Jumping In from the Outside

My experience as an in-house creative has recently taken hold again. For eight years, I ran Water Design Studio with my husband before abandoning him for a cushy corporate job (HA!) in 2010. The studio still exists, and he leads it now. I’m currently the in-house art director for Reliant, a major electricity provider in Texas and the Northeast.

Having worked on both sides of the design fence—in-house and in agencies—I’ve had the unique opportunity to see where each has advantages, faces challenges and benefits the client. Here are my top takeaways.

Distance conjures respect

When you own a company, it comes with a certain amount of prestige. People go into the relationship with the assumption that you are an established expert. When you work for an in-house group, that assumption is not part of the equation. It’s ironic, because in-house creatives build an enormous amount of expertise not only on design but also on the brand and company. They understand and drive how the company communicates, and they do it as well as, if not better than, outside agencies. But it’s the agencies that get more respect.

Costs create useful boundaries

With an outside agency, clients have an understanding of how much money and time they are spending—because they literally have to pay for it. With an in-house group that doesn’t bill back to the departments they work with, the clients don’t know what they’re investing because they never see the costs. Often this means requirements are not properly captured at the beginning of the project, which in turn translates into more rounds of edits and longer projects. As my friend David Baker, a creative services consultant, once said: “Money is the currency of respect.”

Clients don’t always know where the experts are

Agencies also tend to get the bigger, sexier, more time-consuming projects. Often the excuse for this is that in-house groups (generally) have faster turnaround times and must be kept available for daily tasks as well as any last minute projects. While that may be true, I think that bias also plays a part: There is a belief that agencies are filled with experts only and in-house creatives are less qualified.

My experience in both the agency world and the in-house world has shown me that this last assumption is simply false. The larger the agency, the more likely you are to have a junior team put on your project. The creatives I’ve worked with in-house tend to be seasoned professionals looking for more stability and better hours after starting families or simply after living in the crazy all-hours-of-the-day-or-night agency world. They also appreciate the opportunity to be closer to the products the company delivers and to the business itself. In-house groups often suffer from a perception problem that has to be acknowledged and mitigated if they are going to compete against agencies for the “good” work.

In-house politics run deep

At Reliant, I’m not the boss of the corporation. As an in-house designer, I’ve learned that you have to be much more political and agile. Your client may have pull and influence with people much higher up in the company, and you have to consider not only their role but their influence as well. The same is true of the other people within your group.

I don’t have the authority to hire and fire at will the way I did at my own company. If the wrong people are in positions, I have to work harder to get them to perform to standards than I would have for my company. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had to work with people more to help them reach their goals, which in turn makes me a better leader.

Politics also play a much bigger role in my client relations than it ever did at my studio. At the studio I always thought I had direct access to the client. Being in-house, I now realize just how many fingers are in the pie. The “final decision maker” is usually not the actual client. I might have known that in the past, but now I see it up close and personal.

Corporations provide stability

On an in-house team, there is no doubt that everyone in the group has enough work, 40 or more hours of it a week. I know when I’m getting paid, so it balances out the feast or famine cycle that studios and agencies feel.

I would say the biggest advantage to working for a corporation is that after work my time is my own. When I owned the studio, I thought about work all the time. It was really hard to turn it off. My husband and I owned the company together, and we would spend our evenings discussing new prospects, proposals, ways to market the company. Now, we spend our evenings discussing normal things, like what movies are playing and what our kids are doing in school.

The closer you are, the more efficiently you work

In-house creatives also have the advantage of location. If your client doesn’t answer the phone or respond to an email, you can get up and walk over to their desk. You see people in the halls and elevators, and it reminds them to respond to you. You’re much harder to ignore face-to-face rather than over the phone or email. You also never know what you’re going to learn when sharing elevators and passing people’s offices. That conversation you overheard may inform you about future projects, or help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes keeping a project from moving forward.

Clients can benefit from the outside…

Agencies have the advantage of an outside set of eyes. They can approach a project without bias and with limited knowledge about the politics surrounding it. This means they can think outside the box more easily. Because they don’t live and breathe the brand everyday, they are less likely to “modify” existing pieces and make them work for a new audience, product or market.

Outside firms also can develop a niche expertise, because they leverage a small number of projects for a large number of clients. In-house designers have only one client to focus on. When you develop a niche, you bring insights and understanding to the project that generalists simply don’t have. It takes less time to get a better end product.

…and clients can benefit from the inside

In-house groups have a more intimate knowledge of the brand, the company and the politics working behind the scenes. Brands are built on subtleties. It’s the nuances that make a piece really effective or not. In-house groups have a huge advantage here. You develop a deeper understanding of how a product line works, and because you’re already familiar with the key players, you know how that product integrates with the other lines. More than that, you know how the organization is structured and gain key insights into the politics between groups.

Lastly, if you work in an industry plagued with regulatory and legal restrictions, in-house groups tend to understand the rules around these restrictions better. Because they produce so many projects for the company, they know when legal and regulatory issues are going to arise and what steps are necessary to keep everything in check.

Find your people

In-house creatives need inspiration more than those in agencies and freelancers because they have to adhere to the SAME corporate brand standards on every project. That means they need to be able to push the boundaries while still coloring inside the lines (with the same crayon colors, mind you). Having a group of people you can bounce ideas off of is instrumental in thinking about a project in a different way.

As the AIGA Houston In-House Advocacy Chair, I organize events that I hope will provide opportunities for in-house creatives to get together and talk about the issues that they can’t discuss with their left-brain corporate colleagues. The goal is for them to get inspired, get educated and get connected all in one evening.

For opportunities to connect with other in-house designers and resources to help you grow within your organization, check out AIGA's INitiative.

About the Author:

Usually someone is either left-brained or right-brained. Heather is one of those rare gems who brings a strong mix of both strategy and creative to every project. Her business sense helps her branding and design work generate tangible, measurable results for clients. And a few awards to boot. Over the last 20 years she has worked on both sides of the design fence – in-house and in agencies. She is currently Art Director at Reliant

As the Houston AIGA In-House Advocacy Chair, Heather is our liaison for In-House designers throughout Houston. She organizes events and socials that help in-house creatives thrive as part of the overall design community. Want to learn more about AIGA's In-House Initiative? Contact her. Or you can learn more here: http://www.aiga.org/inhouse-initiative/