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.
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?