In December 2018, Forbes columnist Avi Dan anointed the in-house agency "2018 Agency of the Year." Many of us might argue it's a few years late; however it's newsworthy nonetheless. In fact, there has been a substantial amount of publicity for in-house agencies across the past few years outside of our typical industry sources. Ninety percent of that news has been positive, though there have been some stories that have been less favorable. Why is this important? With the increased focus, it is now more important than ever for in-house leaders to take advantage of the positive publicity and enhance their value proposition while raising the strategic positioning of their teams.

I recently moderated a roundtable attended by leaders of in-house agencies, and a question was posed to the group that led to a great conversation: where do we think the future of in-house is going, and when do we think the pendulum will swing back to external agencies? This question led to the discussion of how do we, the in-house agency community, continue to elevate and expand our value to our companies? The group landed on five key drivers to becoming the agency of choice for their companies.

  1. Be as good as any outside agency--in the space you pursue.
    Focus on what your team does really well and continue to enhance those capabilities. Don't spread your capabilities so thin that you can't focus on executing great creative and providing an excellent customer experience.
  1. Be easy to work with.
    Our clients appreciate efficiency and how we work with internal colleagues should create efficiencies. We should be easier to get ahold of, easier to start a project with, easier to make changes--easier to partner with. If we're making their job harder, why would they choose us?
  1. Achieve cost savings / create value for the organization.
    Regardless of the tier of our projects, we should be less expensive for our companies and be able to effectively showcase those savings to key stakeholders. Fortunately, cost savings is a relatively easy quantitative metric to track and report.

    The value we create through the effectiveness of our work, on the other hand, is hard to calculate in an objective manner, but is also incredibly important. It is defined through your team's mission and you may have multiple value propositions and stories that align with different aspects of your in-house agency's offerings. A word of caution: while it may seem best to focus on Tier 1 campaigns, don't discount the value of providing Tier 2 and Tier 3 work--this is work your organizations need done and it provides a steady volume that falls outside of the agency preferences of your marketing partners.
  1. Advance, empower and defend the brand.
    In-house agencies are often called the "brand police," which has a negative connotation that implies that the in-house agency is rigid and not willing to push the visual identity beyond a specific unyielding interpretation of the brand. Michael Dumlao, the Director of Brand at Booz Allen Hamilton, reframed this label to "brand defenders," which communicates a responsibility to ensure every communication is accurately promoting the company brand.
  1. Speed: in the age of social, have a "newsroom-like" ability to execute creative.
    Almost every in-house agency is supporting social media, which is driving the speed at which our companies must respond to marketing and PR opportunities. Being nimble and building processes and teams that facilitate speed will position your in-house agency for success.

As to whether the pendulum will swing back to external agencies, there were different points of view in the room. My personal belief is that companies need a mix of in-house and external agencies and that there is room for both. Our in-house teams need to focus on how and where they can best provide value to their companies--accepting the fact that they can't be everything to everyone. This means sometimes we do the work, other times we may facilitate the work, and yet others we may be trusted advisors and consultants. The key takeaway is to stay focused and enhance, expand and elevate our team strengths and advantages and avoid chasing every opportunity. Grow by choice and grow smart.