Who will lead your in-house agency?

Enough interest has built up around in-housing that marketers will soon have sufficient resources to help them decide, with confidence, if it is something they want to explore. But to better understand its growing popularity, it helps to see in-housing as an offspring of our culture of self-service. “Faster, better, cheaper” is the sum benefits in many pitch decks hoping to flip the table on traditional business structures. It is also a phrase that catches the attention of management and procurement.

Where a diminished need for intermediary parties might be a common feature of digital-first revenue models, in our conversations with leaders in companies that have chosen to bring creative and media in-house, the snapshot of client/agency relationships looks more like a blended family rather than one of distinct separation. Yes, there are companies that are committed to building self-reliant in-house teams, but the norm leans towards hybrid partnerships that still require agencies to drive big ideas and innovation.

Building teams, finding leaders

A study by ID Comms last year ranked talent as the biggest concern marketers had regarding in-housing. Attracting and retaining world-class talent is a challenge across the marketing industry as a whole, though the appeal of working for clients has grown amongst creatives in recent years; a topic Grace Blue recently explored in an APAC report on talent migration.

But as much as marketers try to figure out how to build in-house agencies with a high talent quotient, the question of who is best to lead this new model should be given as much attention. Is it the CMO? A senior marketer? The creative director?
CMOs are already stretched with expanded job scopes and do not have the time to attend to the constant stream of process and production issues agencies face every day. Marketers without agency background struggle to understand how to get the best creative from their in-house team. Creative directors without corporate experience will find it frustrating to negotiate the priorities set in the boardroom.

A leader with commercial and creative DNA

Successful leaders of in-house agencies will have the unique DNA of being able to speak the language of both commercial and creative sectors of the business. They will have the respect of the C-suite, be able to translate corporate mandates into strategy and action, defend agency boundaries and motivate teams to produce great work.

It’s not quite the hunt for a mythical creature, but neither is it as simple as expecting results to translate from one environment to another. Just because someone has done something before, doesn’t mean they have the skill to be able to lead others to do the same.

Marketers looking to hire for in-house leadership roles should look for three key skill sets:

  • Ability to develop a common language: Having a leader who can develop a common vocabulary that both corporate and creative teams can understand is crucial to the success of any in-house agency model. According to Project Aristotle, Google’s study into effective teams, psychological safety is the most important characteristics of top performing teams, and the way to develop trust is by creating understanding. This could be the ability to translate the details on an earnings call for a media-buying team, or justifying agency cost with a CFO when marketing spend is dramatically decreased. Communicating clearly, on both sides, will also prevent vagueness of briefs and ensure alignment on strategies and KPIs.


  • Setting and defending boundaries: At the start of 2019, Unilever had 18 U-Studios co-located in 15 countries with marketers. Such close proximity provides easy access to creative talent and enhances the speed, quality, cost and agility of work. It also makes teams vulnerable to scope creep and exposes them to unplanned demands on resource, which can lead to burn-out. Strong in-house leadership will be able to maintain and defend a critical distance between marketers and in-house agencies, all while juggling complex relationships with external partner agencies.


  • Understanding what makes creatives tick: Creatives within in-house agencies love the opportunity to see their creative work applied across all categories. They also appreciate the fast decision-making and shared agenda that comes with working for the same company. With in-house agencies, there is less client confrontation as everyone is looking to achieve the best results for the business. The challenge for any in-house agency leader is the lack of motivation and decrease in creativity that can arise as a result of a flat business structure. As staff only focus on servicing a limited portfolio, it will be important for leaders to bake creative diversity and tension into their agency model at the outset.

The writer is Jean-Michel Wu, CEO APAC, Grace Blue.