Internal vs external agencies: How should it work?


Internal vs external agencies: How should it work?

Research has shown that client–agency relationships are experiencing turbulence. Much of this stems from the demarcation between internal and external teams, which is increasingly blurred and constantly evolving. We took up the debate with Joanna Williams— representing the client side—to thrash out how it should work.

My first question is what do we really mean by internal agencies? What functions should they perform? Creative? Media? Digital? Brand? Strategy? All of these? I think too often internal agencies are just seen as design studios.

Remit is interesting. A connected question is: what are clients seeking to achieve by developing in-house capabilities? Cost savings have to be part of the equation. Service is another motivation. Having people on-site under a client’s sole control should improve responsiveness. The other important aspect is quality and I suspect this is where it’s less clear-cut. There are examples of internal agencies delivering great work—4Creative, M-Four, Specsavers and the Government Digital Service spring to mind—but do you think quality is as high across the board?

I think this is why many clients go down the hybrid route. They seek to benefit from a balance of internal and external resources. The digital and social worlds demand the agility to respond in close to real time. This is where internal resources really come into their own. But most clients recognise there are higher-end skills they need to buy in, ad hoc, to complement the day-to-day capabilities they have in-house, such as brand positioning or strategic thinking.

When clients go down that route I think the people issues become an important consideration. All parties need to work well together, but crucially everyone needs to be motivated. If clients adopt this approach and outsource higher-end work do you think the creation of a glass ceiling for internal creatives causes a problem?

The challenge is, if your motivation is cost savings and efficiencies, then your primary objective for internal resources is getting through volume. Ads, banners, internal posters and let’s not forget prettying up endless PowerPoint presentations—it all needs to be done, which doesn’t leave much time for creating the next big idea. In reality, rarely does an in-house team want to just churn out artwork. The key to managing this is demarcation of roles between internal and external resources. The word “creative” in itself can be deceiving. Often the client is really asking for the idea. The process by which this is handed over to the internal team is crucial and, if done well, can give them scope to get involved with the higher-level tasks.

We’re often brought in to work with internal studios in the way you describe. On two recent projects we’ve been asked to go further than strategy, but not as far as what we’d traditionally have called a creative idea. Essentially we’ve provided a creative idea but expressed through words rather than visuals. I’d describe it as a creative narrative. Their internal teams have then taken this and translated it into visuals ideas for all the components of the campaign. I think this can work well but it does have implications for the client–agency relationship. Essentially it becomes more project-based and more consultative. I’m a big believer that the best relationships are long term and built on a mutual commitment. As the nature of relationships change it’s important not to undermine this.

I agree. I also think there are many issues at the moment that are making client–agency relationships challenging. Marketing budgets are becoming more fluid to accommodate changes in needs and activity. Therefore, overcommitment to long-term spend can prove difficult. There’s a reluctance to go through comprehensive pitch processes or detailed briefings for every piece of work. These were the bedrock of choosing and committing to long-term relationships. Trial and error is much more common with agency relationships. On the agency side, specialisms are fragmenting, which creates the need for more relationships. Equally marketing departments are becoming fragmented, sometimes split by distribution channel, brand, product, or communication discipline. This results in lots of budget holders wanting to maintain their own agency relationships.

In my experience one of the major implications of having these more fragmented relationships— and this goes back to the quality point— is the lack of consistent creative direction for the brand. When clients had lead advertising agencies, the agency creative director often played this crucial role, working closely with the marketing director. But one of the crucial aspects of this was end-to-end involvement in the creative process. Sir John Hegarty once said, “great work is 80% idea and 80% execution”. Can this happen when you essentially separate responsibility for the idea and the execution between internal and external teams?

This is where the question starts to become: how important is great creative these days? Quarterly campaigns that need to deliver numbers may not need big ideas or the highest quality creative—sometimes good is good enough. As budgets get spread more thinly over a wide range of activity there isn’t the same amount available to invest in any one element—either the thinking or production. Given the short shelf life of most campaigns these days, a business wants to get some value from their investment, so has think about the longevity. KPIs, ROI and budget management have become the main topic of meetings and management decisions, so you can see why some Marketing Directors may not see creative as the main priority.

