How Bob Calvano Is Building a Strategic In-house Team (Part One)

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Bob Calvano heads up the Media Services group, a 50+ multidisciplinary in-house creative team at Merck, one of the leading pharmaceutical companies operating in the global marketplace today.

As part of the company’s shared-services department—an internal group providing HR, travel, IT, meetings and marketing support to all of Merck’s business units—Bob’s team supplies design, video, photography, webcasting, multimedia and programming services to clients in every sector of the company. The department bills back its internal clients to support its operating budget.

Bob recently championed the implementation of a managed-services model that is comprised of a group of 45 on-site creatives operating under the guidance of a Merck managerial team. (Full disclosure: Andy Epstein, the interviewer, recently joined the Merck managed-services group as its resource manager.) This collaboration is the first step in a series of initiatives to position the Media Services team as a strategic collaborative partner within company. In this edited three-part conversation, Bob outlines the other strategies and tactics he and his group are employing to raise their stature and increase their impact —and offers valuable insights to help you do the same.

Part one focuses on account management and marketing.

What’s your ultimate goal right now, in terms of establishing your team as a strategic partner within Merck? What does that look like for you?

It looks like having the right parts in place, the right pieces of the team in place. Early on I identified the strengths, weaknesses, did the SWOT analysis, if you will, of the team to see where we had gaps, where we could grow the business. What do we want to do? What do we not want to do? In doing that what I realized is…to ultimately become a strategic team versus more of the order-taking type team, we need to have foundational elements in place that will allow us to grow, to engage in a level of conversation that we want to have with our clients.

One of the gaps I identified was account management. [Not sure of the difference between account managers and project managers? Check out this post.] Putting an account team in place would allow us to understand our clients really, really well—what their needs are, what their goals are, what their pain points are, what their plans for the year are, their budget, what they are spending money on, when they are going to outside agencies and how we can bring work in-house that my team is capable of supporting. It would also allow us to get a really good relationship going, understand the business and show the divisions within the company how we can partner with them to help them meet their business needs and to do it cheaper and on brand and on target, more efficiently.

OK, so a lot of teams may want to establish an account management group, but they’re faced with having to fund that to make that happen. How did you do that for your group?

I’m in the process of doing that. Being a chargeback organization, I have to look at what all the costs and expenses are across the board and figure out how to cover them. I knew the change was going to create some additional overhead, so my initial ask of my manager was, hey, can we have these positions funded while we get the account management team established? But that was not an option. So I put a whole different structure together, baking the cost of account management into our rates, and got approval from my boss, from her boss... got buy in a few levels up. Once the execs were on board, I made sure to get buy in a few levels down. I was very transparent, and the strategy was to gain advocates for the change. Now salaries will be covered in our prices for print design, production design, web design, development, proofreading, photography, video production, etc.

And they bought into this plan because of the fact that you’d be able to service the company better with an account management team in place?

Absolutely. And I think it was an easy sell because being in a shared-services organization, they understand the value of customer service and client interaction and the benefit to the company that account management will add. And by putting these folks in place we can support one of our ultimate goals, growing the business. The way to to get these folks implanted in all the different lines of business that Merck is servicing in order to get more and more work coming into the organization, which means more and more billable hours, which means it’s going to be easier to cover the account management overhead. This is good for the company because we can provide services more cost effectively than outside vendors and leverage our institutional knowledge to get the job done more efficiently, with fewer errors and on brand right out of the gate.

And I just want to reiterate, for people who are reading this, that your team operates under a chargeback model, and it is under shared services where you’ve got managers who are probably more inclined to understand your strategy and the benefit that you bring to the company.

Yes, but there’s an awful lot of education that still needs to happen around that. I’m surprised at how much I need to educate folks, even within the shared business services organization; a lot of people don’t understand what we do.

So how do you educate them?

There are a lot of dog and pony shows that go on. However, I try to do it selectively, so understanding where there’s a great potential for business growth is critical. We need to get that person and their team into the studio, into the television studio, into the design studio, and… let them know what our capabilities are and really get them confident that we can support their business needs. Part of it is making them feel and believe that we have the capability in-house, we have the talent in-house and we have the technology in place.

There are these misconceptions, or perceptions I should say, that we don’t have the latest technology in place, or you guys won’t be able to give us the quality that we need for video production because you haven’t upgraded your cameras or whatever. The dog and pony show is literally showing potential clients the state-of-the-art technology and the team that we have in place and educating them on the fact that you can’t find better equipment or talent anywhere on the outside. We have it here.

What about the quality of your talent, of the human resources that you have within the group? That might be a little bit more of a difficult sell. Is there a prejudice against your team that exists, or that did exist that you had to address?

I think that exists... I think the blanket statement may be that in-house teams don’t always get the credit from a talent perspective that the outside agency or design studio may get. We’re trying to dispel those beliefs by explicitly showing the quality of work we do in the capability presentations, showing what finished, high-level, tier-one creative looks like. Many times we are competing against agencies for business, so our work needs to be at that level. So we’re showing them what the work looks like, what the costs are associated with that type of work, and then we compare those costs to external prices and quotes from vendors.

We’re trying to get them to see what our talent is capable of in every way possible. For example, we display the industry awards that we get. When you walk into any one of our studios there’s a whole bunch of awards displayed for work we’ve done in photography, video production, design, etc.

Do you have other marketing initiatives going on that help sell the group to the rest of the company?

We are changing the name of the group. Being part of a shared business services organization, in many ways, aligns us to the typical transactional type things that occur within a shared services organization. So we’re changing the name to try to pull away from the transactional and have a name that supports the more strategic. The name that’s on the table is Global Creative Studios versus Creative Services. Not that I’m wanting to pull the services out of there, but I’m more into positioning the name to be a bit more strategic and show that we have different types of studios... photography studios, design studios, television studios… and how it’s within those studios that our clients are going to find the solutions to their business needs. [Update: Since the interview, the team’s name has changed to “Media Services.”]

We’re also initiating a major awareness campaign, so we have redesigned our website, changed up all the content that’s out there and are trying to look, smell and act like an agency versus an order-taking organization. The campaign is going to happen via print, via web, via a little bit of guerrilla marketing I have up my sleeve that I’m going to unleash on the company in a fun way. Hopefully I don’t get my wrist slapped, but in many ways I kind of aspire to having somebody tell me that I’ve gone too far or to tone it down or take that off the wall, because then I’ll know I’ve gotten some people’s attention.

And, of course, we’re going to continue doing dog and ponies, but have them be very strategic. I don’t want to set up outside the cafeteria and hope people stop by. I want to invite the strategic folks, the key stakeholders and have meetings where we have the biggest potential for business growth.