Roundtable Recap: Breaking Through by Breaking Free

Most in-house agencies want to do better, to be better, yet few are eager to change to the degree necessary to make it happen. The reality is, sameness is the enemy of excellence. We have to be willing to break with tradition in order to reach new pinnacles of performance.

That was the premise of the recently wrapped In-House Agency Roundtable series, which I was honored to facilitate on behalf of IHAF. We visited six cities in two weeks, with discussions at Focus Brands in Atlanta, Charles Schwab in Austin, Liberty Mutual in Boston, Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago, International Monetary Fund in D.C., and MediaMonks in Los Angeles.


In each three-hour session, we explored what it means to break free of the confines of how we work today, gaining inspiration from four in-house agencies who do things differently, and in turn, do things better.

What’s Your New Move?

Our first case example was the inimitable team at Dollar Shave Club who recently instituted a Roadmap Council, enabling them to surface disruptive ideas in a less-disruptive way while fostering inventiveness, conversation and cross-company collaboration. Reflecting on this case, we asked ourselves—how might we surface new ideas to effectively disrupt the marketplace? What steps might we institute within our own organizations to stimulate creativity and increase collaboration enterprise wide?

What’s Your Leap of Faith?

From there, we heard about PwC and their virtual staffing model. This high-performing team of 113 works from 29 locations across the US and Mexico. Though they have none of the hallmarks of a traditional agency environment, they have account managers integrated into the business, creatives sourced from all over the country, project staffing and trafficking supported by a centralized system, and tech-enabled communication for collaboration across time zones. They also have a dynamic of trust which permeates their culture. Pondering this non-traditional set-up, participants were asked where they might benefit by taking a leap of faith when it comes to how they organize and manage the folks on their teams.

What Are Your Possibilities?

Trunk Club was next—a two-year old in-house agency comprised of 16 contributors across assorted creative functions. This case centered on an organizational shift from a traditional agency model to a pod structure, eliminating functional silos and fostering unity across the team. One of the breakthroughs in this part of the discussion was the notion of putting creatives out front—which, quite frankly, terrified some and delighted others! The questions we tossed around after hearing about this forward-thinking team are: how might your in-house agency’s work be impacted if clients and creatives engaged more closely? And, what might the risk/reward be for the business?

What’s Your Stretch Goal?

Our final example was Bloomberg Studio, a team that took on the massive (and massively different) assignment of branding and launching a new destination on London’s cultural map. What we learned from this case is that advancing the reputation of your in-house agency means that you cannot operate as a passive recipient of project requests. The more you proactively take on and effectively execute new stretch assignments, the more likely perceptions of your team will evolve in a positive direction. In turn, we asked ourselves, what are we doing to extend into the nooks and crannies of our respective organizations? What more might we do to build our reputations and instill trust in our teams?

A few of those hosting IHAF’s roundtable series also offered presentations on the structures and strategies they’ve employed to boost the value they deliver to the businesses they support. What was clear across all cases we discussed is that no two in-house agencies are alike—each is contending with a unique set of business and brand challenges that require them to be increasingly deliberate about the capabilities and competencies they evolve within their respective corporations.

This year’s IHAF discussion group series was intentionally provocative to stimulate in-house agencies to forge their own paths, encouraging participants to ferret out opportunities unique to their companies by finding the places where they might impact the business by going off road and contributing in unexpected ways. The overarching takeaway from all six sessions is that to be better, you have to be willing to do something (or many things) differently. You have to be willing to take risks and change how you operate. In short, breaking through requires breaking free of how you work today.

Thank you, Marta, for your sage advice and endless enthusiasm in facilitating this year’s discussion groups. We’d also like to thank our host companies for their hospitality in welcoming us into their spaces. And, our event sponsors—Adobe, Deltek, Express KCS and Extreme Reach—for supporting the series.


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