Avoiding one of the biggest in-house agency mistakes.

Saying yes to the wrong work.

By: Corey O'Brien, Susie Hall

Avoiding one of the biggest in-house agency mistakes.

Does this sound familiar? You have a vision for your team—the work you would do, the projects you would take on, the impact you would have. But most of that work is in the backlog, or not on the radar at all. Instead, your team is stretched thin, fielding requests from Marketing, Brand, and other departments daily. They're cranking out display banners, presentations, and collateral rather than planning key brand initiatives. It's not the work that challenges and engages your team—it just needs to get done.

It could be time to say, “no.” It's a short word with a lot of power—and it can be a scary thing. For example, if you turn down high-volume, low-complexity work, your overall work volume will decrease, and leadership could assume that your team needs fewer people or a reduced budget. That sounds like the opposite of the growth you seek. But when used at the right time, and when you provide an alternative that still meets their needs, saying “no” will transform your team and drive much greater impact.

So if you're ready to get the work you want, you're going to need to define your team's purpose, understand how that matches the needs of the business, and figure out when and how to say yes if you must.

Find your purpose

The key to knowing when to say “no” is knowing what you should say “yes” to first. It sounds like a philosophical exercise, but define your team's purpose. Another way to think of it: what is the work you and your team want to be and should be doing to make the biggest impact? Maybe that framework aligns with broader company goals. Maybe it's about delivering better work, faster. Or maybe your mission is to generate cost savings for the organization.

Some questions to ask yourself and your team: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you bring to the table that no other agency can? What do you want to be known for? This is a complex task that will take time, but there are resources that help make this into a structured, collaborative activity. 

Something to keep in mind: your team's purpose will change over time. Bear with us. As business needs evolve, new technologies emerge, and economic conditions change, so will the purpose of your group. And that's OK.

Uncover the needs of the business

Knowing what work you and your team want to be doing is great, but you won't make an impact on the business if you don't know the true needs of your business partners. By understanding the outcomes they're trying to achieve, and the work that needs to get done, you'll instantly improve your business case because you'll be able to demonstrate the value of keeping the work in-house. How do you align your purpose to the work the business demands? Here comes communication.

In order to optimize an in-house agency, get as clear a picture as possible of what's being produced across the organization as a whole, in-house and externally. The most straightforward way to do this is to reach out to the head of each business unit to grab a coffee (in-person is ideal, but hey, virtual coffee is great too). Before you meet with them, think about questions to ask them to be sure you understand their creative needs, but also learn more about their team.

Don‘t know where to start? Here's a tip—start by cultivating a relationship with Marketing Procurement first. Why them? They typically have efficiency and savings goals that align with insourcing work. More importantly, they have existing external agency Statements of Work (SOWs) and know exactly what work is being done, what it costs, and the results of that work. That information could give you a blueprint to follow or be inspired by, at the very least.

Get the work you want

Like any other agency, the work is not just going to magically appear—you have to pitch for it. The same is true for your in-house agency. It also means that you have to plan out and be able to articulate the value and core capabilities of your team and why they're the team for the job. Yes, this means putting on your sales and business development hats. Anyone on your team should be able to give a three-minute elevator pitch that explains:

  • Your team's core value: What your team does? What is the work they produce?
  • Us over them: Why is your team the best choice for the job? What do they offer that an external partner cannot?
  • Get in touch: Who should they contact or engage on your team to keep the conversation going?

Also, focus on all touchpoints with your business partners (yes, even for internal clients), from kickoff calls to capabilities presentations and after-action reports. Creating collateral might seem counterintuitive since you are all part of the same organization, but it is necessary to further solidify your team's purpose.

You do not need to find a single person to manage this. Engaging your team in customer expansion and acquisition increases the chances you will land more of the business you want. But there's another way to gain trust. Engage your partners directly by teaching what you know.

How to say yes, if you must

The reality is that you can't always say “no” to the work you don't want. Sometimes you simply have to say “yes,” but there are ways to do so that won't derail your vision or overwork your team. Here's how:

  • Provide options: Be ready for the requests for work you want to say no to, but can't. Don't just take in those projects as-is; instead, provide a defined list of options. Involve your team in brainstorming realistic options that will get the work done.
  • Develop a shared language with partners: By having clearly outlined project types and tiers and SHOWING your stakeholders how their work fits into the overall picture,  you will shift the conversation away from that dreaded “us vs. them,” and bring in trusted external partners to provide additional creative capacity and extend your team.
  • Build relationships: This will take time—it is not a one-off activity. Start small and go from there. Carve out time for ongoing meetups to share knowledge based on interests or project types. Maybe make a monthly newsletter that highlights your team's work and learnings. Get social—set up events (virtual or in-person) to build deeper connections.
  • Get outside perspective: You are not the only one facing these challenges. Seek out peers to gain perspectives from other teams, companies, and experiences. I assure you, MOST leaders are facing the same challenges when it comes to building an awesome in-house agency, especially when it comes to saying NO.
  • Do the work—with help: You do not have to go it alone. Bring in an external partner, who acts as an extension of your team, executes specific work, and delivers it back to your customers on your behalf through your existing workflow… just as if it was your team who did it.

Saying “yes” to everything turns a high potential group of in-house creatives into a quick-turn service provider. Opportunities to show that you are a strategic partner are missed, or they simply get deprioritized due to a lack of time and resources. By setting intention, communication, and saying “no” more frequently, you will earn the strategic work that drives the business and engages your creative staff.

It is hard work—but it pays off. You, as a leader, get a seat at the table, elevating your internal reputation, and transforming your in-house creative team into a strategic partner. Your team is more engaged, working on meaty creative projects, which means they are more likely to stick around. Your clients get a team of true business partners, with shared goals, who deliver truly stellar work. So get great at saying “no” more often to make space for your “yes” work, and you'll be amazed at what your team can achieve!

About the Author

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Corey O’Brien

VP, Strategy and Solutions

As Vice President, Strategy and Solutions, Corey leads new business development efforts and supports new client engagements. Corey has helped more than two dozen in-house creative agencies and marketing teams solve challenges across marketing, creative, and experience design. With a background in creative arts and business operations, Corey's blend of strategy and creative execution is an ideal fit for marketing organizations trying to solve challenges around efficiency, new capability development, and scalability of in-house agencies.

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Susie Hall

President, Community and Customer Engagement

Susie leads community and customer engagement at Aquent, connecting leaders through customized programs designed for learning, networking, and social good. In 2019, Susie launched the InsideOut Leadership Community for senior in-house design, experience, and operations leaders from high-profile brands. Over her 20+ year tenure with Aquent, Susie also launched and led Aquent's Vitamin T brand, developed a robust interactive design practice, and led regional teams. With 15 Best of Staffing service awards and hundreds of thousands of connections made, Susie brings a deep understanding of creative, design, and leadership.

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