So the disclaimer is that if you look at my resume and experience, you’ll see I’ve spent a few years working for in-house creative groups in big corporations. And I’ve always felt defensive about it: I’m well aware that most people see ‘in-house’ and they think ‘hack.’ But that’s not the case, definitely not with me, my colleagues, or many of the other corporate-side creatives I’ve known. Rather than give you a bitter rant about how tired I am about being given short shrift, I’m instead offering some tidbits that you may have never thought about, including the benefits that make people like me stick with it.
The myth about in-house teams not being as creative.
You know that old saying, “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”? That’s exactly the divide between being in-house versus working at an external agency.
I’ve worked in-house with companies that had exceptionally well articulated (read: highly specific) brands, with encyclopedic brand books that literally had a rule for every pixel on a page. And usually, the creative team sat in close proximity to the Brand team, so it was easy for a “brand cop” to randomly glance at someone’s screen and casually remark that that wasn’t a brand-compliant use of a certain color or a photo needed to be cropped a certain way. Any good agency that’s serious about the success of their clients should have staff that are trained on the client brand, but it’s a lot different when those people are practically sitting right on top of you. The net result is that agencies often turn in work that is thought to be edgier or cooler because it deviates from the brand in a way that an in-house team is rarely allowed to get away with.
Again, this is meant to be informative rather than sound like a defensive screed, so rather than enumerate all of our challenges, I’ll be quick and implore you to consider one more variable: the presentation. Sometimes we get the opportunity to present our work in a way that really lets us sell it, but often, we get a client who demands to see our progress on-screen. Versus when an agency comes in, romances the clients a little, and gives a grand dog-and-pony show. You’re more likely to value something when it comes gift-wrapped in a big, pretty box, right?
Unfortunately, we’re often starting from a disadvantage that colors our clients’ perceptions. And as you know, perception is everything.
Internal agencies function like external agencies.
When I tell interested parties how our shop runs – there’s a Creative Director, an Associate Creative Director, art directors, proofreaders and editors, print buyers and fulfillment specialists, project managers to manage clients and traffic jobs – it never fails to surprise me how surprised the person who asks is. It’s similar to the basic structure employed by about a billion “real” agencies out there. Do people think we’re all standing around a conveyor belt, waiting for a project to chug on by?
If anything, I would say I’ve gained a real personal advantage from this setup: the one thing we do lack is a formal account team, which means I’ve had to learn how to be much more hands-on and diplomatic when dealing with clients – I interface with them during most rounds of a project and I even present, too. Being so in-your-face with clients has jolted me out of my shyness, and I’ve developed poise and confidence and developed my interpersonal skills. This has not only made me a better professional but helped me grow, exponentially, as a human being.
No, we don’t design ads in MacPaint
I mean, SERIOUSLY. We all work on bright, shiny MacBook Pros and use industry-standard technology.
Working in-house, you can enjoy a fulfilling career AND a more balanced life.
There is a lot to like about working in-house. You like having a life, right? I know I do! A life where I can make plans outside of work, keep my commitments, and seldom have to do anything work-related on the weekend. I regularly get emails from the CDs I freelance for, coming in at 6am or 9pm. Because they’re working.
Don’t get me wrong, an in-house creative’s deadlines can be fast and furious – and even more intimidating because there is no buffer zone between you and your clients and they can all just get together, gang up on you, and literally stand and look over your shoulder to make you do something. But on the whole, my work life has been stable, and there’s not a sword hanging over our heads that a single client is going to leave and our jobs will disappear.
My job is an important part of my life, but it’s not the only part of my life. Having a reliable, stable workplace affords me the time and creative energy to do the other things I’m passionate about. Because I really do enjoy what I do and I want to keep my options open and my portfolio and my skills fresh and varied, I take on some extracurricular freelance…and you may be thinking, Well then, why not just work in an agency? As a freelancer, I can always say no, set my own terms, and figure out a schedule that works for me.
Another thing about the in-house teams I’ve been part of is that we all have significant tenure (my current group includes employees who have been with the company between seven and 20 years). Not because we think of ourselves as “lifers” or because we can’t get jobs anywhere else, but because we have an awesome boss (and at this job, she’s the third in a series of amazing bosses), the team gels well together and we like and respect one another. These guys have proven to me that they won’t throw me under the bus if there’s a chance to get ahead. I know they have my back, and my boss does her best to keep us insulated against company politics. Maybe there’s some common element in our psychology, but we’re a diverse and relatively normal lot of people. This has meant a lot to me.
And lastly, about the "fulfilling career" thing: I've been fortunate that even working in-house, I've been able to do "agency jobs" and "agency-quality work." But that's because I've been on teams who bust our butts to elevate the work, show our value, advocate for our department. The quickest way to prove a misconception is to start believing it yourself, and acting accordingly.
Basically, it all comes down to what you want – not just out of your job but out of your life.