Agencies: surviving the in-house design trend in 5 steps

Champions of superior design have had plenty of opportunities to celebrate. Design is not a throw-in, but a true differentiator in an otherwise increasingly commoditized world. Designers are now coveted as founders and business leaders, and it’s difficult to point to a 21st century product or service triumph that isn’t rooted in design.

On the other hand, champions of the traditional, unfettered design agency are starting to worry. Some of the best and brightest creative minds and agencies are being snapped up by top brands and even financial institutions. We spoke with agency insiders, who offered these five tips for navigating the pressures of the in-house design push.

Be a strategic player

Twelve-step programs tell us that the all-important first step is to admit you have a problem. In this case, the problem might be that some stand-alone design agencies aren’t as uniquely valuable as they would like to believe.

“An agency’s job is to climb the wall, go into the client’s space, and solve problems,” says Greg Daake, principal and creative director of DAAKE. “If you can’t do that, or you aren’t willing to work in a client’s best interest, then on a spreadsheet it will look like the client can save money controlling the creative by sitting them next door.”

Reflect on recent client pitches and be honest about where the conversation began. “If you immediately get into a discussion about color palette before you ask what’s going on at retail and what the client is doing for marketing, you’ve immediately shown that you are not a strategic partner,” says Adam Wilson, co-CCO at Enlighten. “It opens the door to a whole new world when you start asking business-related questions of a current or new client.”

Because in-house design is becoming increasingly common, CMOs now have the tools and the literature available to make some pretty good guesses about what level of quality they can buy with payroll dollars. Beating that as an independent shop takes more than assertion and bluster. “If I look at your body of work, is it inspiring?” says Roger Camp, CCO of Camp + King. “Do you have case studies? Can you be more blunt than the people who live in the daily monotony of the brand?”

Mix up revenue models

Competing with internal cost structures means design firms have to be willing to accept new revenue models. Start by letting go of the work that pads out billable hours and doesn’t deliver genuine creative value.

“Think of the natural low-hanging fruit clients can bring in-house, and let them do it,” Daake says. “If there are thousands of tactical assets to create and a lot can be done in-house through templates and systems, enable the internal teams to do that so clients don’t think they’re being nickeled and dimed.”

Make executive connections

A typical line against in-house creative is that it is too susceptible to executive whim. But the fact is that executive leadership will have its say, sooner or later. Rather than forcing top management to feel that the only way they have a stake in design is to put it on the organizational chart, start forging relationships at the highest level.

“I always ask my clients to keep me abreast of what’s happening in the C-suite, because if a CEO or CMO gets something in their head, it can affect how the company looks at everything,” Camp says. “Internal designers have more access to that group and they use it to fast-track projects.”

Stay inventive and ride out the cycle

Like so many business trends, insourcing is fundamentally cyclical. “Companies bring things in-house, then new leadership wipes that out because the internal group doesn’t produce good enough work, then someone else comes in who’s cost-conscious and brings it in-house again,” Wilson says.

There’s no guarantee that the wheel will turn exactly the way independent creative leaders would like, however. Rather than sitting around waiting a few years for the trend to reverse, agencies need to keep working to develop new challenges that can attract, retain, or re-hire the best talent in the industry.

“The best design and creative professionals want to be able to solve different problems, and outside the upper [brand] echelons, it’s hard to keep minds like theirs busy, occupied, and fulfilled,” Camp says.

Polish the doorknobs

Finally, think about the problem from a business perspective. There’s no shame in letting the trend be your friend and taking the money. “There’s a very good reason some of the larger tech giants like Facebook and Google have acquired design firms—they think they can get better work that way,” Wilson says. “Maybe some should be thinking of setting themselves up for acquisition.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.