How Brands Can Solve the In-House vs. Agency Conundrum for Content Needs

By David Bates, Managing Director, ATKPLN

Ever since brands like Nike and Fossil created powerhouse internal creative and marketing groups in the early 90s, trends have oscillated between in-house creative teams and external agencies to address ever-evolving and increasingly complicated content needs. While one approach always seems to have more momentum at any given time, the pendulum continues to swing back and forth and a lasting preference for one model simply hasn’t stuck.

While the last thing the advertising industry needs is another buzzword, re-orienting thinking toward a ‘strategic content partner’ approach embraces the best of in-house and long-term partnerships. A strategic content partner doesn’t necessarily need to replace an agency or an in-house team, but rather complements them, working alongside to effectively streamline its holistic content. Better costs and higher output with increased quality (and less headache) is, in fact, possible with such a partnership. Given that even in the pandemic new platforms and trends have emerged, the need for brands to create fresh and engaging content only seems to grow. While it may seem “safer” to lean towards one approach for content creation, doing so could limit how effectively a brand is addressing its overall content strategy.

Brands anxious to accommodate these swelling requirements may need to evolve. Having built my career on both sides of the industry, I’ve had experience with multiple approaches and have realized it’s hazardous for anyone to apply a cookie-cutter approach. Every brand has its own unique content demands. Each also has differing focus and core competencies that come with their own framework for how to most effectively balance creative in-house vs. outsourcing. For most, this will call for an honest and thorough assessment of existing strengths and weaknesses, as well as a clear understanding of key goals and critical requirements, and will result in a truly unique blend. But the essential foundation of any of these content strategies is a core internal understanding of brand positioning. If there isn’t a key team solely dedicated to the creation, application and evolution of the brand identity, then any kind of approach is going to fall flat. It takes focus, commitment, and investment upfront, but brands that prioritize this and take a long-term, strategic approach to content creation will not only achieve cost savings but also create a much more cohesive message and visual aesthetic. When done right, this streamlined approach can vastly improve overall ROI for their marketing efforts.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience different blends of in-house and external partners in my time on the brand side that have shaped my perspectives on the need to have a highly customized blend that is specific to each brand. One instance earlier in my career was during my nearly decade-long tenure at Fossil, where I worked across multiple roles, including overseeing international brand standards for both marketing and retail. Our team built the marketing strategy from the ground up, developing and distilling a brand foundation that would eventually be implemented in every aspect of the company, worldwide, in any place a consumer came in contact with the brand. With a core understanding of brand principles, we worked at a rapid pace to fill international brand needs, product launches, and seasonal themes, along with implementing all of this seamlessly through wholesale, retail partners, and our own digital and brick-and-mortar retail. It took time and constant evolution, not to mention fully supportive company leadership, but we ended up with our core brand identity fully dialed in and a team of in-house talent with the ability to execute creative across the board at a very high level. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the company’s commitment to internal creative, but in retrospect, I see how important it was to the overall success of both the creative team and the company.

After stepping into the creative production realm for a period of time, I came back to the brand space with Bedrock Manufacturing, the company behind the launch of Shinola and the relaunch of the storied Filson brand. During the launch of Filson, I was assigned the role of Director of Creative Operations, working alongside the Creative Director and senior management to find the right balance between in-house and outsourcing. The critical need in this instance was to teach a company to re-embrace ownership of its brand and its creative destiny, along with instilling enough confidence to execute this across wholesale, retail, catalog and web. It also had to be done quickly. In order to implement this strategy, processes needed to be designed, and teams needed to be built and trained. While this framework was invaluable to ensuring future brand success, it still called for an objective assessment of what could be achieved internally, along with how long it would take to implement.

Of greatest importance at the core of these efforts was honest self-evaluation. Creatively owning our brand was a key directive, but it was also imperative to find collaborative partners that could run at our pace, fill in the gaps, extend our reach, and implement this brand strategy alongside us. All of this required backing up and looking at the brand, the team, and the work to be done holistically. It’s important to see how entire brand strategies map together with product strategies to develop long-term plans for teams, content, and collaboration. Thinking in terms of years, instead of weeks, and campaigns, instead of projects, brands succeed when they work with partners who are trusted and can work as an extension of their team.

It’s no secret the advertising industry is in need of a business model shakeup. While the pandemic has forced some changes to happen, there still is an underlying desire to return to “normal” operating procedures. For example, traditionally, an agency or an in-house team goes through a bidding process with a selection of production partners, identifying the ideal choice for their project or campaign. Each time production is wrapped, they go back to the drawing board and start at square one for the next. But what if they thought about identifying strategic partners, instead of one-off vendors? What if they looked for a collaborator who also embraced their big picture goals as a brand? I’m not necessarily talking about life-long relationships, but purposeful partnerships built on mutual needs being met. As content needs evolve, there should be time for reevaluation built-in. As needs and teams evolve, so should the content partner strategy.

After a restless year at home, change is undoubtedly on the horizon. This highly customizable ‘strategic content partner’ approach could serve as an invaluable tool for brands to navigate the continually changing content landscape with a partner so plugged into their big picture goals they can help anticipate the next steps. The marketing needs of brands have drastically changed since the “mad men” era, so business models need to similarly shift to create more efficient and collaborative workflows that engage with consumers and drive revenue. While the need for an advertising agency partner has far from disappeared, adding a strategic content partner to a brand’s marketing arsenal can better fulfill the needs of brands in today’s digital society.