Debunking myths about in-house design teams

The leaders of creative teams at Channel 4, Pentland Brands and Specsavers discuss the realities of working in-house, from budgets and talent, to stigma and internal relations.

The act of bringing creative teams in-house has been a growing trend for some years now.

In-house teams supposedly offer better value for money, can work closer to a brand and can operate with a better knowledge of its culture. Indeed, Design Week’s article series profiling a range of in-house design teams from companies around the world shows innovative work can be found internally.

But while the trend shows no sign of slowing down, still some myths and misconceptions surround the work that goes on in-house.

As part of the Festival of Marketing, three in-house team leaders – 4Creative executive creative director Lynsey Atkin, Specsavers head of creative operations Julia Arenson and Pentland Brands creative agency director Gareth Davies – sat down to shed some light on their teams and their roles.

Are budgets lower?

One of the main reasons brands consider moving creative work in-house is cost. Having a dedicated internal team means side-stepping agency fees, but does this also mean budgets for creative projects are lower?

4Creative executive creative director Lynsey Atkin

Atkin, whose creative team manages “everything that isn’t a programme” on Channel 4, says there’s no hard and fast rule for in-house budgets.

“Like any client, you might have a massive budget for one thing and smaller one for something else,” she says. Some Channel 4 projects, like Bake Off or the Paralympics for example, require more funds and more attention than others.

She adds: “Maybe they’re a little bit lower overall, but because we produce so much in-house we’re able to make more from the money we have.”

Do you get creatively stifled by working with just one brand?

One of the biggest benefits of working within an independent studio or team is no doubt the variety of clients with which you get to work. For those used to working with many clients at one time, can moving in-house match up to this experience?

In answer to this question, Arenson says one of the major pluses of being in-house is knowing your brand and truly being its guardian. The Specsavers in-house team, for reference, has being working in this field for around 20 years and so knows the brand inside and out.

“Pulling people into a room is very different when you have an agency-client relationship, it becomes much more formal,” she says. “Actually, informalizing the creative process is a massive advantage.”

She adds: “There’s so many people working [at Specsavers] who have been doing so for a long time and really understand the products – a lot of the legwork that you’d have to do as an agency isn’t required.”

Atkin echoes this: “It fosters a feeling of colleagues rather than clients and there’s a mutual respect because everyone is working to the same ends and cares about the brand.”

Can you ever get to work with creative people outside of your brand?

In the same vein as saving money on budgets, there is a perception that in-house creative teams handle all creative work. Is this true?

Davies says no. In fact, part of running a successful creative in-house team requires knowing the limits of what you can do.

“It’s easy to try and have a go at everything,” he says, adding that it is crucial to understand when your team aren’t best placed to work on an element of a project. Pentland’s in-house team, which runs the creative work for brands like Speedo, Berghaus and Ellesse, frequently brings in other agencies that better deal with things like advertising and digital creation.

“You have to ask yourself when you are best placed to pass that brief over to someone external,” he says.

Is it hard to attract new talent?

Davies recalls that when he first went in-house there was a stigma – an association that in-house creatives were turning to “the dark side”. Luckily, he says, this is an attitude that is changing. But while it might be changing, how easy is it to attract new and diverse talent to teams, when so much emphasis in the creative industry is put on agencies?

“You live by your output,” Davies says, explaining that the good work being done by his team is a big enough draw to future members. “It’s all about having exceptional talent.”

Atkin adds to this by saying that the work of teams within the fashion world have helped to boost the profile of in-house work.

“Particular the art direction and creativity in certain fashion houses have made it feel like a really exciting place to be as a creative person, particularly if you’re a visually creative person,” she says.

For Arenson changing the overall perception of in-house work is necessary. Good work, she explains, is key to “building recognition.”

Do you have experience working in an in-house team? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Hayley P October 15, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    I work in-house as a designer for a charity. I agree that one of the benefits is knowing the brand inside-out, but that can be a hurdle as it’s easy to churn out the same repetitive things and you avoid taking risks or trying new approaches. Budgets in-house are of course squeezed so that limits how ambitious we can be vs if working in an agency. I feel like in-house teams can be taken for granted and not seen as skilled or innovative as we often outsource to creative agencies for bigger projects. It’s difficult to prove our worth as our time is occupied with designing the essential day-to-day comms rather than being able to take time to concept and experiment with bigger projects. It’s a shame but that’s the trade off with working in-house!

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