of strategically positioning themselves to best service the companies that host them. Until in-house leaders take hold of their own business destinies in the form of strategically-driven planning, true greatness will prove to be an elusive and frustratingly out-of-reach goal.


Andy Epstein

Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.