How Chobani’s CCO Built an In-House Agency (Just Don’t Call It That)

Leland Maschmeyer built the brand's internal creative team

portrait of Leland Maschmeyer chief creative officer of chobani
Leland Maschmeyer has done much more than craft ad campaigns as the first chief creative officer of Chobani. Chobani
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Three years ago, Leland Maschmeyer left Collins, the design agency he co-founded, to join Chobani as its first chief creative officer. His task: to build the brand’s own in-house agency, bringing its creative capabilities inside Chobani’s walls instead of relying on agency partners.

“The leadership at the time felt that creativity needed to be a strategic imperative for the growth of the organization,” he said. “Trying to steal share in a highly competitive category means that you can’t do the same things that everyone else is doing.”

While Horizon Media handles media buying, the majority of Chobani’s creative work, strategy and media planning are now handled in-house. Under Maschmeyer’s leadership, the brand has launched a clothing line for kids, created new products and given its packaging a makeover.

At the ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando last week, Adweek sat down with Maschmeyer to discuss his experience building an agency inside a company from scratch and get his thoughts on the rise of in-housing.

Attracting talent

For in-house agencies, getting the right talent on board can often be a challenge. In a recent ANA survey of marketers with in-house agencies, 44% cited attracting top-tier talent as a concern.

But Maschmeyer claims hiring hasn’t been an issue for Chobani. “When it comes to recruiting for us, we actually have a very easy time because we have evidence in the marketplace that we do boundary-pushing creative work,” he said.

He went on to explain that going in-house—at least at Chobani—provides creatives with the opportunity to touch much more than just the work. Internally, they can end up working on anything from products to factory design. It’s these “hidden golden briefs” within the organization that are often a draw for prospective talent, according to Maschmeyer.

“I can show all the live briefs that are going through the organization at that moment, and they immediately realize that there’s an immense amount of diversity and there’s a lot of opportunities to grow within the organization,” he said.

Finding the right fit

When it comes to hiring, Maschmeyer said he primarily looks for two qualities in candidates: a maker mentality and comfort with ambiguity. He defined the maker mentality as having the ability to put solutions, “no matter how raw or rough they are,” on the table.

“They don’t necessarily have to have a creative title or be a creative professional, but they have to have the mentality of being able to make stuff or make stuff happen,” he explained. “That can be done through bringing a solution that’s in the form of an Excel chart, or being really talented at building partnerships.”

Additionally, he said people on his team should be not only comfortable with ambiguity but also excited about the possibilities that come with it.

“We [deal] with some foggy things where there’s not a lot of benchmarks. There is not a lot of precedents,” he said. “If you can’t keep up with that or you don’t enjoy that, you’re not going to be a really good fit for our team.”

Keeping perspective

Agencies often boast of their ability to bring an outsider’s perspective to a brand’s work. Case in point: When Pepsi was blasted for its tone-deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner, many were quick to pin the blame on the fact that it was created internally.

For Maschmeyer, the issue isn’t so black and white, as he thinks external agencies can be just as guilty of becoming too entrenched in a brand as internal ones. It’s “not about who is in and out of the company,” he said, but who is “doing the diligence to keep a distant but engaged perspective” on the work.

“It really just comes down to who the people are and how committed they are to maintaining a healthy creative distance from any groupthink that might be emerging,” he said. “For us, that’s something that I’ve been very vigilant about with our team.”

To encourage divergent thinking, he said he pushes his team to continually generate ideas that are outside of briefs or immediate business needs.

“I’ve found that there’s an incredible power in creative ideas to transform thinking and bring new thinking in,” he said.

In-housing ‘not right for every company’

As more businesses choose to bring creative capabilities and other aspects of their marketing in-house, agencies are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive.

While building up an in-house creative team has proved to be successful for Chobani, Maschmeyer sees the overall trend of in-housing as pointing to a “diversification of the market.”

“Having an in-house agency is not right for every company,” he said. “Not every company has either the resources or the draw to pull the caliber of talent that they want. There’s always going to be a need for incredible agencies out there.”

He also said he thinks in-house agencies shouldn’t be called “agencies,” as he believes referring to them as such creates a divide between the marketing and creative teams that can prevent them from working as a cohesive unit.

“The term ‘agency’ immediately puts you into a certain relationship dynamic,” he said. “The most value that you can get from an internal creative, strategic and media capability is by fully integrating into the marketing department so that there’s no division.”

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.