Given the trend of moving creative in-house, plus the iterative nature of product work, how can agency & client teams work better together?

One recent trend within marketing has been for larger companies to bring more and more services in-house that were previously handled by their agencies.

Recent articles in Strategy and AdWeek go into this in more detail, with some eye-popping stats such as:

  • 78% of ANA members having an in-house shop
  • This is up 42% from a decade ago
  • 91% of ANA members handle digital media in-house, and 85% handle strategy & creative

While those articles focus on marketing, not product, there’s an easy parallel to the product design and development world, where directly hiring designers, product managers, and engineers has been the de-facto way to go for decades.

Far from worrying ourselves to death over these trends, we actually welcome them.

Historically, ad agencies, brand design studios, and software development shops existed to provide expert guidance on, and then execute the living daylights out of, the work.

But within software, development was always a key function of not just tech startups and internet companies, but over time, legacy corporations as well. While certain aspects (such as better practices around user experience design) have needed to catch up, we’re at the point now where design has a key seat at the table, product management is an established field across industries, development and engineering are virtually always in-house hiring decisions — and marketing is increasingly being thought of from day one.

This context starts to pose the question for those who are making key staffing decisions but can’t quite afford to make every hire they would like to: How can an agency augment the team without taking away from the product or brand vision, or costing an arm and a leg?

Regardless of the problem or scope, for clients who have an in-house marketing or engineering culture that includes day-to-day executional work, we’ve found there are two engagement models that work best:

  • A “Steer the Ship” method that tasks the agency with tackling something larger with a team of people who would not otherwise be needed by a company all the time, such as a rebrand, a site launch, or a major ad campaign
  • A “Build the Practice” engagement where an agency sets up the evergreen practices and builds momentum for aspects of marketing or product design and development, with the long-term objective of handing over responsibilities to the in-house team

It’s not an exact science, and every engagement will look different for every client. But to help illustrate how these can look in the real world, we’ve outlined a few examples below.

Product + Design

A product or design agency can bring a suite of services together — say, UX and Visual Design, Content Strategy, and Copy as one “bucket” of services — more cohesively, cost-effectively, and with a higher level of experience and talent than could likely be hired all at once.

This setup works well in situations such as a standalone project to help ship an early-stage MVP, or exploring a new product direction that would take too many resources away from the day-to-day team.

Alternatively, an agency can fill in some specific gaps — for example, just UX/UI Design or Content Design — to supplement the in-house engineering or product teams on a more ongoing basis. This can work well when the revenue or funding simply isn’t there to hire a full-time team yet, particularly if more seasoned talent is required. The goal of this setup would be to help innovative and grow the product to the point where there is enough funding or revenue to allow the hiring of a full-time team that can bring comparable or greater value.

Marketing & Advertising

There are far too many niches and specialties within marketing to get into them in detail in the scope of this edition, but as soon as your company has one or several marketers, a creative agency can offer benefits in the same couple of ways:

  • “Steer the Ship” strategy or campaign work to either establish or evolve the brand, or promote key products or services in more of a campaign situation. This has often been the purview of advertising agencies or brand design firms, and can work as one-offs or as a series of ongoing campaign engagements.
  • A “Build the Practice” engagement, similar to with Product, where the agency helps establish the ongoing practices and capabilities for key evergreen areas such as search, social, email, direct mail, and other less one-off-campaign oriented work.

The Path Forward

AORs are no longer a relevant model for large swaths of the industry, especially for start-ups and smaller firms— and that’s a good thing.

There’s no need, nor is there a particular desire (at least from us), for one agency to “own” all the work. We believe in spending our clients’ marketing or design/development dollars in the most effective way possible and sometimes that takes better shape as strategic advice and guidance than in executing every individual piece of work.

Agencies work best because we’re consultants who happen to be killer at execution (see our post “The Blend”), and embracing that dynamic can go a long way to creating an effective partnership that’s focused on the actual goal: what your customers and users are looking to buy from you.