I think this is where creative is too often seen as something fluffy rather than commercial. I recently saw some research from the IPA that found short-termism and budget pressures have cut the effectiveness of campaigns in half (“Selling Creativity Short”, June 2016). We need to re-establish that the reason for creativity in our business is to deliver greater returns. The challenge to all of us is to find a way in which creative quality, and therefore effectiveness, can be maintained within new ways of working. I think cracking the question of who the Creative Director should be is central to this.

It’s interesting that some Marketing Directors become the de facto Creative Directors as they are the common touchpoint between internal and external agencies. To be honest I don’t think this is the skill set of marketing departments and most have probably fallen into it rather than actively creating this situation. I respect and admire Marketing Directors that invest in a creative lead within their organisation. Having said that, too often these roles are really about brand guardianship—policing the identity —as opposed to having full responsibility for creative direction. I think many clients will continue to look outside their organisations for this role, but creating the right long-term relationship is vital if it’s to work.

Staying on the quality and effectiveness point, another important issue is how close the creative team should be to the brand. In my experience, maintaining some distance from the business, and all the internal issues that can bog people down, is essential to great work. Equally, having a broader range of experiences to draw on is important. Distance is also important in terms of the relationship. Sometimes you need to work all night to crack an idea. In the morning you’ll present it to the client and they’ll say it’s not right. As an agency leader you have to pick the team up and get them going again. Without this separation, when you’re all part of the same team, it can be harder to have such brutal and honest conversations. These are essential though.

The key word here is perspective. In my role as a consultant I find that this one attribute is perhaps the most powerful and useful in terms of seeing the issues and generating impact. At times you have to be outside a business to be inside a business. The environment and culture that creatives desire is another aspect that clients can find it hard to offer, though they do try hard.

There’s an interesting company called Oliver who’ve developed a way to deal with this. Essentially they set up and manage an agency that sits within the office of the client they are working for. This seems like an interesting proposition because it gives clients better value and responsiveness, but allows the agency team to maintain a slightly different perspective and culture from the marketing team, who are ingrained within the business. This is an idea I’ve mooted to clients before but it’s never really got off the ground. How do you think clients perceive this proposition?

I can see how this can be uncomfortable for clients. They probably had to work hard to secure a budget and headcount for the in-house resource, and had to present a business case for cost savings. As such, to hand over that function externally could be seen to compromise the objective.

So perhaps that particular model will be right for some but not others. I guess that’s the theme here really. There is no silver bullet. It’s clear that there’s a lot to think about in terms of agency relationships as we adapt to a rapidly changing communications landscape. I think both clients and agencies will evolve their offerings and as they do so an open and honest dialogue will be vital to making it work well for both parties. At the end of the day I guess it’s all about people. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re internal or external: the key to success will be creating the structures, processes, relationships, cultures and environments for everyone to work together effectively.

— JW & RG

This article was based on a discussion with Joanna Williams. Joanna has a broad UK and European experience having held senior marketing and strategy positions at MBNA, Bupa, Brother, BPP and Hansgrohe. She now offers independent consultancy.

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An electric shock


An electric shock

On July 25 1965, 17,000 adoring fans gathered in anticipation at the Newport Folk Festival.

The star-studded concert was playing out perfectly.

Hillbilly singer Cousin Emmy had just performed “Turkey in Straw”.

Up next was a 24-year-old Bob Dylan, who had already written one of the anthems of the freedom movement: “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Introduced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan strode on stage in a bright orange shirt and black leather jacket with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar dangling from his neck.

Dylan, who was always chatty and cheerful with his audience, didn’t say a word.

His fans were expecting his usual stripped-down acoustic set, but he took to the stage backed by the five-piece Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Just the night before, Dylan had got together with the band and rehearsed until dawn.

He wanted to try something new. Something different.

The band thundered into an electric rendition of Maggie’s Farm.

Dylan leant into the microphone: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” his vocal almost drowned out by Bloomfield’s piercing lead guitar.

