The Evolution of In-House Creative Operations and its Integral Role Within an Organization [Interview]

creative operations works within organization

Dickson Bueno, Head of Creative Services at Neato Robotics, and John Barnhart, Director of Creative Services at the University of Idaho, recently shared with us their thoughts on how creative operations has progressed into such a vital role, and its growing importance as a strategic partner to other business units within a company.


John Barnhart

John Barnhart

Director of Creative Services at the University of Idaho


Dickson Bueno

Dickson Bueno

Head of Creative Services at Neato Robotics



How has the role of the creative operations in-house team evolved over the last 20 years?

The concept of creative operations really took off around 2002. After the markets reacted to both the dotcom crash and the devastating events of 9/11, a large number of marketing agencies went under and many professionals found themselves in the “what do I do next” mindset. Those on the other side of the table – those that hired these agencies – were suddenly faced with fewer options and, often times, increased costs. This created an opportunity for those ex-agency professionals that had a multi-design prowess, as well as knowledge of the full production cycle and business side of things, to either be a part of a hybrid agency or get hired as an in-house creative services professional. As Dickson Bueno points out, companies really benefitted from getting “people that understood the innerworkings of the agency but also the business and bottom line.” This paved the way for the creative operations executive.

In 2008, we saw another economic downturn, this time with some distinctive nuances. Social media, smartphones with apps, and big data were radically emerging at this time, and everything ultimately became data-driven. “Companies were able to more effectively see how money was being spent and many determined that the in-house creative operations team might be a good way to go” Bueno said. Not only is it cost-effective, but a company also gets an individual, or team, that fully understands the company’s culture and vibe, which is crucial to telling a story and/or maintaining the brand.

Over the last ten years, we’ve seen a significant growth of in-house agencies. This has also prompted the emergence of hybrid agencies and/or ones that offer a la carte services, which has helped a lot of companies employ a creative operations branch that could cover the full gamut of offerings. “There are a lot of opportunities for creatives that weren’t there before” Bueno added, “It’s certainly an exciting time for the industry.”

How has the role of creative operations grown as a strategic partner within an organization?

One key advantage to an in-house creative operations team or executive is the opportunity for strategic partnerships with other departments of an organization. There’s a synergy that’s invaluable to the company’s overall vision and mission. John Barnhart mentioned that when he was with an agency, he always wanted to “get in line with the sales team’s needs, see their hurdles and have a better understanding of their challenges so that I could better design tools and campaigns to help them.” When you’re literally on the same team or in the same building, this is a much easier thing to accomplish and the end result should be optimum functionality.

Additionally, the role has grown with upper management and the C-Suite. “Let’s say that you’re a CFO” Barnhart added, “obviously you’d be wanting to get a handle on how the company is spending money in this capacity. With a creative operations executive, you have a lot more access to this information and it is able to be presented to you by someone that’s speaking your same language”. On the flip side, the creative operations executive has the opportunity to talk to the CFO in a way that might have a better chance of getting results. “One thing that’s exciting about this role is that you can really control your own destiny. You’re in a position where you have your finger on the pulse of everything that’s happening with your product and/or brand.” Said Barnhart.

Where does the future lie for Creative Operations?

While Bueno and Barnhart expressed excitement about how creative operations has grown over the years, they’re both eager to see what the next major advancement will be. “Data still certainly impacts the industry, and it’s impacting creativity as well, how will we address that? There’s going to be a point in time where we’re going to have to put the focus on making things look good and pretty and not just looking at data” Bueno said, “Data is certainly impacting creativity, how will we move on from that?” There’s also a lot of wonder about what the platform is going to be, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, as they can only last so long. What will be the next evolution of communication?

Barnhart sees video as the medium to keep an eye on for the biggest growth and development. “We need to make sure that we’re producing compelling content, and that comes from video,” Barnhart said. “Video is comfortable; it’s contained and put together in an easily digestible format… [Video] is what engages an audience the most. From a storytelling perspective, it’s what our audience usually wants to consume.”

Finally, they both agree that keeping current and maintaining a vast network of other creative operations professionals is vital to continued development. “The creative operations industry is still very much underserved so having a venue to meet your peers that are challenged with the same things that you are is key,” Barnhart said, “Attending a think-tank like IEN’s Creative Ops conferences provide can really help the creative operations executive evolve and find tangible solutions to everyday problems.”

Both Bueno and Barnhart will be sharing more of their thoughts on this at Insight Exchange Network’s Creative Operations Exchange this April 15-16 in San Francisco. They’ll join Ingrid Graham of NBC Universal/Telemundo, and Brynne Roberts of Fitbit as panelists on the Executive Roundtable: Creative Operations as a Maturing Discipline. This panel will be moderated by Kate Green of Pandora.

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