It is very likely that your in-house creative agency is treading water right now. Metaphorically. The pace, breadth, and scale of marketing and creative demands have accelerated to an unprecedented level. In-house agencies (IHAs) must produce more content for more channels faster than ever. Some are thriving, but others are just treading water, working to clear requests that keep on coming.

So what sets successful in-house marketing and creative agencies apart? They’re built to get ahead of the demand for content, not just to keep up with it.

Don’t be at the mercy of every incoming request.

Many IHAs are reactive, responding to an ever-increasing project queue and constantly triaging incoming requests. These requests will often drive workflows and ensuing staffing decisions. As requests continue to come in, the cycle will continue. And the projects that get prioritized are not necessarily what you want your team to work on.

When you approach work by request, you end up falling further and further behind, because, let’s face it—there’s always more to be done. You also don’t give your team the whitespace they need to truly be creative or earn the strategic work your team craves. Rather than focusing on the work that creates the biggest impact, you are looking for a better band-aid. Not solving the problem.

Become planning-driven to have a greater impact.

The most forward-looking, impactful in-house agencies have transformed from being request-driven to planning-driven. This type of transformation should be the goal of every IHA, regardless of where you are on the organizational maturity ladder. With a planning-driven approach, you build relationships and partner with stakeholders and internal customers much earlier upstream. By understanding their priorities, goals, and needs, you can incorporate all of this into planning the priorities and work of your in-house team, identify the work you really want to be doing, and stop operating reactively to the flood of incoming content requests.

This transition can be challenging, but having the right roles and supporting processes will set your team up for success. For example, when Lumen Technology’s in-house agency became planning-led nearly three years ago, they created a new campaign management role to work in concert with project managers. Their campaign managers are responsible for meeting with the business and talking to product marketing and communications partners. The campaign manager asks questions like:

This new team structure and approach to work is what allows Lumen to be planning-led. The campaign manager works to establish a scope of work (SOW) agreed on with business partners. Then the Project Manager steps in to figure out what needs to be done to make that happen, building a plan to execute.

Plan to become planning-driven.

Lumen was able to create a solution that best suited the needs of their IHA as well as the needs of the business. Is this the only solution? Absolutely not. Did this type of change happen overnight? Definitely not. Your solution will be unique to your business needs. And it will take time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Our client Chick-Fil-A worked over the course of a year to figure out the solution they needed: an integrated design production center to take on tactical work, freeing up their creative team to focus on more strategic work and priorities.

By developing a team structure and processes that support planning-led creative operations instead of being led by incoming requests, IHA leaders can help their teams to not just survive as they meet the increasing demand for content, but thrive.

When I began my career in project management and creative operations, I never thought it would take me to where I am now. I started at ConocoPhillips in project management for a 300+ person Creative Services department. We had our own video production studio, a full-blown print facility with both offset and digital capabilities, and an extremely talented creative team. As an Account Manager, it was my responsibility to intake, brief, and manage projects for a number of internal clients as well as to bring in new work. Looking back, this was a true in-house agency (IHA) model before such models were common.

Fast forward to today, in-house agencies are well established at many companies, and they are winning work over external agencies. Internal agency capabilities have also expanded and evolved along with team roles and functions. With all of these changes amidst the background of more channels, more demand for content, and more competition, the need for an operations function within marketing and creative teams has never been greater.

But there still seems to be confusion about what creative operations management really is and why it’s necessary if you already have project managers in place. In fact, I’ve been both a part of IHAs and consulted with a number of organizations where the belief is that a strong PM is the operations team. That may hold true in some cases, and not every team or company is built the same.

But I would argue that what’s needed to make an in-house agency truly successful is making sure you enable that strong PM team to also do their job effectively. Your PM team needs operations too.

So, what is creative operations?

Creative operations enables everyone on the team to focus on their core role so that they can do what they do best. Creative Operations Managers build workflows, create and maintain systems, implement new tools, build trackers and dashboards, plan and manage resources, and more. With these supports and structures in place, in-house teams are able to work smarter and faster (not harder and longer), produce stronger, more creative work, and scale their impact on the business.

Take my role as a Marketing Operations Manager at Patagonia, for example. My job was to bridge the gap between marketing and creative. Working alongside marketers, we built out the operations process that changed how the entire organization launched new products and campaigns. We prioritized which products would have all the creative levers pulled vs. those that wouldn’t. We moved to a standard launch cycle to improve team planning and efficiency. And we built the business case for a more robust project management tool so that the work from the creative team was more organized and so that we had a single source of truth. All of these things were so much more than project management alone.

Who then managed the projects? In this instance, there was less need for the actual project manager role. It’s important to point out that we still had project management support in place. It just took the shape of highly efficient workflows, resources, and tools that the operations team put in place and managed for the creative team. This allowed our creatives to focus on the things that mattered and that we knew would affect the bottom line.

Every organization is going to need to tailor operations to what works for them. But there is an important distinction between project management and creative operations. Project management focuses on the tactical—making sure individual projects, campaigns, and programs are executed efficiently, on time, and on budget. Operations is the strategic layer that creates and implements systems and workflows and that works cross-functionally to communicate and bridge gaps. Combine the two, and you free up your team to do their very best work and have the greatest impact.