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:

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:

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!

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.

Today, nearly 70% of companies have in-house agencies. And that number is only likely to increase following the seismic shifts caused by COVID. Amidst COVID, many in-house teams were formed, churning out communications, taking on design challenges, supporting rapid digital transformation, and only now are they starting to take a breath. In-house teams were the key to success during what can only be described as an unprecedented time.

So how are they doing now? Frankly, many are struggling. Staff are leaving, recruiting talent is taking longer, and the workload keeps increasing. At the same time, technologies, user habits, cultural context, and how business adapts to meet them are continually in flux. As business priorities shift, the type of work and workload on in-house teams’ plates do as well. And that leads to another challenge—managing all of that work. Investing in operations is key to success, but it is often undervalued, its impact underestimated. Asking people to self-manage projects or work without proper operational support is not sustainable and prevents them from performing at their best.

So, how do companies with in-house agencies tackle these challenges and start realizing their full potential? Define your in-house agency’s purpose. This foundational step will create clarity, streamline work, and elevate the creativity and productivity of your team.

Clarify your priorities.

Without a clearly defined purpose, many in-house agencies struggle. They don’t have a sense of the value they bring to the organization, which means that their priorities are often driven by someone outside their team rather than their own leadership. It can also mean responding reactively to the latest fire drill or listening to the loudest voice in a meeting.

All of this holds back your team’s progress and diminishes the potential impact you could have on the business.

One way to create clarity around your team’s purpose is to shift your mindset. In-house agencies are unique in that they operate as a business within a business. If you were a wholly separate agency, how would you position yourself? What is the value you would provide? What would your core services be? As an in-house team, do you want to do more strategic work?

Answering questions like these will help you figure out your team’s priorities and what work you should be taking on so that you can create a purpose statement for your team and begin setting the right expectations.

Set boundaries and protect them.

Once you have done the work to define your agency’s purpose, it is important to solidify that by putting a stake in the ground with the rest of your organization. This means clearly articulating to senior leadership across the organization what you do, what you don’t do, and how to work together.

Setting boundaries and expectations is not easy, but it’s necessary for the long-term success of your team. Drawing a line in the proverbial sand is important for you as a leader to protect the integrity of your team’s work. It ensures their time is utilized appropriately, that they can be most productive, and that they feel supported and empowered to focus on their key priorities rather than getting bogged down by every request that comes across their desk.

Now setting expectations and boundaries does not mean inflexibility. You can have clarity of your mission and draw a line, but that line can shift as the needs of the business shift. It is about proactively managing your team’s work versus just reacting and getting lost in the weeds.

Bring in the right skills for the right work.

Once you lay the groundwork of clarifying your team’s priorities, creating boundaries, and protecting them, purpose can also help you build the right team. By defining the scope of work your in-house team does, you are also defining the type of skills you need on your team consistently.

Amidst headcount restrictions and hiring challenges, you might be inclined to focus on generalists who have a broader skill set and who can work on a variety of different projects. But that often does not work out as planned. With generalists, the work is often not at the same level and does not get delivered as quickly and seamlessly as with experienced specialists. For less complex or strategic work, that might not make a difference. But when you’re thinking about the work that’s aligned with your team’s purpose, it’s much more important to have access to specialized skill sets.

So a core team with deep expertise aligned to your key priorities is important. But you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by how to tackle the work outside your core purpose. Or perplexed by how to respond to the ebbs and flows of your business or the quick pivots that might shift your priorities. This is where it helps to think flexibly about how to get the work done—using contractors, agency partners, or perhaps a mix of both alongside your in-house team.

Contractors are a great way to add skills and support for work that needs to get done, but that isn’t aligned with what your core team should focus on. A consideration, however, is that they require an investment of time, management, and cost. There is the time searching for the right person, onboarding, and managing the work and the person doing the work. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the contractors you utilize will deliver the work to your specifications (unless you have a very thorough vetting process). Not to mention, the next time you need additional help, you will have to do the whole process over again. Do you have the time and resources to do that? If so, contractors are a great way to add flexibility. If not, then agency partnerships are the way to go.

An agency partner can deliver the capabilities you need as well as manage the people and processes. The right partner will be equally invested in the work and keen to create mutual trust. They will seamlessly integrate with your team, respecting the work your core team does and supporting them in the work that is outside your team’s scope.

This is particularly helpful when business priorities change (as they often do!) and your in-house team lacks the internal expertise. The right partner can be a critical resource to help you quickly stand up that capability while putting in place the structure, operations, and technology required for success. Over time, you may decide to continue to outsource that workstream, or you may build up that capability in-house.

But it all starts with purpose.

Whether you are running an in-house agency, building one, or planning to build one, there is one core element to their success: clarity of purpose. An in-house agency needs a mission to guide everything it does and what you, as an in-house agency leader, need in terms of resources. As with any business, defining the value, services, and deliverables lays the groundwork for long-term success.

Purpose is not just important for managing work streams, workloads, and teams. More and more, purpose is key to keeping your team engaged and productive. And who doesn’t want that?