Corporations are building high-quality in-house design and advertising groups like never before. The In-House Agency Forum (IHAF), founded in 2005 to provide connections and community for in-house creative groups, now has over 250 member companies.

Corporate in-house creative groups provide services internally and, in some cases, to external clients. Successfully nurturing talent inside giant corporations is trickier and, in my experience, more challenging than it is in small creative groups yet outstanding work is coming out of seemingly unlikely places like Amazon and Fidelity.

Why Are Corporations Going In-House?

Traditionally, in-house design and advertising groups have been viewed by creatives as producing lower quality work than independent agencies. That has changed for several reasons:

Quality.
Apple, Nike, Starbucks, and others have shown corporate leaders that quality, in-house creative groups can make a significant contribution to corporate success and the bottom line.

Speed.
Corporations need products and advertising concepts developed faster. A direct connection between talent and the corporation’s internal product and marketing teams speeds the process.

Security.
The work of in-house creatives on products, services and communications predicts the corporation’s future. It provides significant insights that competitors would love to have. It’s risky to have this work done by outsiders.

Strategic Planning.
Design and design thinking have become a strategic part of corporate planning. Creatives play an important role in shaping future success through their contributions to the planning process.

Money.
Corporations are attracting better talent by paying higher salaries and providing more extensive benefit packages than outside agencies, while saving money by avoiding agency markups.

 

The result is that internally produced design and advertising is becoming the new corporate norm. Some other considerations include:

Does The Size Of The Corporation Affect Creativity?

The impact on creativity is determined more by group size than size of the corporation. Creatives do their best work in small groups where they feel known and appreciated. The corporation can have hundreds of thousands of employees, but if the creative group is small, company size isn’t an issue.

What Makes Being Creative Difficult In A Corporate Environment?

Creatives are more empathic than most. Empathy is why and how the work connects with people emotionally. Creatives are motivated more by the work and less by the money. However, it’s more common to find linear thinkers – whose job it is to help the organization meet financial goals – in management roles, which can create conflicts.

Problems also occur when creative teams are treated like a service versus a stakeholder. When creatives feel their work contributes to the organization’s higher purpose, and they are acknowledged for their efforts, they are motivated. But if they are viewed as the place to get an executive’s PowerPoint fixed at the last minute, they feel victimized.

How Does A Corporation Manage Hierarchy And Veto Power In A Way That Encourages Creative Groups?

It must be clear to all that managers are making decisions that further the higher purpose of the organization and respect the contributions of creatives. Creatives must understand and respect the driving forces of the organization. When this is the case, veto power and hierarchy are respected.

Are There Effective Ways For Creatives To Demonstrate That They Are Business Stakeholders, Not Just Service Providers?

Yes. Always state how your work is in the best interests of the organization and supports the overall goals. Explain, not only the benefits of your contributions, but also the downside of being a service provider who just does what you are told.

How Can Managers Nurture Creativity In A Traditionally Corporate Environment?

By setting creative standards that are recognized as encouraging the best possible outcome, and by doing work worthy of those standards. By listening to the concerns of the creative team and corporate clients and responding with work that addresses the needs of all.

Are Mentors Helpful In A Corporate Environment?

Creatives benefit enormously from the coaching that a good mentor can provide. Especially when they feel like they can’t talk about sensitive subjects to co-workers or managers. Creatives often get caught in self-destructive thought loops that, without the help of coaching, are hard, if not impossible, to escape.

A good coach listens, asks relevant questions, is genuinely interested in one’s well-being and in good outcomes, gently suggests alternatives, and is supportive throughout. A good coach maintains absolute confidentiality, which is critical in any organizational setting.

What Draws Creatives To In-House Groups?

Better pay and benefits for one. But that’s not the only reason. Creatives identify strongly with brands supporting causes they believe in. If the organization has a higher purpose, like giving back to the farmers that grow the coffee as Starbucks does or supporting humanistic causes as Apple does, that can be a big draw. An in-house designer for MoMA in New York was recently quoted in AIGA’s Eye On Design: “We’d rather sell Picasso tickets than Nike shoes.”

Does The Growth Of In-House Groups Spell The End For Design And Advertising Consultancies?

Not the end, but it certainly limits the future of outside creative groups who don’t offer significant value. That is, value far beyond the services that have been traditionally provided by ad agencies and design firms.

Consultancies owned by holding companies, whose sole purpose is profits for shareholders, are being especially hard hit by the growth of in-house agencies. Recent surveys of creatives working in holding company owned agencies showed no allegiance to their agencies, only to their profession. As a result, talent is leaving agencies for better paying in-house positions with more creative freedom. So in-house employment of creatives is growing strongly while it isn’t at consultancies – especially those owned by holding companies.

 

Frankly, it’s never made sense to turn creative groups into financial instruments. Creatives are motivated by the work, not the money. So if the products, services and communications they create help their company grow and they get a fair share of the money and respect, everyone wins.