It was aggressive in tempo, distorted, raw — and above all, electric.

The majority of the fans looked on in confusion.

Legend has it that festival organizer Pete Seeger was so outraged that he grabbed an axe and tried to smash the sound system.

To many it was a musical betrayal: Dylan had abandoned the authenticity of folk for the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll.

This wasn’t the folk purist people had paid good money to see.

“Bring back cousin Emmy,” cried sections of the crowd.

The boos were intense.

After twelve minutes and just three songs, Dylan and the band unplugged and left.

That’s when the place went completely nuts.

And although he returned to play a further couple of acoustic numbers, for many his performance was an act of sheer heresy.

He didn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years.

But it was to be a pivotal point in the history of rock music.

Dylan had turned everything on its head: proclaiming his artistic independence, demonstrating the poetic possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll.

And while fans in England a month later still booed and cried “Judas”, it wasn’t long before audiences got on board and eagerly followed Dylan into the mainstream.

His next rock album, Highway 61 Revisited, was hailed an instant classic and “Like a Rolling Stone” became his first hit single.

By the time his album Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, the majority of former critics had been forced to admit that his switch to electric instruments hadn’t subdued his knack for writing rebellious songs.

Creative businesses talk a lot of differentiation and disruption.

But how often do they plug in and turn it up to eleven?

Favouring slight difference over blowing the doors off.

To be truly creative you need to take risks.

And sometimes that means being comfortable with an unpredictable outcome.

If Dylan had conducted, and listened to, research after his ’65 Newport appearance, he would never have blazed a high-voltage trail into rock history.

If he’d listened to Peter Yarrow, who had tried to convince Dylan to warm up his audience with a few acoustic numbers and explain that he was going to try something new that he’d been working on, there wouldn’t be documentaries and books dedicated to that summer’s night in 1965.

Like Dylan, creative businesses (and clients) have a duty to avoid dilution.

Say no to compromise and do stuff that stops people in their tracks.

People will remember that.

As Bob Dylan penned in Maggie’s Farm: “I try my best, to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

Be brave.

Develop a distinctive voice of your own.

Now that’s electrifying.

— DB

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Cousin Emmy doing her thang

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Bob Dylan doing his

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POV*: A purpose or essence won’t build a brand. Telling a good story will


POV*: A purpose or essence won't build a brand. Telling a good story will

First brands were told they needed a pyramid, onion or key. Now it’s all about having a purpose, big idea or finding your “why”. Tomorrow it will be something else. There’s often a belief that defining a brand positioning in the right way is the key - pardon the pun - to success. It isn’t. There is no magic construct. The way you implement a positioning is far more important.

Command and control is dead. Build brands democratically.
In 1988, 44% of shoppers in the United States didn’t know who George Bush Senior was - and those who did knew only three things: (1) he was good-looking, (2) he was from Texas, (3) he was vice president. Later that year Bush Snr was elected president.

This example was cited by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their seminal book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. It was this text that first introduced the idea of positioning. The example of George Bush was used to support their fundamental premise. We live in an over-communicated society with excessive choice, so to cope with complexity people have learnt to simplify their decisions. Success in this world requires brands to find a simple message and own a distinct space in people’s minds.


Avis is the example cited by Ries and Trout. At the time, Hertz was the market leader. It was the best known car-hire company and therefore the default choice for most people. For 13 years in a row Avis lost money. Then they started running advertising with the message “we’re number two, so we try harder”. In each of the next three years their profits doubled and they were sold. Avis succeeded because they found a simple message that reframed the way people thought about choosing a car-hire company.

The world has changed since this campaign. We still live in a world of over-communication and excessive choice, but the media landscape is unrecognisable. We take in more than four times as much information every day as we did in 1986 - the equivalent of 174 newspapers. In the 80s you could craft your message and then reach millions of people using a handful of activity, be that a TV spot during Coronation Street or a newspaper ad. Brands operated like dictatorships: they were built through command and control.

