Can In-house Design Departments Be Respectable?
By David Baker August 8, 2008
Can In-house Design Departments Be Respectable?
By David Baker August 8, 2008
Can In-house Design Departments Be Respectable?
By David Baker August 8, 2008

A significant percentage of the design community works in-house at large corporations. The designers, illustrators and photographers who choose to work in those departments do so for the opportunity for structure, benefits, predictable hours, career paths and greater collaboration.

If you doubt that a large percentage of designers are working for in-house firms, attend a conference at DMI, AIGA, HOW, SEGD or myriad others, and just look at the attendee list. In spite of their numbers, they are underserved in some ways. All the design topics are applicable, but there is very little advice available on how to run a creative department. How should it be structured? What systems will ensure good work that is also timely? How should that department be marketed?

You weren't expecting that last one, were you? “Market an in-house department?” you ask. They have a built-in customer, don't they? What would marketing do for them?

Regardless of the setting, marketing is about control, not growth. It's about controlling the kind of work you get, when you get it, what they think of you and how valued a partner you are. And it is precisely for these reasons that in-house departments must start to take their own branding seriously.

In my consulting experience I know this for a fact. No matter why they call seeking help, the word “respect” always seems to creep into the conversation. In-house designers continually express concern about why their opinions are not valued, why they are given very little time to get work done, why the plum jobs get sent to outside boutique shops and why there seems to be little appreciation for what they do.

What follows, then, are six suggestions to enable in-house departments to become valuable partners to their internal clients.

1. Survey internal clients

You do have clients, right? You must think about them this way, and part of not taking them for granted means surveying them regularly to quantify how well you are doing. You might not be doing this already because you fear the results, but asking for feedback is actually more important than the feedback you get. In other words, you get mileage just from asking.

Whether you do it yourself or use an outside consultant, here are some questions you might ask:

  • You are currently working or have worked with other departments and firms. Was there something about that experience that you wish we would incorporate into our working relationship with you? In other words, can you suggest one or two things we could learn from our competitors?
  • In terms of your daily contact, do you think that person does a good job at keeping you informed, asking the right questions and guiding the project in such a way that you can relax knowing that it's in good hands?
  • As a partner, do you think we provide the appropriate amount of strategic leadership? In other words, is your department significantly more successful because of the thinking that we are doing on your behalf?
  • Is there a looming challenge in your department this year that we can help you overcome in a manner in which we have not worked together before? In other words, how can we change our service or product offerings to keep pace with what you might be facing?

Compare your results each year and watch for trends, using the information to enhance particular service policies. But in addition to this yearly written (or web-based) survey, the manager of the department should check in with each client individually, whether informally, as they happen to pass in the hallway, or more directly via a phone call. The bottom line is: are you sending signals that you take their business for granted or do they fully understand that you want their business and appreciate the opportunity to make a difference?

2. Understand your own branding

Have you ever stopped to think about what it is that makes you valuable to your internal clients? If you are thinking “cheap” and “handy,” shame on you. CFO types who decide to bring all that work in-house often justify the decision on that basis, and they even continue to evaluate your continued existence as a department in that manner.

But it's wrong. The most valuable independent creative firms are those that are specialized, focused and narrow in their approach. They use category experience or practice areas to highlight their expertise, and when they are pitching against generalist firms, they can almost always win because prospective clients want experts, not generalists with A.D.D.

That positioning should transfer to your department, too. Your value to internal clients should be primarily this: your specialization in understanding what that company does. You know the product or service, you know the buyers of that product or service, you know the competitors. You are an expert.

And yes, you are also efficient, timely and cost-effective, but that's a very dangerous positioning on its own. The studies we've done have not demonstrated that you are cheaper than using an outside provider, long term. But regardless of that, there will always be someone willing to do it quicker or cheaper, so start thinking of yourself instead as a built-in expert. And then protect that expertise by only doing work that's a good fit for your skills, finding outside partners for the remainder. You have to learn to say no while preserving your relationship as a team player.

3. Deliver and plan

While it's not so common to do so, be sure that you pay appropriate attention to those who interface with your “clients” and those who do the equivalent of account planning for them.

Account executives, or what I call Deliverers, are very capable people. They are organized, forthright, helpful and good at managing relationships. Most importantly, they know exactly what questions to ask to gather all the information necessary so that those working on their behalf have everything at their disposal to do great work. Find good ones and make sure they are trained well.

Account planners are those who actually guide projects strategically. Many in-house departments are involved more in implementation than strategic guidance, but that's a mistake. You need experts in marketing and branding on your staff, just as standalone creative service providers have on theirs.

4. Develop internal systems

To serve your internal “clients” well, you need to treat them like real clients. That means having a good timekeeping system, honest predictions of cost and delivery schedule, frequent updates initiated by you, a standard intake procedure so that good work is done out of the gate, and good tracking systems that will mean real-time updates of your progress.

5. Use a chargeback system

Money is the currency of respect, and unless you are exchanging work for money, you aren't garnering the respect you should. In case you aren't aware of it, many in-house departments have “charge-back” systems in place in which client departments establish budgets at the outset of the year, and then transfer funds from department to department (on paper only) as each project is complete. Almost every company does this for hard costs (any outside service like printing, photography, etc.) but some do it for soft costs, too, based on an hourly rate established at the outset.

While it might be terrifying to consider a charge-back system, all it does is introduce some accountability on both sides, resulting in greater respect all around. Consider these benefits:

  • It limits asinine requests. If kids didn't have to pay for anything on the candy rack, no tough choices would be necessary. Force internal clients to allocate their dollars wisely and the requests you see won't be as silly.
  • It promotes planning by forcing them to do a budget. Better yet, impose discounts for early requests and higher rates for last minute requests and you might be surprised at how many fewer rush requests you get!
  • It provides accountability for you. If clients are “paying for” what they get from you, they expect a bit more for their money. This is a good thing for you and them.
  • It clarifies the choice between using you and an outside option. Some companies require all work to be done, or at least managed, by the in-house department. Others let the internal “clients” choose, and in those cases you want their choice to be informed by expertise more than cost.

6. Draft your own marketing plan

From your own experience and the ideas I've just shared, you already know if your in-house department has a positioning problem. Besides the suggestions above, you might think about implementing your own marketing plan. If your internal clients only assume they'll be using you, consider yourself taken for granted.

But there are some things you can do about it. First, publish a quarterly newsletter talking about what you've done, how you did it and how successful it was for another department. Include a section with trends in marketing, with particular emphasis on marketing within the product or service niche served by your company. You might even feature a different “client” in each issue.

Second, push to be part of the yearly budget planning that each of your client departments will do. Lend your expertise in helping them spend their dollars wisely and thus get the most from your efforts.

Third, hold company-wide seminars on marketing and design. Make them fun, interesting and informative.

Fourth, to whatever degree you are allowed, make your own department an entirely different place, where your creativity is obvious from the moment someone walks in. Fashion a place where “clients” will want to come because it looks like an independent firm: a place to get away from the routine.

In sum, treat your clients as if you had to land them yourself and as if they were free to use anybody they wanted. If you don't, they'll eventually end up with that freedom and you'll be looking for a job.

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