The in-depth knowledge of an in-house team combined with the broad creative experience of an agency can take your
comms to the next level.
With increasing numbers of corporates building communication skills within their own internal comms teams, when is it the right time to bring an agency on board?
For Hannah Warhurst, Internal Communications Business Partner, Marketing & Engagement at Nationwide Building Society, it’s all about new ideas: “The benefit of having an external agency to support you is that they can give you a different viewpoint. Often, for in-house teams, you become immersed in the business and that almost becomes your world. You don’t necessarily pull in ideas, initiatives and innovation from external sources and you have very little involvement in what’s going on outside your own sector.”
The benefit of having an external agency to support you is that they can give you a different viewpoint. Often, for in-house teams, you become immersed in the business and that almost becomes your world.”
Mairi Doyle, Director of Internal Communications and Wellbeing at Bupa, who relied more on agencies for strategic thinking a decade ago but has since built up those skills in-house, agrees: “I’d go to an agency for specific skills that we don’t have in-house. That might be for creative concepts or help with creative execution. That’s when I want someone who’s got lots of fresh approaches, is aware of best practice and who’ll bring some new thinking to the table.”
Both agree that in-house teams inevitably, and quite rightly, know the business, the audience and the brand guidelines inside out and back to front. They also understand the language of the business and tone of voice, which an agency coming in from the outside will take time to develop. But, Hannah adds, being in-house can run the risk of self-censorship, sometimes leaving little room for innovation.
“In-house teams can become so immersed in the brand guidelines and doing stuff the same way that they sometimes don’t think about how things could be done differently, or what other people are using in other sectors to engage their audiences. In-house teams often don’t have the time to, or always see the importance of, expanding their learning on what’s new and fresh in the world of engagement. When you work with an external agency, that knowledge is there for the taking because their success depends on them being able to take a new angle or approach and be more creative and innovative.”
One of Hannah’s key challenges has been the finite resources offered by an in-house team. “In the organisations I’ve worked for over the years, the expectation is that employees have a good work/life balance which, of course, is absolutely critical to employee wellbeing. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to turn around those last minute changes and requests from stakeholders when the internal agency has no capacity. I’ve found that with an external agency, these last minute requests (which often result in working late into the evening and sometimes weekends) are where you need to go because they’re going to charge you for the hours they put in.
“In a previous company I worked for, the in-house team would be used for scheduled work so they were given plenty of time to plan it in. However, when you have very demanding stakeholders who don’t necessarily understand the creative process and just think you press a button to get everything done, it’s more challenging. If the in-house team doesn’t have any capacity, even for the simplest things, because they’re being fed work from across the business, that can be frustrating. That said, we have a strong drive to use our in-house talent where we can, and we’re lucky at Nationwide because the in-house team are a talented bunch and produce award winning creative. It’s great as an efficiency on both time and spend, and it allows them to work on materials to engage employees as well as members. They’ve delivered some amazing work for our campaigns over the last 12 months.”
Mairi too is developing her in-house capabilities, but says that the right agency can be a huge benefit for specific projects. “We use different agencies for different projects. We tend to get a handle on which agencies are good at particular skills and target them, depending on what we need.”
We use different agencies for different projects. We tend to get a handle on which agencies are good at particular skills and target them, depending on what we need.”
A proviso is that the agency should be as committed to the work and the overarching goals as their client is.
“We try to work hard around collective ownership for an outcome – not just someone doing a video for us, but someone who’s really connected to our purpose and feels that what they are doing is helping to contribute to that,” says Mairi. “That’s when we’ve seen people really pull out all the stops – because they believe in what we’re trying to do as a business, and they are part of the team. That’s when you really get great partnerships.”
Understanding the business is high on Hannah’s tick list too: “If the agency knows the business and understands the stakeholders, then that can really speed things up because they can pull things out of the bag from almost nowhere. An agency that understands what you’re trying to do usually goes over and above to make sure they meet the brief in the right way for you.”
And both agree that it’s good to be pushed a little and encouraged to think differently.
“One of the reasons we go to agencies is for fresh thinking, so it’s a bit pointless in a way if they don’t challenge you at times,” says Mairi. “Understanding the business and what it’s trying to achieve is essential.”
However, she adds: “Getting that knowledge as an agency can be difficult because often the very reason a client has approached you is your ability to turn things around quickly.”
Hannah, too, likes the creative spark that comes when challenged by external forces: “If it’s a project that needs someone to be a bit challenging and play devil’s advocate, then I like to use an agency, because that’s part of what we expect from them.
“If you find an agency and have the right chemistry, they can add depth and richness to what you’re looking to achieve for the business. I’ve always found that I’ve been inspired by the agencies where I’ve had good chemistry with the team I’m working with. It’s a partnership approach and they’ve brought another dimension to the work I’ve been delivering. For me, that’s where it works really, really well.”
An agency angle
So what does Sequel say? We asked Nick Andrews, Business Development Director, what benefits he thinks an agency can bring and how clients can get the most out of their external team:
“As Mairi and Hannah recognise, an agency can bring fresh thinking, using their experience working with clients across a range of industries, providing a different perspective when you need it. And of course we can often be more flexible, agile and ‘quicker to market’ without the extra demands that the in-house teams face.
“That said, agencies do NOT have all the answers – we recognise that the in-house teams are inevitably closer to the mechanics and associated issues of their particular organisation. But a good agency will be an extension to that in-house team – the critical friend who voices an opinion that may be different, challenging or potentially unpopular.
“By challenging I don’t mean disagreeing with the client as a default position. A good agency will look at each project individually to see how we can add value and whether the channel a client has chosen is the best one for that particular piece of communication.
“In-house comms teams should be capable of meeting most of the needs of an organisation, but a wise in-house practitioner will know when to get support from an agency that can go the extra mile and offer something different.
“As an agency, Sequel is increasingly collaborating with clients on one-off pieces of work, whether that’s an engaging campaign, a specific project like 0365 implementation, a comms audit, or training. We can do that most successfully if we get a strong brief, understand the reasoning behind the project, know what the business wants to achieve, and have as much contact with the client as we would if they were in the office with us, working side by side for the best outcome.”