From startup to post-IPO, tech companies have spent big money in recent years on engagements with creative agencies to transform complex products and services into dynamic brands. But today, tech players are starting to shift creative roles, functions, and teams in-house to get a better handle not just on costs, but on how their brands are perceived.
Cost is a concern, but not a primary one in many instances. “When companies like Airbnb, Google, and Apple started bringing their creative in-house, there was obviously some cost-savings motivation,” explains Shahin Edalati, the creative director of fintech company SoFi.
Edalati previously functioned as the creative director for Fitbit’s in-house agency, Creative Lab. After building (and leading) Creative Lab since its inception, he joined SoFi at the start of 2018 and has worked to build their in-house creative team from scratch as well.
He explains that there’s more to the in-house story than just saving a buck or two. “It’s really about owning the narrative and having more control over how you want to craft your brand story. Having storytellers in-house, who are invested and embedding in a company, has become incredibly important in the tech industry,” he says.
By bringing more creative talent in-house, tech companies across the board are gaining better control of their brand image and creating a more flexible workforce. And while tech brands aren’t ditching agencies altogether, the rise of in-house is redefining how the two will successfully work in tandem moving forward.
Increased brand stewardship
When technology companies work with outside agencies, issues regarding brand control and creative asset ownership arise frequently. “With agency engagements, it can be hard to determine exactly who owns what when it comes to creative assets,” explains Phil Lewis, senior vice-president for the technology industry vertical at Aquent.
“Bringing creative in-house allows tech companies to really assert control over every element in the creative process,” continues Lewis. “Everything from brand compliance and ownership, to channel partner relationships and creative turnaround time. They have complete control over how the brand is used.”
Edalati recalls that a critical part of transforming Fitbit from a technology-enabled wristwatch into a full-fledged lifestyle brand was having an in-house team that wasn’t just focused on one or two campaigns, but on forging a powerful brand identity over the span of years. “It was the result of many different marketing initiatives that couldn’t have been accomplished on the agency side,” he recalls. “You have to be embedded in the brand, and have a team of creative experts who are invested in the company’s long-term success.”
Essentially, says Edalati, tech companies want individuals in-house who have connective tissue across the organization, who willingly partner with outside teams like product development, and who are able to “connect the dots” over multiple campaigns.
Better flexibility and scalability
In industries where innovation and adaptability are paramount, marketing teams and leaders are beginning to recognize that by moving creative in-house, they create a more flexible workforce that can scale upwards quickly and efficiently.
Maintaining a core in-house staff that covers all mission-critical creative activities like user experience (UX) and content production allows organizations to scale and adapt more efficiently - to move resources up and down as demand increases, new products launch, or strategic initiatives get introduced, says Lewis. “Some technology brands work with upwards of thirty various vendors or agencies, all working on disparate campaigns. You can imagine the challenge this presents if a company wants to change their creative on a dime,” says Lewis.
Per Edalati, one of the biggest reasons that tech companies can scale their marketing efforts much more effectively with an in-house model is that the creative staff develop a deep understanding of brands’ products or services, which can be complex. For instance, fintech companies regularly deal with complicated topics like loan refinancing, interest and mortgage rates, and international regulatory compliance.
The time, money, and resources spent on the (often steep) learning curve associated with bringing on a new agency are largely mitigated with in-house creative. Creative teams become more efficient at handling different projects because they already have a basic understanding of how the business works and where the brand trajectory is aimed, Edalati explains. “You have one or two creative teams that can work on multiple things because they already know the common pitfalls, what worked well last time around, and what didn’t. That kind of tribal knowledge is incredibly important, but something nobody really talks about,” he says.
Changing agency relationships
Despite the cost, flexibility, and brand stewardship benefits of bringing creative teams in-house, agencies aren’t going to disappear in the near future. Rather, tech brands are redefining their relationship with agencies so that outside help can fill the gaps.
Lewis says many tech companies are now using agencies solely for high-level, high-impact strategic content, rather than day-to-day brand strategy execution. Edalati also predicts that agencies are going to be employed much more intelligently and selectively as companies turn more towards in-house. “I think agencies will become more like freelance help,” he says. “You’ll have a list of approved agencies, and when something comes up that you can’t handle internally, you’ll be able to easily extend your workload to one of those agencies. It’s something we’re doing right now at SoFi for things like email and social marketing.”
For tech brands currently seeking to bring more creative functions in house, Lewis recommends taking a close look at any activities involved in the content production process. This includes creative strategists, art buyers, digital content producers, as well as those skilled with video. As these individuals become more embedded in the company, they’ll become more adept at communicating the brand narrative over time.
Overall, Edalati recommends looking for in-house creatives who are hungry to be experts, have a “beginner’s mind” for learning new things, and take a long-term view of their relationship with the company. “One campaign isn’t going to make or break a brand,” Edalati advises. “In-house is about changing the conversation from a one-off agency engagement, to creating a multi-episodic narrative about your brand that you have total control over.”