4 Things That Transformational In-House Agencies Get Right Every Time

Now more than ever, companies and stakeholders are expecting agency-quality work and agency-level service from their in-house creative and digital production teams. In 2019, ANA estimated that 80% of companies utilized in-house agencies. This number had doubled since 2008. Expectations have never been higher for in-house production teams to deliver world class creative while helping companies reduce costs. Teams are starting to feel overwhelmed by their work and undervalued as the demand for quality creative rises in tandem with the demand for greater efficiency and cost savings.

As a result of this pressure, in-house teams are struggling to transform into strategic partners within their organizations. Teams are being buried in mountains of immediate, high-demand work that might not be strategic: taking on the role of an order taker rather than a strategic partner.

Aquent Studios has worked for over 30 years as an advocate for in-house teams, helping them boost their creative output and expand their role within their companies. Throughout their years of work, Aquent Studios has noted that many in-house agencies face similar issues when looking to transform into strategic partners. The difference between good and great in-house teams is often small and slight changes can make a big impact on a team’s success.

In June 2019, Insight Exchange Network partnered Aquent Studios to present a live webinar, “What Transformational In-House Agencies are Getting Right“. This webinar was presented by Corey O’Brian, VP of Strategy & Sales and Travis O’Neal, Director of Creative Ops. In their presentation, Corey and Travis discuss four things that in-house agencies (IHAs) need to do in order to transform into the role of strategic partner at their organization.

Webinar Recording of “What Transformational In-House Agencies are Getting Right”

1) Identity – Being known for One Big Thing

For IHAs, their role in the broader organization is rarely defined. IHAs often struggle to make a bigger impact on the business of said organization. For example, when asked to describe what their IHA does in one sentence, many IHA leaders have trouble providing a succinct answer.

IHAs can redefine their identity by first defining that “One Big Thing” that differentiates their team. They need to understand what makes them the clear choice when compared to external alternatives. That One Big Thing could be a capability or an aptitude for a specific creative. Also, it could be an attitude or culture. Above all, it is important for any IHA to understand two things: who you are and what makes you great. The identity of any great IHA, as it goes through the transformation from order taker to strategic partner, will be built on that One Big Thing.

Of course, defining a core strength can pose several challenges and present a few risks. It is important for an IHA to have a clear understanding of their strengths and how those strengths compare to the One Big Thing that they chose to define their identity.

Identifying the One Big Thing

A great way for IHAs to gauge their strengths is to ask around. Surveying stakeholders and asking them to define how they perceive the IHA. Frequently in the past, Aquent Studios has found that there is a glaring perception gap between the opinions of the stakeholders and their respective IHA. How the stakeholders perceive the role or responsibilities of the IHA is often different from what the IHA actually does for their organization.

If IHAs are falling short of nailing that One Big Thing, then they need to identify their pain points. What exactly is keeping them from reaching up and “grabbing that next ring” in strategic work? If they are struggling to keep urgent order work off their plate, then there are third party agency partners, like Aquent Studios, that can help free up labor for more strategic work. If an IHA finds that they don’t have the right key players to make their One Big Thing happen, then reaching out to 3rd party agencies to augment their team can make a huge impact.

Ultimately, identity is essential to an IHA because change is driven by the people on a team. To clarify, a strong identity gives a team something to rally around; it gives people a focal point that keeps this new transformation top of mind. Identity is an essential foundation for any IHA looking to transform into a strategic partner within their organization.

2) Structure – Building a team that can nail that One Big Thing

After an identity has been established, it is important for an IHA to consider the structure of their current team. They need to ask themselves, “Is this team the team that can deliver on the expectations set by our new identity?” Many IHAs find that the current players on their team, while a great fit for their old model, actually became limiting factors for their new identity. A restructure and a change in roster can always result in new innovation and greater commitment. So don’t shy away from the option. Any great IHA needs to have the skills and people in place to make this new identity a reality.

In addition to changes to in-house personnel, IHAs need to evaluate their current ecosystem of external partners. IHAs should consider the scalability, capacity, and cost-efficiency of each partner and how these factors might affect this new identity.

Sooner rather than later, IHAs need to tackle the issue of structure aggressively. External partners and the right team members can help an IHA attain that strategic partner role.

3) Process – Delivering on that new identity

For many IHAs, inefficient processes can kill their promises and they can kill any attempts to be known for that One Big Thing. On the other hand, a clean process delivers on promises. Ultimately, a clean process means having the right people working on the right projects at the right time. In other words, a clean process drives throughput, minimizes downtime, and reduces inefficiencies in an IHA.

The Difference between good and great: effective tiering

Tiering is triaging projects by two variables: complexity and strategic importance. Each tier has a defined workflow based on an understood level of importance.

If an IHA’s best creatives are stuck in the “tactical work trenches”, then that IHA cannot deliver on their promise. They will not nail their new identity. Those great creatives need to be available; they need to be able to be the great creative minds that they were hired to be.

Forecasting is vital to effective tiering and effective forecasting  relies on data. It requires properly defined work types, tiers, and tasks. After these have been clearly defined, trends and data can be recorded. For example, data can be collected on what work is being requested and what projects are actively being worked on. From there, effective tiering can be put in place to create the most efficient processes possible for your team.

4) Positioning – Getting a team to buy-in

While it is essential for IHAs to build great processes, any process they build cannot function without team buy-in.

IHAs have to position their teams to live and love their new identity every day. They must believe in that One Big Thing and IHA leaders need to make sure that it shows up in everything their agency does. This consistent culture and attitude will not only retain the best members, but it will also attract new talent as an IHA begins their transformation. The best creative people want to go to work where great things are being done everyday: that’s what brings them in.


To some, these four imperatives might seem like small changes or tweaks. They might appear more cosmetic than practical, but they can make the difference between a great in-house agency and a partner that an organization relies on for their brand to function.

As mentioned before, the difference between good and great is not that big. Small differences can make a big difference in the final outcome. Any IHA risks being pushed to the sidelines if they fail to deliver on their promises. For many in-house agencies, the start of their strategic partnership with their company’s leaders starts with nailing that One Big Thing.

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