The Eternal Behaviours of the Average Work

In-Housing, as a concept, is back.

OK, it’s never really been away. But in 2021 it seems to be regaining momentum, as brands emerge from COVID looking for different approaches and in all probability, cost savings, and businesses such as Lution spring up in Australia to try and answer the call.

I’ve noticed a lot of industry debate about the fluidity of in-housed and out-sourced models. Most of the arguments, surrounding tech integration, data ownership, the ability to recruit the right talent, cost-effectiveness or efficiency benefits, transparency in the media chain, are well worn.

There’s no doubt that for the right organisation, it’s worth considering a hybrid in-sourced/out-sourced model, alternative agency sourcing models or variations on the theme.

Can in-housing solve for everything?

The one thing that has caught my eye has been rejuvenated discussion about whether or not in-house models can ‘save advertising from mediocrity’.

Let’s be honest. Solving advertising mediocrity is rooted in creative spark. As such, whether an agency is used or not, it’s going to take more than changing the sourcing model to achieve this ambition.

Go into almost any advertising agency, and I’d bet on them telling you that a fair proportion of what they would regard as their best ever work is work that doesn’t see the light of day.

Either it literally does not get approved, or it gets approved to such a watered-down extent as to become – well, mediocre.

I’ve even thought about asking agencies in pitch chemistry sessions to show not their reel of produced work, but what they truly think is their best work – whether or not it was published.

No, when it comes to creativity and advertising or marketing that really moves whatever dials it needs to move, there’s no magic ‘in-housing’ solution.

Creativity is not driven by the employment contracts of the team

If Nike, Apple, John Lewis, State Street Global Advisors (better known as ‘Fearless Girl’) and so many others were all created by internal teams, then maybe I’d agree that more in-housing really would topple mediocre advertising. But it’s just not the case; there’s no pattern to suggest that any one model works.

That’s because, for the great, the operating model is secondary to the right combination of people, culture and structure that gets the job done.

Eternal behaviours are always with us, hard to eradicate, but can be changed

The sad truth is that creative mediocrity in advertising is dictated by a raft of what I’d call eternal behaviours.

Some eternal behaviours have a lot to do with the organisation, some have a lot to do with the agency, and some of them have a lot to do with both. None of them would be materially affected by solely changing from an agency supply model to an in-house model.

In our work with clients and agencies, we see them all the time. Here are ten of them. Have a read and let me know if you haven’t come across all or any of these in your career – I’d be very surprised.

  • All talk, no trousers. Many organisations ask for transformative work and then baulk at the consequences because they have not or cannot gain support from their own board or management. Bravery is an essential component in great advertising and without it, no team will produce truly great work.
  • Short-termism. Great campaigns are generally iterative over years. They aren’t primarily designed to increase the share of the basket across the next quarter. There’s a whole other discipline required to meet those demands, separate from the creation of great brand marketing and advertising and focused on proof-points and directive messaging to those close to purchase.
  • Shooting the messengers. How many times has an agency been fired or pitched because they dared to tell the truth, or refused to tow the mediocre line? I have no idea but I’m betting it’s lots. Yes, it’s harder to fire an in-house team. But is that going to make them more likely to speak up? Is it always going to lead to better decision making? Listen to the experts, whether or not they’re in house or external.
  • Bad briefing. If you want great work but don’t write the brief that enables your team, agency or in-house, forget it. Craft the brief and stand by it. Push it around with your team or agency and be willing to stand or fall by it.
  • Ceding control to pragmatists. Rory Sutherland talks a lot about this as part of his behavioural economics-led thinking. I can’t pretend to be anywhere near his level of expertise and I’m merely scratching at the surface of what he’s saying, but I completely agree with him when he talks about what he’s dubbed ‘Sutherland’s Law’ – basically, that creativity often has to be approved by rationality, but such approval is hardly ever required in reverse.

While he does regard cost checking and feasibility as a useful check, it shouldn’t be where the end decision is made. In his words, ‘it is much easier to get fired for being irrational than it is for being unimaginative.’

There has to be experimentation and innovation with marketing strategy, advertising and communication. Enough credence has to be given to emotion in creativity, and in what moves consumers. Sutherland takes this kind of thinking much further into R&D, product distribution and other areas but for the purpose of this article, the effect of an overly rational approach to a creative discipline produces mediocre results.

  • Refusal to change behaviours. ‘This approach has been our approach for many years, and it has always worked’ does not produce great marketing or advertising unless it was great to start with. And most organisations with great marketing or advertising would never take this approach anyway, preferring to continuously iterate on a strategy. We have to be prepared to instigate change.
  • Master-Servant marketing and communications relationship models. This can, of course, occur just as much with an in-housed model as with an agency. If the marketing function, and/or the agency, are not treated with enough respect, then ideas and innovations will be quashed at source or worse, not even attempted as all concerned lose confidence.

Leave aside the consumer data, the expanded role as ‘voice of the customer’, or the greater accountability for a moment; there is no stronger reason to have marketing as part of a corporate board than the protection and advancement of true creativity and strong communications.

  • Small budget, big campaign approach. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a ‘small’ budget if that budget is correctly calibrated. But if it’s used to create a thinly spread mix of everything, the message will be hopelessly diluted. There are fantastic campaigns made with very little money; the team that made them were on-point and unified with an achievable set of aims.
  • Strategic and operational messiness. If the strategy is not aligned, or the teams aren’t aligned, the plan won’t be either. If the structure of the marketing team is so byzantine that nothing can ever get decided without an abundance of committees, things are going to get watered down in the process. If the agencies are in-fighting or don’t have enough information, ditto. However many in-house or externally sourced teams are working on a campaign, there needs to be a single platform that they are all 100% pulling to, and an organisational structure empowered to execute.
  • Pay peanuts, get ordinary. Organisations that pay their agencies or their own teams poorly, thereby restricting the ability to bring enough great people to the team are creatively speaking, the architect of their own downfall.

If even some of these behaviours were more constantly rectified, I would expect there to be, over time, a consequent rise in quality of the advertising and marketing communications we see on a day to day basis. Wherever the team is based.

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