In-House or Agency?

First off, there’s this article that’s been making the rounds:

Regardless of your opinions of the specific ads or of either Apple or TBWA\Chiat\etc. it brings up the age old question of which creative functions should be done in-house and which are best served by third party agencies?

But before I go off on that particular line of thought, I did want to ask a few pointed questions that weren’t addressed by the article or supporting links: Why did Apple want to “have greater control on their advertising strategies?” In what way did they think their agency was failing them after so many years of successes? Was it purely an efficiency move? I doubt that was the only reason… And WHY COULDN’T THEY TALK TO THEIR AGENCY – who is the boss of whom here?

Having been on both sides of the fence (agency vs in-house / marketing vs product design) and most recently from an in-house department that evaluated creative work from agencies, I can say with some personal certainty that where the relationship almost always breaks down between a business and an agency is when one side starts to think they can do the other’s job and that usually happens because either one side isn’t sharing enough helpful information/insight/business priorities/etc. and/or the other side refuses to listen any more.

Yes, there are some shit agencies out there and yes, there are some really jackassy clients, but most of these perspectives really come out of one side not knowing what’s driving the other – yes, money, but there is usually something secondary and often times intrinsically self serving. (e.g. An agency focusing on getting Cannes Lions; a client looking to impress internally by pushing into new markets or platforms the agency he/she is working with might not have experience in, yet.)

But getting back to the subject at hand – to agency or to in-house?

Tough one, but here are my lists for when and why for both…

Best Done In-House (enterprise level company or larger):
1. Quick turn-around on product design/development on a larger, multi-product websites
2. Rolling out packaging or environmental design once an overall style is established (e.g. Own-brand labeling/packaging for grocery stores)
3. Full articulation of brand design style guides for all relevant platforms / channels in the company
4. Product/service specific innovation labs
5. Merchandising/deals, below-the-line advertising that is frequent and constant in its objectives
6. Any design maintenance or upkeep that is based on solid brand style guides
7. Initial creative concepts, directions, rough designs for brand or product design

Best to Done by Third Party Agencies:
1. Logo design, fully rationalised branding systems, top level branding strategy and design direction (in close collaboration with client creative team)
2. Ad campaigns (especially brand launch concepts) and individual promotion environmental design
3. Product design redirection (concepts or full design development)
4. Innovative product enhancement concepts and marketing/product integration design suggestions
5. Product placement, sponsorships, etc.

Now these lists obviously do not cover all creative aspects, but some of the more shared/prevalent ones. What these lists really break down to is two key realities:

  1. No agency is going to know the product better, the market for their product better or perhaps their competitors better than their client – clients obsess about this crap all day long because it means their survival.
  2. No client is going to know really know the customer better – how to precisely and appropriately harness the current cultural zeitgeist to market their product to their target customer base, the finer details behind trends in brand expression, nor will they ever have enough distance from their product to realise that not all their potential customers think their product speaks for itself and its awesomeness – this is precisely where agencies provide their value; having both distance and specialization in customer behavior.

And let’s face it, agencies can have it rough, especially if they are on retainer (or willing to take on ANY work for money to potentially to grab more business in the long term) and especially if their client doesn’t have a robust in-house creative function. It’s easy to ask your creative agency to do grunt work. And it’s not fair – you’ve hired this creative agency for their specialisation, not because they are a pixel pushing production company (unless you specifically DID hire an pixel pushing production company from the start). And agencies, it’s not fair for you to take on this kind of work that your creatives will most likely resent and half-ass because you’re afraid to say no.

But also, agencies, you need to wake up and really get to know what’s going on with your client on a business level. If you don’t really know what’s coming up on their side you can’t provide true value. That means asking more about their long term plan, getting to know their competitor landscape better on a product level (not just a marketing or brand level), and learning what hurdles your direct client contact has to contend with to sell your work through the organization. Mostly, you need to be clear within your own agency, especially with your creatives, that everyone needs to consider both short term and long term approaches to their creative output. (e.g. Using Instagram-like filters may be ace for the next few months for a campaign, but is that really an enduring design style for a global branding system?)

So to conclude, Apple may have been foolish to take their ad function in-house. Some things are really better to farm out to those with a very different perspective and some distance from your product. But that’s not to say that TWBA has the right to be as smug as their Apple ads about their commercials doing slightly better. They wouldn’t be in this situation if something hadn’t broken down between them and the brand they spent so many years building.