Who belongs in-house? How to find talent for the internal agency

See what the Intel creative executive has to say about staffing in-house agencies.

For as long as I can remember, going to the brand side meant a few things: Taking a breather. "Retiring, " or even worse… selling out.  It’s never meant creative fulfillment. That puts an inherent limit on the growth of internal agencies—after all, how can we do the kind of work we want to do in our in-house creative shops if we can’t attract the the industry talent to pull it off?

I’ve recruited a lot of people to work at Intel’s Agency Inside. For every one who’s intrigued by the opportunity, there are  two who are worry about being boxed in. That’s partly because in-house agencies are new, and because they’re often built around cutting costs rather than on big ideas. The perception still seems to be: If you want to do great work, go to an external agency.

I’ve found the opposite to be true at Intel—the best creative opportunities of my life have come when I became an owner of the brand I worked on. But I’ve noticed that people from agencies who thrive in-house are different in some really crucial ways. The in-house life isn’t a fit for everyone. If you identify purely as an "agency person," and if you mostly like to hang out with people who do the same type of work as you, you might be better off sticking to traditional agencies.

What makes a person a creative a good fit for an internal agency, and why?  Understanding the differences will help both internal agencies and the talent that fuels them.

First, you have to care about the business. The people who get the most out of being part of our team get satisfaction out of deeply identifying with a brand. I’d worked closely on clients’ businesses at some of my agency jobs, and what I saw intrigued me. I wanted to dig in deeper. I joined Agency Inside four years ago because I had discovered I loved being part of a brand, not just working "in service" of a brand. I wanted more room to practice the discipline. Fewer silos, more experimentation.

This deep, broad access defines the internal agency experience for us at Agency Inside. Just by the benefit of proximity, you may find yourself with unparalleled access to the head of a division at Intel, the digital marketing experts, the people who make your product—whoever’s riding in your elevator on the way to the office.

You also need to love exploring. At Intel, we encourage our employees to walk around a bit. The most visible work we’ve done, like our drone light shows at the 2018 Winter Olympics or our partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a live action-animated avatar for a run of The Tempest, came from cross-pollinating ideas between our agency, marketing and engineers.

At a company like ours, a comfort level with technology is certainly valuable. But the most important attributes for in-house life are curiosity and a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Brands are constantly evolving, so the creative group embedded in that brand has to evolve, too. We can’t wait until we get a good footing because that may never happen. We look for people who are confident in the value they bring on day one and who will just start moving as soon as they come through the doors.

Even once we set aside outmoded perceptions of in-house agencies, brands face a few particular hurdles to hiring—including where we’re headquartered. Not every brand is located in the types of cities where talent coming from traditional agencies want to live. We’re in Silicon Valley and, initially, a lot of our recruiting conversations stopped right there.

We solved that problem by opening an office in San Francisco and tapping into its talent pool, but that’s not an option for everyone. If it’s not, you’ll have to work harder on benefits and perks to make yourself competitive.

Attracting junior agency players can be especially challenging. That’s why, in building Agency Inside, we thought from the top down. We brought on leaders who people wanted to follow. We started to tell our story through PR. We applied for—and won—awards. Most importantly, we made great work. We tried to create an environment where people came to us, not the other way around.

Don’t forget that when you ask people from traditional agencies to come in-house, you’re asking them to learn a new language. We found it tough just to articulate corporate pay structure. Most tech companies build benefits and stock options into their compensation, while agencies tend to pay in salary alone. Internal agencies have to make time to handhold candidates through the process of understanding a kind of compensation package that’s altogether different.

And once we hire, it’s up to us to help our new team members integrate into a huge business that is culturally unlike any agency they’ve ever worked for. Articulating your values and expectations helps them get their bearings. That was so crucial to us that we wrote our own book, A Guide to the Agency, to help people joining us get the lay of the land.

If an agency is only as good as the talent it attracts, an internal agency has to work doubly hard to make sure it’s attracting—and landing—the right talent. When both brands and agency talent know what works at an internal agency, together, we can build in-house creative groups that raise the bar for everyone.

Yogiraj Graham, is Agency Inside’s global director of Intel’s Creative Content Lab.

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