The huge changes in media have had major implications for the way we build brands. The volume of communications activity that contributes towards a brand’s image is huge. The frequency is intense. Yet each piece of activity itself often has a much smaller audience. Huge teams of marketeers are required to deploy all of this. And because of their power to share or not, the audience is more central to success than ever before.

This view is supported by other leading thinkers and writers. Adam Sweeney of London Strategy Unit, talks about brands as the product of microinteractions:

“Brands as ubiquitous as Amazon, Nike and Starbucks Coffee have realised that every tiny moment that a user wants something - whether it’s to log in, to go for a jog, to relax - is a moment to assist, impress and even delight them in giving them something they want, when they want it. In ‘loyalty’, they aim for reinteraction - not repurchase. You don’t need just one monster insight or killer proposition: you need multiple microinsights about the fleeting wants and needs of a user as they arise (and they arise second by second).”
Adam Sweeney

John Grant, co-founder of St Luke’s, compares modern brands to molecules. They are built of successive and connected ideas, each of which adds to a brands interest and keeps it alive in people’s minds. He argues that Nike is not about a single idea of “winning” or “victory”, as many people claim. Instead, it’s the product of the cultural ideas that Nike has created, eg Run London and Nike Free.


The upshot is that past positioning techniques are no longer fit for purpose. Positioning is ultimately a brand management technique. A tool for controlling reputation. A single, rigid message won’t work today. Brands need to deploy more messages, more often, through more channels and teams. Modern positioning tools must allow brands to be built through grass-roots activism, not command and control.

Brands need narratives not onions
A brand needs a positioning in order to be coherent. Whether you see an ad, speak to a sales person, or visit a store, strong brands deliver a level of consistency. This isn’t about total uniformity. Much like people, brands can behave differently, dress differently and talk differently depending on the context. But brands must always feel like the same person.

This is where many brand management tools fail. Corporate mission and vision statements are frequently so generic, bland and unfocused that it’s impossible to see the vision. The same issue exists with brand onions, keys and pyramids. Anyone who has ever tried to brief a creative team using one of these will know the problem. They’re frequently so vague that it’s impossible to grab hold of a direction. Therefore they fail in their primary purpose.

Many thought leaders in this area have started to talk about other constructs for defining brands. david hieatt talks about having a purpose. Collyn Ahartfavours pursuit. In his acclaimed TED Talk, Simon Sinek advocates finding your why. John Grant defines 32 types of brand idea. Along a similar line,Robert Jones talks of the big idea. While Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson offer a range of brand archetypes.

So which is best? At one time or another, each of them has unlocked someone’s positioning. The problem with all of these - and the onions, pyramids and keys that came before them - is they suggest that successful positioning is about the construct. The truth is, there is no magic formula.

When you hear Ben and Jerry’s defined as “joy for the belly and soul”, or Disney as the “magic of childhood”, it’s easy to believe that these phrases are their secret. They’re not.

Few great brands have started out with such succinct definitions. Instead they develop over time. Many of these phrases only make sense looking back. These brands have such well-honed images that the phrases make complete sense. Without an established image, which is the case for a lot of brands embarking on this journey, these phrases wouldn’t make nearly as much sense.

At Squad we advocate positioning brands through a looser definition - what we call a central narrative. The brand will be built by a huge cast of agencies, partners, marketeers and customers. They’ll communicate through film, the written word and live performance. Each will add their own interpretation and style. What they need is a central plot. Think of it like fan fiction. Stories like Harry Potter and Star Trek have huge communities of fans creating their own stories. But it’s all based around a narrative and set of characters defined by the original author.

I’ve worked with numerous brands where articulating their narrative has worked extremely well. Take The Macallan, a premium Scotch whisky. Theirs is a story about preciousness. From the scarcity of the raw ingredients to the selectiveness of the distillation process, preciousness runs through everything they do.

ACCA are behind the world’s largest professional accountancy qualification. Theirs is a story about more paths to success. They offer the widest breadth of entry routes, modules and job roles. So wherever an individual wants to start from, and go to, they have the path that will get them there.

Defining your story can be immensely powerful. When we helped Wythenshawe Amateurs articulate their story of a homeless football club seeking a ground, it captured the hearts and minds of the media and celebrities. They even made it on to the ITV Evening News.

