One of the common themes that we regularly focus on at Cella is the "Evolution of the Creative Department." We do so because in-house agencies need to continually evolve in order to remain relevant and valuable to their internal customer bases--which, for a sizable minority, came into question across the recession. As much fun as it is to talk about evolving toward the latest and greatest visions for the future, it is difficult to activate evolution in a formalized and controlled manner, especially when the enterprise and internal client base is constantly changing.

Over the course of my three years with Cella and hundreds of client meetings with in-house creative departments, I have noticed that many departments evolve, in part, as a result of focused events where the department had very specific opportunities to show value to clients in new and meaningful ways. I have routinely heard stories about how teams have leveraged one simple project or service opportunity to drive the department's evolutionary progress for years to come. That being said, these opportunities are difficult to predict, so in-house agencies need to be intentional in the way they capture and activate these opportunities in order to drive department-level evolution.

One discipline that is critical to the success of a department's evolution and a way to capture the aforementioned opportunities is Strategic Business Development. This may sound big and lofty, but really this term simply implies a formal approach to developing more valuable relationships between you and your clients.

Four key components of a business development strategy for in-house agencies and creative departments include:

1) Choosing and Knowing Your Key Clients
The average in-house creative department, or in-house agency, fulfills thousands of project requests per year, both large and small, for dozens or hundreds of internal clients and partners. Start by picking just a few key client relationships to focus on developing for the coming quarter, preferably the ones who you know stand to realize significantly more value from your department than they currently do. Don't pick more then a few key clients to focus on, as you simply won't have time to dedicate to more. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you "under-service" the rest of your clients and, in fact, that is the last thing that you want to happen here. There is also no need to broadcast the news that you're picking this select group of clients to focus on. The key here is to identify the specific, top targets within your organization where more value can be had from the creative department.


2) Defining Your Client-Specific Value Propositions
Make specific efforts to meet with the key clients who you've chosen to focus on. Learn about their visions, their goals for the coming year, what they wish they could accomplish but can't, what they love about the ways their competitors do things, etc. Find out how they are using other resources like ad agencies, if at all. And most importantly, be brave by extracting honest feedback from your clients around how you can improve upon the perception and service levels that they associate with your creative department.

Based on the feedback they've given you, how can you bring more value to these individual client relationships? For some client groups, it may require your team to introduce a new service or capability that they didn't realize your team could or would deliver. For others, the value to your clients may be found in changing the way that your team engages with and services them. Sometimes, it could be a combination of several different small steps you might take to show more value to a particular client.


3) Shape Your Action Plan
Once you've defined where the value lies for this select group of clients, you will need to plan to take action. Plan in quarterly or bi-annual increments rather than annually, as the needs of your organization will undoubtedly change if you try and plan for too long of a time period. Draw up very specific tasks that you'll need to carry out in order to drive value for your clients.

This is also where you will need to determine if the needed actions are feasible. To cite an example, the 2012 In-house Creative Industry Report showed that nearly 40% of creative departments plan on introducing mobile design services to their organizations' repertoires within the next twelve months. This indicates that there is either a built-in demand among the internal clients of these creative groups for mobile design services, or internal groups simply see it as the next big thing that they want to offer to their clients. But, is there qualified talent available within the creative team to attach to those services or resources to outsource the work to qualified freelancers or firms? In many cases, the answer will be no. It is important to evaluate these kinds of barriers during your planning stages. Unrealistic plans will kill a good business development strategy very quickly.


And finally, be creative and fun in the way you take action. Your clients should not only see the value in the changes you're bringing to them, they should also enjoy the experience.



4) The Follow-Through
This is the hardest part for everybody and the part that takes the most time. Steps 1 through 3 will become moot if you can't simply put one foot in front of the other to take action against the strategic business development plans that you have developed. If following through on three different clients becomes too difficult and too time consuming given your team's available bandwidth, trim your plan down to 1 or 2 select clients and see if you can handle it from there. But keep moving ahead. And once you've cycled through a full quarter or six-month period, return back to Step 1 above and repeat the cycle from the beginning. Choose whether to keep the same clients on your target list, add new ones, or replace the first group with new ones--just be sure to always put you and your colleagues in a position in which all can be successful.

This "process" of Strategic Business Development is very organic, and will undoubtedly lead your department to opportunities that you could never have predicted. Though unpredictable and at times difficult, Strategic Business Development can bear much fruit for both your department and the greater organization. The results can also be very rewarding for your team!