Why In-House Roles Are in Demand Among Creatives

Brand marketers are luring CCOs away from agencies

As brands shift budgets to in-house teams, negative stereotypes about working in-house have eroded. Getty Images
Headshot of Erik Oster

It’s no secret that many brands are benefiting from moving work in-house—it cuts agency fees and allows clients to more efficiently combine creative and business talent under one roof, something “agencies should worry about a great deal,” according to Darren Moran, CCO of The Wonderful Company’s in-house Wonderful Agency.

And the upside of in-house is not limited to clients.

As brands shift budgets to those in-house teams capable of producing increasingly recognizable work, negative stereotypes about working in-house have eroded and top creatives are being attracted to client-side roles, lured by the promise of the type of creative freedom, client access and work-life balance unavailable at agencies.

At the time he joined Dollar Shave Club to lead creative in 2013, Alec Brownstein said there was a “major stigma with leaving the agency world and charting any path that didn’t involve getting to more and better agencies.”

Since then, there has been a “complete 180” in that attitude, he explained. “Now everyone just wants to go in-house.” Brownstein’s creative partner Matt Knapp arrived at Dollar Shave Club from Anomaly in 2015, citing similar attitudes at the time.

As that perception seemingly changed, Grey global CCO Tor Myhren led the way, departing for Apple in 2016. At the tech company, his creative output has been “phenomenal” to watch, said Caroline Pay, who is leaving Grey London to join Headspace as CCO in September.

Pay explained that creatives earn more freedom to experiment, pushing risk-averse brands from within, adding, “Now more than ever there are so many barriers to doing game-changing work. Budgets have just shrunk so massively.”

Moran, who left Grey New York to join Wonderful Agency last year, explained avoiding a huge part of agency life—not having to worry about pitching—has allowed him to concentrate on creativity, adding, “The new business machine … was becoming easily half my job, if not more. … I didn’t get in the business to just sell, I got in the business to make stuff.”

At Wonderful Agency, he said the team’s efficiency allows it to easily match or exceed the output of traditional agencies, with better work-life balance.

“Life is far too short to be burning nights and weekends working on meaningless decks,” Knapp said. “Creative people need to make things, that’s the thing that drives them. When you can come in-house … everything you work on is a business problem that needs to be solved.”

As an in-house shop, Moran added, they can “come up with the right solution for the brief” without concern for agency revenue. “It really is all about the idea.”

The nature of the in-house shop also provides better access to, and understanding of, the client.

“I was always an agency misfit,” Brownstein explained, frustrated by organizational boundaries to solving the underlying business problems behind creative briefs. “Even though agencies say, ‘We make more than ads,’ the relationship hasn’t really caught up with that objective yet.”

In many ways, Moran said, the approach harkens back to an era when “you did know the client’s business, the client respected the creative work and you didn’t have to pitch every two weeks. It was a relationship and a long-term relationship.”

Not every in-house position offers a creative oasis, of course.

Brownstein cautions that a move to a company that doesn’t value creativity can lead to isolation and frustration at the need to “argue why creativity is necessary in the first place” and that junior creatives aren’t generally a good fit for the leaner structure of in-house shops. 

Moran noted that The Wonderful Company’s variety of brands offers “an abundance of opportunity” that not all in-house agencies offer and that some creatives may worry that working on a single brand could spell “creative death.” He recommended creatives find brands they’re passionate about.

As clients demand dedicated units, it’s becoming more common for creatives at agencies to be relegated to working on a single account, an approach Moran called the “worst of both worlds” because “you’re stuck working on one piece of business” that comes with the revenue pressures of working for a traditional agency.

For the in-house shops dedicated to infusing their culture with creativity, it can prove a revelation for frustrated creatives.

I feel more energized and more joy for this business than I have in a long time,” Moran said. “We just stripped away the bad stuff about the agency business and got out.”

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.