Insights on Management

The Changing Relationship Between In-House and Outside Agencies


The Rise of In-House Creative Teams and the Gig Economy

There has been a shift of power – creatively speaking – regarding who “owns” brand and creative in corporate America. There was a time when anyone but the internal creative teams did new creative work or managed the outside creative agencies. However, for many years now, some of the best creative work has come from in-house creative teams. And over the last 20 years or so, we have seen our creative industry disrupted by the growth of both in-house teams and the “gig” economy. The truth is that whether you work in-house, for an outside agency, or as a freelancer this is a great time to be in the creative field.

It wasn’t too long ago that being an in-house creative meant you were considered a second-class citizen. Most “real creative pros” aspired to work for (or own) agencies, or so we assumed. Then a few years ago, AIGA produced a report from a survey that showed 60% of designers in the U.S. actually considered themselves to be in-house. If this was true, then it demonstrated that the shift in our field had tipped the balance in favor of working in-house. At the same time, we’ve seen the so-called “gig” economy emerge with a growth of freelance consulting and the re-emergence of practice specialization in smaller agencies.

The Growing Importance of In-House Creative Talent

So, with some of the best creative work in design, advertising, photography, and video coming from in-house teams, the shift to corporations leveraging their in-house talent is happening more than ever. Since InSource was founded in 2003 we’ve been watching the trends and seeing how in-house has been growing. When we say “in-house is growing,” we don’t just mean that in-house teams are growing per se. In fact, many teams are about the same size now as they have been for the last few years. No, when we say in-house is growing, we mean to say that our accountability to the companies we work for, and the responsibility to the brands we serve, is greater now – and increasing – more than ever before.

From my perspective, in-house is really just coming of age. We’re finding our stride, and the rest of the industry is settling into a new operating model. More accountability naturally means more projects of all kinds are coming our way, but without an increased headcount, how is it going to get done? We’re going to have to send it out.

In-House Creatives as Managers and Partners of Outside Agencies

That’s not really new information. Work has been sent out for ages in our field. However, outside agencies were once managed without the involvement of in-house creative counterparts. Now in-house creative groups are tasked with managing those same outside agency relationships. The very same agencies we used to view as our competitors are now under our management and oversight. In this new era, we see the in-house creative leader partnering with the outside agency creative leader more often than we ever did in the past.This shift in accountability to in-house teams also brings a shift in the division of labor too. As more in-house teams increase their creative operations – capabilities, they find that if is often more effective (and less costly) to assign work out to smaller, specialized, and more nimble studios and freelance resources. As such, large agencies are finding the need to change their models too, in order to better support and partner with their in-house counterpart/clients. Any agency – in-house or outside – that isn’t adapting to the new model our industry appears to be settling into is going to find themselves facing greater challenges. It’s no longer us vs. them, in-house vs. outside agencies. The brands that win will have strong partnerships between in-house and outside creative teams.

So look at your model and ask yourself, is this working? Are we partnering with outside the right resources – creative or production – effectively to do the best work possible on behalf of the business? Is our operating model right? Are we managing the relationship to our best advantage?

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