In-house vs. agency branding: 5 benefits of each approach

Should your company be doing its branding work in house? Or should you hire an external creative agency to do the work for you?

This decision can be one of the most important strategic decisions a marketing leader will make.

Both internal and external branding investments can be very large. A full in-house creative group requires significant funding, in terms of budget for employees, benefits, office space, ongoing training, recruiting, etc. An external agency can be one of the largest line items in a marketing budget, and is a vulnerable soft target during internal budget negotiations.

As someone who has managed both an internal in-house creative group (10 years, at open source technology company Red Hat) and run a branding agency (7+ years, at New Kind), I have a good sense for the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

I thought I’d share some of my experiences here, in the hopes that it might help you make a more informed decision about the strategy that will work best for your organization.

5 benefits of keeping branding in house

1. Cultural connection

In my experience the most valuable aspect of having an internal creative / branding team is how deeply connected the team can be to the company, its mission, values, and culture. Plus, in many companies employees are shareholders, which helps them connect their own personal efforts even more directly to the success of the company. An internal creative team often exhibits a passion for fulfilling the company mission that is hard to recreate with people who are not immersed in the organization 24×7 or financially staked in its success.

But be honest with yourself here. Is your company mission something that creative people will be passionate about, that will inspire them to view their work as more than a job? Or is your company a more traditional profit or shareholder-value-driven one? If yours is not a mission-driven company, with a mission that will feed the souls of creatives, you may find it hard to achieve a deep cultural connection, removing one of the key benefits of having the creative team in house.

2. Depth of understanding

Probably the second most important benefit of having an internal creative team working on your brand is the depth of understanding the internal team may have about the company, its products, services, history, and future strategy. Because your creative team will be immersed in the company all day, every day, they will likely know it better than any outside agency could, at least at the start of an agency relationship.

Sometimes this means effort can be saved that would normally be spent getting an external agency fully briefed. Because it is often easier for employees to access other internal experts (a walk down the hall or a quick chat message away), cross-organizational communication and information dissemination is easier and more effective. Plus internal creative team employees will be attending company meetings, learning more about company strategy, and have access to information that makes it easier to contextualize their work in the bigger picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.

3. Dedicated team

This one is simple. With an internal creative team, you know that 100% of your team’s time is devoted to working on projects for your organization. With an external agency, team members may be working on multiple clients at once.

4. Cost (sometimes)

In some cases, it is cheaper to use an internal team to complete branding work. But my experience has shown me that “internal = cheaper” is a dangerous assumption to make, and often doesn’t turn out to be true at all.

Many organizations find they can do production work (meaning creating assets like banner ads, collateral, trade-show materials, social media graphics, website promotions, etc.) less expensively internally than they could with an agency. For example, hiring a junior entry-level designer or writer gives you access to 40 hours per week of work at an hourly rate much cheaper than what it would cost to get the same amount of time from an agency.

Where many organizations go wrong is they hire the inexpensive junior creative talent to get the “hours bargain,” but they don’t have any qualified internal creative leadership to ensure the work is awesome and effective. Or even worse, there are internal people who see themselves as qualified creative leaders, but don’t actually possess the skills or experience to properly manage creative work or creative people.

So they get a lot of work done. But it is often neither very good, nor very effective, and in the end wastes money and time and doesn’t deliver the results that push the business forward.

To develop effective branding, internal creative teams should be led by experienced branding professionals. If you can not afford to hire qualified senior internal creative leadership for your team, I recommend that you don’t fully entrust your brand to junior folks without leaders and role models to support them.

They may love the freedom and autonomy of owning the brand at first, but without good people to learn from, they won’t improve their skills and talents, and they’ll eventually stagnate, become bored or frustrated, and maybe even leave to work somewhere where they can grow faster. Plus you’ll be stuck with a less-than-professional-quality work product that doesn’t deliver value on your investment.

5. Speed (sometimes)

Speed is a double-edged sword. Because with an internal team you can set your own priorities and timelines, you can often complete high-priority tasks quickly, if the team drops everything and focuses on them.

But in practice, we’ve found that with strategic work, like re-branding work or brand research studies, it can often be much slower for an internal team to complete them––if they ever do––because of the day-to-day demands of the business.

Internal teams are often pulled off of long-term, strategic projects in order to complete high-priority short term projects that have a more immediate revenue or business impact. Campaigns that need to get out the door to drive in-quarter revenue, a video that needs to get done in time for the CEO’s keynote at a major event, a new product launch that needs supporting materials…I’m sure many of you know this drill well.

Sometimes an external agency can bring focus and get big, meaty strategic projects done precisely because they aren’t distracted by the daily reality of working inside the business.

5 benefits of branding with an agency

1. Fresh perspective and inspiration

If one of the key downsides of working with an agency is not knowing the company as well at the start, this also leads directly to one of the biggest benefits. In my experience, one of the biggest downsides of an internal creative group is that creativity can start to stagnate over time, making it harder to infuse fresh thinking into the brand.

Sometimes this is because all creative work is completed within the company bubble, without visibility into what others in the industry or world are doing. Sometimes it is because internal company leadership wields a heavy hand and doesn’t give the creative team the space to take risks and try new things. And there can also be some creeping internal arrogance (I know, because I was guilty of it myself), thinking that no one on the outside can understand the brand as well.

There are ways to keep the internal creative work vibrant. Team members should get out of the company as much as possible, going to conferences and events to swap ideas and see what others are doing. Joining and becoming active in professional associations like AIGA (the professional association for design) or the AMA (American Marketing Association) can also be a great way to gain regular inspiration.

