What separates a great in-house creative team from a mediocre one? This articles shares some answers, including insight on nurturing an internal creative team.
What makes a great in-house creative agency?
This is a deceptively complex question. You might think that the foundational metric for any internal creative team would be, well, creativity, but that’s not always true.
Internal creative teams operate on a different mandate than outside agencies. Their goals are long-term and their outlook broader, yet surprisingly narrow in its scope.
Keeping this in mind, what qualities should you look for when you’re building an internal creative agency? And how can you go about building them?
I’ll answer these questions and more below.
The 10 Qualities of Great Internal Creative Teams
What kind of role do internal creative teams play in your organization?
Obviously, they help you create marketing collateral for your customers and clients. Sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration with your outside agency.
But they also do something else: internal marketing.
Think of all the great brands in the world – Nike, Coca-Cola, Google. What makes them compelling isn’t just their consumer-facing brand; it’s the cohesiveness of their story for both their customers and employees.
Nike’s employer brand has the same values as its consumer-facing brand – the “doers” (Image source)
In other words, you have to sell your brand internally before you can sell it to your customers.
Internal creative teams are instrumental in this role. They help you understand and market your brand and its values to everyone – customers and internal stakeholders.
Keep this in mind when you’re building an in-house agency. You want to select people who aren’t just good at being creative, but who can also champion your brand at a fundamental level.
Broadly, all great internal creative teams share these qualities:
1. Industry knowledge
When you hire an external agency, you get creatives who work for clients across industries. Even if they have superior skills, their experience is seldom domain-specific.
This is where internal creative teams shine. Since they work with just one “client” – you – in-house teams can develop deep industry expertise. They can learn your industry’s best practices, build connections with your thought leaders, and develop domain-specific expertise that outside contractors just can’t have.
2. A thorough understanding of the brand
What makes your brand?
For an outside agency, the answer is often externalized and superficial. They might talk about your brand colors, logos, and overall brand identity. Some might focus on your culture and values, but all their knowledge comes from working “on” your company, not “in” it.
In contrast, internal creative teams experience your brand as an everyday thing. For them, your brand isn’t just a collection of logos and colors; it’s the sum of your culture, coworkers, and customers.
This is the one trait all great in-house creative teams have. They understand your brand at a fundamental level.
3. Innovation-first thinking
In-house creative teams aren’t mercenaries. Unlike outside professionals, they’re rarely tasked with (or need to work on) one-off projects.
Rather, their role is to act as the business’ internal “innovation center”. Instead of one-off projects, their goal is to continuously improve the business’ marketing and product output.
This expanded, evolving brief requires people who have an innovation-first approach. They are – pardon the cliche – “outside the box” thinkers and tinkerers. Any creative exercise isn’t just a one-time process for them, but a way to approach all problems, in work and in life.
This study shows how dissatisfied creative directors are at agencies. In-house agencies tend to have substantially happier creative directors than their external counterparts (Source)
4. Emphasis on collaboration and listening
In-house creative teams occupy a “support” role in any business. Their goal is to work across departments to bring creative thinking to problems. This work is fundamentally iterative in nature.
Given this brief, collaboration should be your team’s top priority. Value people who can listen – broadly and deeply – to customers and coworkers alike. They should be able to work across teams to unlock new ideas and bring them to life.
5. An ability to forge strong relationships
Creative teams have a tough task: balancing the demands of customers, coworkers, and senior leaders. Think of it as a central channel that brings the business together. It takes in ideas from every department, understands them, and translates them into reality.
A team that doesn’t have strong relationships with all the stakeholders will struggle to bring its vision to life.
This is why great internal creative teams invest in building strong relationships, particularly with senior executives who decide the business overall direction.
6. A shared sense of purpose
Dig through any great creative team and you’ll find that they all have one thing in common: a shared sense of purpose. They’re often bound by similar beliefs and a unified mission.
This is why management consultants talk so much about “culture” and “fit”. Teams that don’t believe in the same thing often fall apart.
In the case of internal creative teams, this sense of purpose becomes even more important. Since they’re the conduit to the business’ creativity, it is crucial that they buy into the brand and its mission. Else, their creative output will suffer.
7. Project management knowledge
External agencies bill by the hour; they have to operate efficiently to make a profit.
But in-house creative agencies have no such constraints. They can take 20 hours instead of 10 to wrap up a project.
This often leads to situations where internal teams chase creative excellence over operational efficiency. The end result is a project that meets neither its budget nor schedule targets.
The antidote to this problem is to prioritize operational excellence when building your team. Choose tools and people who understand project management and how to extract value from creatives.
Something like Workamajig’s in-house creative suite can save resources by bringing agency-level project management know-how to internal teams.
