Innovator Insights: BeenThereDoneThat’s Duncan James

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Even if it’s a strategic move that many marketing leaders consider at some point, Duncan James will be the first to admit that “in-housing” is not the ideal term for it.

Even if it’s a strategic move that many marketing leaders consider at some point, Duncan James will be the first to admit that “in-housing” is not the ideal term for it.

As the chief growth and commercial officer at Been There Done That (BTDT), James and his team are in the business of designing, building, growing and running innovative professional services that help his clients grow in new ways. Depending on their business objectives and resources, this includes helping transition from relying largely on third-party firms and using more of its internal marketing talent.

Brands tend to reach this point because they’re seeking greater control over their marketing, James said, and sometimes because they’re tired of the “copy-and-paste templates” approach, where agencies apply the same ideas and processes over and over again.

While cost reduction is another common business driver, James said it’s important to ensure you don’t necessarily define in-housing too narrowly.

“It implies that you're taking an agency and you're saying, ‘Well, I'm just going to do that in house,” James told Brand Innovators. “What we see more sophisticated clients do is look at a particular capability and say, ‘I’m going to build that internally – and in doing so I might build it a bit differently.”

BTDT works with brands to reframe the kinds of problems it is trying to solve through in-housing, then reimagine the possibilities before realizing the final solutions. This more bespoke method is critical, James said, given the unique contexts in which individual brands operate. In the case of in-housing, for instance, there are plenty of failures and cautionary tales within the marketing community to draw upon.

“In the first wave of in-housing, which started about 10 years ago, brands just tried to replicate agencies in-house. And it was very difficult because agency people didn't want to go and work for them,” he said. “The pay often wasn't as good, the internal silos were higher and you had to move cities to the HQ wherever that may be. And guess what? On the whole, it didn't save people money because it was very expensive to hire these people, very expensive to keep them and frankly, they didn't last very long.”

Instead of choosing between cheaper vs. better, James suggested a different path to in-housing success, which includes:

Assess organizational design and processes 

Brands don’t necessarily take elements of their marketing in house because they hate their agencies, James pointed out. Therefore CMOs should consider the fact that those leading in-sourcing efforts will be shifting from partners they may have valued to internal resources where the environment is rife with office politics and misaligned incentives.

As a result, James said brands should ensure at the outset that in-housing any marketing capabilities ladder back to an appropriate key performance indicator (KPI) and that any structural sources of friction are identified and addressed. Then, it’s a matter of breaking down all the components that will be involved. An internal team might take on developing ad creative, for instance, but who will develop the creative brief for such projects?

“It sounds super boring,” he admitted, “but the processes, the standards for operational excellence and how this business runs all needs to be taken into account.”

Empower your workforce based on clear expectations

Another big difference from the first wave of in-housing and today, of course, is the ability to operate in a decentralized fashion. Though many brands and agencies have asked employees to return to the office at least part of the time, Davis said they should think deeply about where they recruit talent and when they bring them together.

“We're talking to a client right now about building a distributed in-house capability across two cities in the U.S., and they're both major cities: Chicago and New York,” he said. “But the question is, how are you creating a sense of connection? How are you doing that intentionally? It's knowing that when I go into the office once a week, I don't have any Zoom calls. I’m there to understand the challenges read between the lines about things that aren't said on email or a slide deck.”

Measure based on multiple sources of feedback

In-housing doesn’t mean doing anyway with the traditional metrics that brands use in other areas of their business. In fact, David suggested customer satisfaction surveys, Net Promoter Scores (NPS) are viable ways to gauge some of the initial impact of taking work in-house.

He also recommended looking to the CFO and their time to assess the financial benefit from taking on marketing capabilities, as well as whether the work being done achieves the kind of industry recognition an agency might achieve.

“I think if you've asked a customer, your internal clients, the finance team, and the external industry,  between those four you can tell whether this is working or not,” he said.

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