As most of us know all too well, a client's perception of marketing and creative services is often more important than reality. This perception has always been the reality that in-house agencies (IHAs) need to leverage and address. In regard to our competencies, we shouldn't be surprised when our clients perceive us to be good at only one thing - production - or conversely, not good at strategy and Tier 1 design.
The perception of the internal agency as a one-trick-pony production house is widespread. Cella's 2019 In-House Creative Industry Report shows that internal agencies spend 74% of their time doing Tier 2 and 3 work, even though we know that many IHAs are trying to secure, and are capable of providing, more strategic Tier 1 work.
Many internal agencies are finally beginning to break free of the misconception that their capabilities are limited to executing someone else's vision. Although full liberation may still be a work in progress, it is remarkably gratifying to feel recognized not only for operational excellence, but also for generating great ideas. And the reward is not one sided; because the internal agency model extends significant savings to the organization, the client wins, too.
The Value Add
Changing perception isn't easy. Changing it while continuing to deliver lower-tier work just compounds the difficulty. It's like trying to sell yourself as a chef when your client is only interested in buying the ingredients. But there is a secret sauce. It's known as the value add.
The added value is the service agencies can offer to clients - service clients need, but don't think to ask for. Included are extras, such as design and strategic thinking, which go beyond what a client considers necessary to deliver the project. The add-ons help clients realize augmented benefits such as improved quality, time savings and cost efficiencies.
Making the Value Add Optional
Two critical factors must be involved in offering clients the value add: it must contribute actual value, and it must be optional - it cannot be forced upon the client. To this last point, during initial consults with clients if an opportunity to add value rises to the surface, the team might introduce the subject by saying, "I think I understand what you want, so we could probably go forward, but maybe we should take a moment to understand why you want it. We realize that the tactic we're discussing is part of a larger strategy, and often if we understand that strategy, and this tactic's role in it, we can better use our expertise. That might mean having a really good idea for you, or maybe it will enable us to nail the solution more quickly."
This sort of strategic recommendation may be met with a wide spectrum of responses. Sometimes, there actually is no larger strategy, but this discussion makes it clear there should be. Other times, a client may believe that the strategy makes sense, but there really isn't time to pursue it - a misperception in and of itself. Very often clients respond by immediately starting to explain the "why" behind their "yes." At that point, it's a good idea to stop them and suggest getting the other members of the project team together for a proper strategic kickoff.
And even when client reactions may not be ideal, it's very doubtful they'll chide you for trying to offer added value. About the worst response likely to be uttered is, "I appreciate your asking, but we'd rather you just do what we say."
Delivering on the Value Add
The offer is optional and the client is willing. Now comes the task of actually adding value. To strategically inform the tactic being built, a discovery phase must be scoped and a resulting brief delivered. At a minimum, the brief as a value add must clarify the tactic at hand, identify the intended audience and define the purpose of this campaign component. In some instances it may be possible to create a brief that not only informs the current tactic, but others as well. By demonstrating a deep understanding of the whole campaign, the IHA team might easily pick up additional components, and the client may think about involving the team earlier in the next campaign.
The team members who should write the brief are professional marketers and creative services experts such as content strategists, user experience artists, account planners and creative directors. These people have a proven record of creating campaigns from scratch and will use their expertise to reverse engineer information the client can provide, uncovering keys that deliver the promised value add.
Above all else, avoid promising value that can't be delivered or isn't needed. Remember the minimum: a brief that tells whom is being spoken to, and for what purpose. If, during the initial consultation the client is able to explain this and even provide a brief with the details, it's unlikely that there's anything new to offer; do not attempt to pretend there is. All that will be accomplished is spreading the perception that the in-house agency makes things too complicated.
But adding value at the right time, in the right circumstance, and doing it repeatedly, will lead to being perceived as the in-house agency that can listen, think and exceed client expectations.