Workamajig’s in-house creative suite helps you manage your team effectively
8. Business-specific skills
It goes without saying that your in-house creative team should have strong skills.
Your team’s skills should match your business’ demands, not vice-versa.
Of course, your team should also be ready to learn new skills when necessary. Creative skills and technologies change fast. Any great team is always willing to push the boundaries and pick up new capabilities as they emerge.
9. Risk-taking abilities
External agencies are propelled by the need to be creative to win awards and clients. An agency professional who doesn’t value innovation will soon find himself out of favor in the job market.
Internal agencies have no such pressure. An in-house designer’s paycheck isn’t dependent on how many awards his work brings in.
This can often cause internal teams to stagnate. They can easily fall into the trap of creating “safe” collateral instead of pushing the boundaries.
Solve this problem by selecting teams that are willing to take risks. Keep challenging their limits to ensure that no complacency creeps in.
Diversity and creativity go hand-in-hand. The conflict that is inherent to diverse teams can spring new ideas and viewpoints, as one Harvard Business Review author notes.
Of course, this diversity can’t just be skin deep; it has to be fundamental to your organization. You can’t just hire a bunch of different people and call it a day. Great creative teams have deep respect for, and tolerance of different perspectives and beliefs.
When coupled with strong leadership and direction, this diversity can be a wellspring of creativity.
This brings us to the next question: How do you nurture these traits? What can you do to build your in-house agency?
Answers, and more, below.
Nurturing Internal Creative Teams
Great internal creative teams are nurtured, not assembled. You can’t throw together a bunch of creative people into a room and call it a day. You have to give them the right environment and direction to bring out their best.
Here are some pointers for nurturing better creative teams:
1. Prioritize cultural fit when hiring
A common mistake businesses make is focusing only on skills during the hiring process. While skills and experience are undoubtedly important, they are secondary to cultural fit in the long-run.
You can, after all, learn new skills. But molding an experienced employee to fit your culture is much harder.
Focus on cultural fit when you’re hiring. Look for people who share your values, or have worked in organizations that have a similar culture as yours. Ask questions like these in the screening process:
- What do you value most at work?
- What do you like most about working on a team?
- What are your core beliefs?
Of course, this assumes that you already have a well-defined culture and values. If not, refer to this article to scale your culture.
2. Get organizational buy-in
Diverse, creative teams can’t thrive unless there is broader organization-support for them. Thus, before you start building your in-house agency, make sure there is substantial buy-in, especially from senior leadership.
This is a consensus-building exercise. Every stakeholder will have his or her own biases and beliefs, especially when it comes to something as contentious as creativity. You want to understand all these beliefs and work around them to build consensus.
Ask your stakeholders questions like:
- Do you support creating an in-house agency? Why? Why not?
- What are your chief concerns about an internal creative team?
- What would a successful in-house creative team look like to you? What would an unsuccessful one look like?
- What kind of resources are you willing to pledge to make this team successful?
- If you had to, how would you measure the impact of this in-house agency?
3. Clarify your hierarchies
One of the biggest reasons for creative team failures is a lack of direction. In-house agencies tend to fall apart when there is no clear reporting structure or organizational hierarchy.
So before you start the building process, figure out where the creative team fits in with the rest of your organization. Ask questions like:
- Who does the team report to?
- Which department does the team belong to? Or does it exist as an independent entity?
- How is the team internally organized? Is there a project manager? If yes, who does he/she report to?
An example of a creative team’s organizational structure (Image source)
Internal creative agencies are usually structured like their external counterparts. They also tend to have a wide mandate with the ability to work across departments and stakeholders.
4. Offer direction and leadership
Rudderless creative teams usually fall into the trap of producing sub-par, risk-free collateral. They often lack the organizational support for more creative campaigns. And even when they do have adequate support, there is no one to give them leadership and direction.
Make this one of your top priorities when you’re building a creative team. Don’t just bring creative people together; give them a clear mandate and leadership to look up to.
Ideally, you want someone leading the team who can champion it across the business. This person should have strong relationships with senior stakeholders. She should also understand the concerns of creatives and help them do better work.
Strong leadership is particularly important for getting the best out of diverse, conflict-prone teams. Creativity needs to be channeled; without leadership, it is easy to fall into chaos or stagnate into safety.
Over to you
In-house creative teams are a massive competitive advantage. Not only are they more cost-effective than outside agencies, they also promise better creative output and a stronger focus on innovation.
Great creative teams frequently share a few traits, as I’ve outlined above. Besides being creative, they’re also diverse, relationship-oriented, collaborative, and have deep domain knowledge.
Read more: Marketing In-House or Outsourcing to a Marketing Agency