But a good agency can bring a much-needed infusion of fresh ideas. Often these agencies are working with other companies in the industry, so they have a good sense for what has “been done” and what is new and exciting. While they may come in without the complete depth of understanding of the brand and its history, this can also be a benefit, because they can often see opportunities that might not be as readily visible from the inside or might have been overlooked.

What’s more, internal teams often have so much knowledge and history, they can be too close to the brand. This often makes it harder to recognize the most important or differentiating things about it. We’ve found that this leads to simplicity taking a backseat to inclusivity. It’s the classic curse of knowledge…internal teams are often overwhelmed by what they know, and try to say too much, with the core story getting lost in the process. An outside perspective can be exactly what is needed to sort through the good to get to the great.

2. Depth of experience

While an agency might not have a full understanding of your business at the start, they will gain this experience over time. But when you work with an external agency, you can benefit from its depth of experience in two other, very important dimensions.

First, a well-positioned agency will be focused on one or more specific industries or practices. For example, our agency New Kind specializes in working with technology companies and tech-minded companies and startups. We’ve worked with dozens of technology companies, including many in the highly-technical enterprise software space, and many that are in other industries, but are heavily dependent on technology to drive their operations.

So we are familiar with a lot of the latest technology trends, speak the language, and can be fully engaged and up to speed on a company and what it does much more quickly than a standard agency without deep tech experience. Because many of our employees also have previously worked at technology companies, we operate more like a tech company culturally, in terms of speed, approach, etc., which makes things easier as well.

If you find an agency that already has deep experience in your industry, you’ll gain many of the benefits of an internal agency in terms of being able to more fully understand your company quickly, while still taking advantage of the fresh external perspective and broader visibility.

But with an agency, you’ll also be able to take advantage of the experience of a seasoned team of branding professionals. If you can’t afford to hire a large internal creative team, this gives you access to the part-time help from senior creative professionals that are experts in their areas.

This can often be the key benefit of working with an agency––you can purchase the creative leadership for your internal team on a part-time basis. You have access to deep experience and established practice experts, but don’t have to pay the premium to have them as full-time employees.

When you have an agency working together with a talented internal team it can be a great combination (more on this later).

3. Broader skillset

If you can only afford to hire 1-3 people for your internal creative group, you’ll have to pick which skillsets you hire. For example, perhaps you hire a designer, a project manager, and a direct marketing manager. If that’s all you can afford internally, you’ll need to figure out how to cover skills like brand strategy and positioning, poetics/writing, video/animation, SEO, web development, etc., either through training those same people or finding contract resources. With an agency, you’ll have access to all of those skills, even those you only need for a few hours a week or a month. And their work will be more coordinated than if you were to just contract the work to freelancers, with the agency doing much of the project management and communication for you.

You won’t be burdened with the full-time headcount costs of people who you may not yet need on a full-time basis, and you’ll have access to more senior talent on a part-time basis than you could hire on a full-time basis.

4. Budget flexibility/cost

Another key benefit of working with an agency is that it gives you more flexibility for managing your budget. With an internal creative team, if there is a downturn in your company’s fortunes, or if budgets need to be cut temporarily, it can lead to very difficult decisions about letting people go. Not only does this impact the people who are losing their jobs, but can have a long-term impact on the morale of the entire team.

With an agency, it is typically very easy to scale an engagement up or down, sometimes on a month-by-month basis. If you have a big launch, you can quickly scale up the agency work to support it. Then when the launch is over, you can reduce your agency investment and spend that money in other places.

So where the price-per-hour cost of agency work may be more expensive than hiring internally, you gain flexibility in the length and depth of your investment, and also don’t have to pay for things like benefits, office space, training, recruiting, etc.

5. Speed (sometimes)

No need to belabor this point, since we already discussed it earlier. But agencies can often complete projects quickly that will never get finished internally if they are fighting for attention with other priorities. Because an agency has a bit of separation from the day-to-day work of the company, it can often bring focus and throw additional resources at a project that will get it done quickly.

But sometimes agency work can be slower too, because of the lack of easy access to internal knowledge, other projects competing for attention, problems scheduling meetings, etc.

Benefits of a blended approach

After spending almost 20 years working with internal creatives and agency creatives, the approach I recommend for many companies is to not default to one extreme or the other.

The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to say “we do all of our branding work internally” or “we outsource all of our branding work to agencies.” You can choose a blended approach that gives you some of the benefits of working with an agency AND having a full-time internal creative team.

In fact, some of New Kind’s best client relationships over the past few years are with companies that have their own internal creative teams. Partially because of our experiences working on the inside, we have had a lot of success collaborating effectively with these internal teams.

On strategic projects, like visual identity design or brand story development, our favorite way to work is side by side with internal creatives, where the final product is a reflection of their expertise in the company and our expertise in how to create and effectively roll out a professional-quality brand strategy.

We’ve learned that when an agency is working on its own, without collaborating with an internal team, the odds of failure go up because there can be internal “organ rejection” if the creative work doesn’t reflect the company employees see every day. Conversely, when an internal creative team is working on its own, it misses the opportunity to have access to the ideas and inputs from external professionals that can bring fresh thinking and experience with other companies to the work.

On the financial side, a blended approach allows you to take advantage of the economies of having lower-cost, full-time internal creative help while also gaining the flexibility to expand or reduce expenditures with an agency quickly as necessary.

You may choose to hire one or two internal creatives and spend most of your budget on external agency support. Or you may hire a large internal team, bringing in an agency for support only on large, strategic projects like visual rebranding, research, story development, or campaigns that would be hard to complete in the face of competing internal priorities.

Final thoughts: the perfect place to end up on the internal / agency branding spectrum is different in every company. But I hope this post has helped you determine the best approach for your company. If you’d like to discuss your specific situation further, please feel free to reach out!

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