Successful political campaigns too will often have a central narrative than runs through every piece of communication. Think of New Labour - no more left or right: just centre - or Barack Obama: change.

There's no magic process for finding a brand story

There’s no magic process for finding a brand story. Much like a good author or journalist, it’s about having a nose for a story. Relentlessly explore and question everything. Use some of the positioning constructs identified earlier to think about the brand in different ways. When you find it you’ll know - like a good book or film, it will stick in your head. And rest assured, I’ve yet to find a brand without a good story somewhere.

Don’t let brand jargon ruin a great story.
Not long ago I went to buy a car from Volkswagon. The dealership was a tip: messy and dirty. I loitered for an age before the sales people paid me any attention. When they did, their attitude was awful. And not once was I offered a drink. Then I glanced into their staff room. On the wall I noticed a poster. It was titled “Our Purpose”. It read: “To offer the best customer experience for the best car brands in the world”.

Brands today are more dependent than ever before on their people. From what employees say on social media, to the attitude of call-centre staff and the service delivered in-store: all of these are more important than ever to the success of brands. A positioning is worthless if it doesn’t translate into experience. Brands that aren’t true to the image they promote will quickly be ousted - most likely on social media.

Once the positioning has been defined, embedding it within the organisation is crucial. It’s not enough for a small group of brand managers to get it. Everyone needs to get it. They must understand what it means for them and what is required of them. More than this, it must motivate them to want to deliver it.

Starbuck's founder didn't set out to create a great brand

When trying to embed a brand positioning, talking like a brand person can hinder not help. Many successful brands don’t talk about brand. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks Coffee, once said that he didn’t set out to create a great brand - he set out to build a great company and the brand developed.

Another example is one of our client’s: Tebay Services. Renowned in the UK for being as close as a motorway service area comes to Harrods’ food hall. Over 40 years they’ve built an incredibly strong brand, yet for much of this time the company was run by John Dunning, a Cumbrian hill farmer. Not a classic brand background.

Although they’re not using the language of brand, both of these organisations have that crucial component of building a strong brand - a great narrative. They’ve found success because they’ve told these stories in an honest, authentic and believable way. There’s no mention of a brand essence or promise. Perhaps if Volkswagon had used a bit less brand lingo they’d have engaged people more.

Eric Ransdell of Fast Company tells the story of Nike. The global sportswear brand employs a number of senior executives who serve as corporate storytellers. They tell the story of how Nike’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, decided that his team needed better running shoes, so poured rubber into the family waffle iron and created Nike’s famous waffle sole. New tech reps are taken to the field track (where Bowerman coached) and to visit the site where another athlete who inspired the creation of Nike’s first shoes, Steve Prefontaine, died in car crash. Dennis Reeder, a Nike storyteller, says:

“Every company has a history. But we have a little bit more than a history. We have a heritage, something that’s still relevant today. If we connect people to that, chances are that they won’t view Nike as just another place to work.”

Corporate storytelling on the scale of Nike doesn’t come cheap. A more practical starting point is creating a video to bring to life the brand story or manifesto. When we started working with Tebay Services, we cobbled together a short video in iMovie one Sunday afternoon. It was quick and cheap, but it had emotion - when we played it to the client, they cried.

This video has since been shot properly and is used to communicate the brand’s story to staff. Creating a manifesto is another great way to capture the brand’s story (phil teer and Patrick Morrison include some examples on their website:

These are just some examples of how brands embed their stories within the organisation. There are many more ways of doing it. Whatever approach you take, keep it real - don’t let brand jargon get in the way of a great story.

- RG

Further reading

• Baked In, Alex Bogusky & Winsor

• The Big Idea, Robert Jones

• The Brand Innovation Manifesto, John Grant

• Do Story, Bobette Buster (The Do Book Company)

• Eating The Big Fish, Adam Morgan

• The Hero And The Outlaw, Mark & Pearson

• Positioning, Ries & Trout

• Primal Branding, Patrick Hanlon

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