Playing Nice

The strength of a healthy internal/external agency relationship

“Do you have experience working with an in-house team?” is a question I hear almost any time I meet a new client prospect. “We have some people who are really talented,” they usually add. And you know what? In my experience, they’re usually right.

The makeup of the in-house team has changed dramatically over the last 5–10 years. What was once thought of as the place where creatives go to “quietly head into the sunset” has now become the hotbed for many of the industry’s brightest stars. Just here in Seattle a little company called Amazon has built an incredibly powerful in-house group. All the while understanding the value out-of-house partners can bring as well.

As an agency partner, I work hard to build a healthy, collaborative relationship with my client’s in-house team. These people live and breathe the brand every day. They have amazing knowledge that can help make our work better. And in my experience, they’re fun to hang out with, too. Our benefit to them? We bring the value of sharing parallel experiences and trends from other clients in other categories.

I’m not going to say it’s always easy. A lot of times it’s downright painful. Historically there has been a bit of hesitancy from both the agency and in-house group when the higher-ups demand collaboration. In-house teams wonder if the agency will get all of the “best” projects. Or tell them what to do. Even take their jobs. Agency creatives often have similar fears, just from the other side of the fence.

Recently I attended a conference on creativity and ideas sponsored by Worldwide Partners, Hydrogen’s independent global agency network. One of the most enlightening panels was a group of (all women, and not on purpose!) creative leaders from both sides of the house. Creative leads from Walt Disney Hotels and Resorts as well as some of our network partners talked about empowering creativity, which quickly turned into a discussion about overcoming the barriers to building a strong in- and out-of-house creative team. There are preconceived notions on both sides that are outrageously outdated. It’s time to leave those behind. To get started, here are a few things I’ve learned from working with in-house groups:

  1. The people sitting across the table from you are likely to be every bit as talented as you, and care just as much about the success of the business.
  2. Share your ideas early and often. Don’t be precious and overprotective.
  3. Establish clear roles and responsibilities to avoid unnecessary competitive situations.
  4. I loved this mantra from one of the in-house creative leads: “Creative is a culture, not a department.” It’s important to be open-minded. At Hydrogen one of my favorite campaigns is the result of an all-agency collaboration of creative ideas.
  5. Hang out, get comfortable in a social setting if possible. Plan a dinner and drinks or even an afternoon off-site ping-pong tournament.

The realm of creativity has long been an area filled with fragile egos and strong opinions. I believe that’s part of the process that leads to better work. But the bottom line? Respect. We’re better together, and if we truly believe that, everyone wins. Wanna play?