Are in-house agencies immune to COVID-19?

In-house agencies are here to stay, and there doesn’t seem to be a vaccine for the holding companies in the near future.

Covid-19 has pushed all clients toward a digital-first mindset. 

Brands with proper in-house set-ups have adapted, while bureaucratic holding companies have proven too cumbersome to keep up. 

Companies that value marketing and creative ideas internally aren’t having major issues handling COVID-19. Google, for example, had to pivot quickly to make its video conferencing platform, Google Meets, free early on in the pandemic. It was able to pull it off quickly thanks to a bottom-up culture where everyone is empowered to make things happen, said VP of marketing and content John Zissimos. 

Google’s marketing department has a lean senior management team and a lot of hybrid talent that can handle multiple assignments and change direction quickly, Zissimos explained. They can bring in outside vendors depending on the project to ensure people are never just sitting around.

Large, bureaucratic companies, on the other hand, have top-down cultures that slow down decision making with lengthy approvals.

But as more marketers bring work in-house, agencies still have a role to play. When COVID-19 hit, Liberty Mutual’s in-house agency, Copper Giants, collaborated with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to develop a cross-channel campaign within two weeks. Great partnerships built on trust can activate a core team in less than a day, prioritize the work, and be there for customers. 

In-house agencies are also catching up in terms of talent. Last year, a handful of creative agency stars left their roles to go client-side. Nick Law left R/GA for Apple, and Dave Rolfe, who popularized integrated production at agencies, left for Facebook. 

Many award-winning creative directors tell me that if the right in-house position comes along, they wouldn’t think twice about taking it. This wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Agencies argue that creatives get stale working on a single client. But what really makes people stale is the commoditization of creative time. A young creative will burn out quickly cranking out 1,000 pieces of content a week. But if you’re passionate about a company mission, you’ll never tire of building that brand. 

While there really is no universal set-up, an integrated approach is key. Someday soon, this model may be the norm. Culture matters. Ideas matter. Talent, diversity and integration matter. Working together, rather than in silos, enables clients to achieve success. 

No matter what the model looks like, the in-house agency is here to stay. And there doesn’t seem to be a vaccine for the holding companies in the near future. 

Mickey Paxton is a freelance ECD and longtime advertising agency executive.

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