A potbellied executive pounds the boardroom table made of rare old-growth timber. The rattling sends caviar and lobster tails spilling from imported china. He bellows, “We have to find a way to reduce these agency fees!” Someone suggests bringing all the creative in-house. The executive cackles and twirls his handlebar mustache.
Okay, it’s a cartoonish version of a company trying to reduce costs. But for internal agencies and content studios, the following isn’t so far from the truth.
A writer is hired to sop up the company’s unquenchable thirst for advertising copy. News quickly spreads far and wide that there’s a word-monkey on staff. His dance card is filled as fast as anyone can print calendar pages. The solo wordsmith is asked to do everything from penning the annual corporate report to naming someone’s pet llama – forget about time for advertising. After pleas for help, the H.R. department brings on a junior writer with social media skills. She immediately becomes everyone’s favorite copywriter. A friendly competition between them gets ugly fast. And the workload grows.
At the same time, the company hires a graphic designer. Alas, it’s chaos since no one is really in charge of the creative trio. After an internal struggle, the original copywriter is anointed creative director – even though he has no experience managing anything but words on a page. He’s just been there longer than the others, and he’s willing to do the gig without a pay bump. For the time being.
Heaping office management chores on his plate affords the creative director less time to focus on brilliant advertising. The graphic designer requires constant supervision and starts complaining about the creative director’s eye for design. The organization clamors for the department to start shooting videos. And the creative director quietly starts shopping his resume around town.
In the last five years, companies have been racing to pull production and creative in-house. In the last five years, I’ve been asked to fix a lot of in-house teams. Some large staffs, some made up of a handful of people. The problem isn’t that mustache-twirling chiselers lead these companies. Usually, the problem is that internal teams are stitched together like something more frightening than Frankenstein’s monster. They lack vision, structure and clean processes.
There’s no real silver bullet. But here are a few common issues I’ve experienced building and fixing in-house teams.
Stay in Your Lane
It’s important to define roles and responsibilities. Who’s in charge of what? Just as important: What are they not in charge of. Haggling and diplomatic word-weaseling over a job description muddles the issue. Make clear distinctions. Some crossover is required. Possessing multiple skills is imperative. But staffing a herd of blue unicorns who can “do it all” always ends up a mess.
Who Owns This?
Project managers are required for complex projects that involve many team members, external vendors and/or several touch points. Or if you have a ton of crap to do. Most organizations hate the idea of (and I’m quoting) “hiring someone to make sure other people do their work.” Especially, if the boss is trying to keep the department lean. But a solid project manager makes everything run smoother.
Seniors and Juniors
Not every role requires senior talent. Many effective teams have juniors doing the lion’s share of the work, supervised and reviewed by seniors. Pay the money for senior talent where needed, but only where needed. And if your entire team is made up of juniors, you’re definitely gonna need a project manager.
Spread the Jelly to the Edges
When the jelly gets spread too thin, you lose the flavor. A company’s natural inclination is to not use vendors if there’s an in-house team. But sometimes your team doesn’t have the skillset required – for example, shooting with drones. Other times your team needs a fresh arm to throw a few relief innings. Burnout and churn are serious problems with in-house teams. Losing people with institutional knowledge is always a body blow to the department. Your annual budgets should anticipate augmenting your internal services.
Let the Dogs Run
Occasionally, the team needs a juicy assignment that allows them to stretch their creative muscles. Those muscles become atrophied over time if not regularly pushed. Identify those projects. It’s not a reward; think of it as regular exercise.
When Everything is ASAP
Every minute spent fighting fires is bandwidth taken away from improving the quality of the project. There can’t be a fire drill every day; the team will start ignoring the siren. Planning well in advance solves a lot of these issues. Regular communication with department heads helps too. But a great event calendar is where I always start.
Square Peg, Square Hole
Putting people in the right position to succeed is challenging, but important. Evaluating each person’s strengths and weaknesses helps identify whether the team you have is the team you need. Some people thrive working in short bursts. Others do better with more time. What type of workload are you throwing at them? If you have a team of brawlers, don’t ask them to box. Hire boxers.
The mindset within some organizations is that the internal team is composed of staff with limitless time to dedicate to their needs. Or they have no idea how long it takes to execute a project. Someone needs to be in charge of managing the expectations of the organization. The number of hours assigned to a project needs to be defined ahead of time and tracked throughout, like at any other agency or production company. The reason? You need to push back with numbers.
Burn It to the Ground
All the best practices and system processes go out the window when the CEO or the founder beckons. This goes with the territory; it should be expected. However, if it happens all the time, someone has to set up a system to keep the head of the company happy – while at the same time not derailing other important priorities.
In one organization, I set up a team we called the fire brigade. At least once a month there was a high-level request that “had to be done.” Every time we got a high-priority CEO request that pushed us over capacity, we pulled talent from other departments and augmented them with freelancers. Yes, it stressed budgets and stressed other departments. It also made a clear case for more staff.
The most important step of all is buy-in. The key stakeholders must be onboard with the changes, or it won’t work. You can expect resistance from the staff, but without high-level backup, any new process is going to fail.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
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