In-House Agencies (IHAs) and external agencies have not always been in partnership, or even in collaboration, but that is changing for some organizations. The combination of using both an in-house creative team and external agency talent can deliver the best of both worlds when thoughtfully established.

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It is important to recognize that both IHAs and external agencies have valuable capabilities that may be difficult for each other to replicate. Consider some of the more common understanding of the differences in the chart below:

Tangible and Intangible Benefits:

So, if you have an established IHA, you are very likely realizing cost avoidance savings versus the same work being done with an external agency resource. But this shouldn’t be the only consideration. Your investment in an IHA delivers a variety of tangible and intangible benefits to the organization, including:

  • Involvement in upstream planning to deliver downstream efficiencies and time-to-market responsiveness
  • Closer creative partnership with business teams
  • Brand stewardship to drive consistency of the look, tone and feel of creative deliverables
  • Strong and deep institutional knowledge providing a short-cut to creative business solutions
  • Ability to structure in-system quick turn creative responses in an agile, low-cost manner

On the flip side, external agencies can bring significant specialist skills to creative strategy and execution with “A-level” talent. They have a different, and generally higher cost structure, but with this they can marshal resources in ways IHAs may not be able to. Their greatest strengths are in creative thought leadership, on-trend insights, specialist marketing technology executions and client relationship management. 

Partnerships Come In Different Forms:

While there are differences between IHAs and external agencies, there are real opportunities for synergy, collaboration and partnership to the benefit of the client organization. Below you can see that in Cella's 2022 In-House Creative Industry Report, respondents indicated a continuing shift in what the In-House Agencies’ working relationship with external agencies looks like:

So, What Are Other Positives of Partnering With External Agencies?

While there has been some degree of a competitive relationship over time between IHAs and external agencies – much of this was seen as risking loss of work instead of how to bring best-in-class solutions to an organization. Being best-in-class is more than just outstanding creative thinking; it includes many other elements to make an organization successful which most often are a balanced combination of IHA and external agency engagement. 

Today’s IHA has the opportunity to be more engaged with external agencies in the development of new creative strategies as an advocate of the client organization. This means that the IHA needs to have a seat at the table early enough to provide their insights and influence in the process. Organizations that are successfully partnering in this way have recognized that marketing and business lines do not always have people experienced in both briefing and working with high-level agency resources. This is where IHA creative leadership can bridge the gap to ensure the external agencies are briefed appropriately to both understand the business need while providing space for creative exploration that will lead to award winning creative solutions. 

Similarly, good IHA creative leadership can provide strong guardrails on brand stewardship to ensure that new creative approaches are still on-brand for both the external agency and client stakeholders, even where the envelope is being pushed. 

Another aspect of partnership is recognizing where the adaptation and rollout of executional creative deliverables may be done equally well by the IHA but at a lower cost for the client organization versus all being done by the external agency. While this may be seen as a loss of work by the external agency, in reality the cost avoidance may be freeing up ad spend budgets for more incremental higher order creative projects with the external agency resource. 

The partnership approach allows the IHA to serve as a communication conduit as the client advocates with the external agency to understand business needs and timelines. In addition, the IHA serves as a creative strategy advocate for the agency to help the client see new opportunities that might challenge conventional comfort levels. 

Planning for Success:

This approach of IHAs working with external agencies is important at a project level. Consideration should also be given to involving IHAs in external agency selection, setting performance objectives, and conducting periodic and annual performance reviews. This allows an organization to elevate their practices in overall agency management to higher industry standards, ultimately growing their market presence and impact.