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How to pick a fight with your in-house teams

Whenever a marketing leader brings in an outside partner (like an agency) — an unwanted force can show up. It’s called: Making Haste.

AKA, when a leader prioritizes speed to the detriment of all other considerations.

Where does it show up?

Usually on projects where two ingredients are mixed together. 

Add ingredient A: There’s a rapidly approaching public event (like a product release or a funding announcement). 

To ingredient B: Where an agency’s work deeply impacts the mandate of an in-house team. (Think: corporate brand team, design team, product messaging, etc.) 

What does it make?

A concoction that’s light on alignment with minimally vetted directions.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the need to make haste cause a good bit of trouble among teams, with in-house teams often being the most affected. In the fast-moving tech space, where you’re only as good as your last product release, this pull toward unmanaged speed is understandable. The ever-present need for speed shapes every interaction between CMOs, their leadership group, in-house teams, and an agency.

But take heart! You can minimize its influence with a little best-practice application. 

Unless you’re trying to pick a fight with your in-house team, steer clear of these mistakes. 

Mistake: Ignore your team’s input early on

In-house teams know how fast their company moves. Brand and marketing teams especially. Objectives can change with the available market opportunities. In many cases, these teams are accommodating of change. It’s the life they’ve chosen.

In the worst case scenarios, their ability to help is constrained from the beginning. 

It goes something like this: 

1) A high-stakes deadline approaches. 

2) Your leadership wants to make something bold happen. 

3) You realize you need extra help.

4) You let the in-house teams know you might bring in an agency. 

5) You don’t talk about it with them during the search. 

6) You let them know after the first kick off meeting. Or better yet, tell them through the last-minute invite to the meeting.

And that’s what making haste looks like in real life. 

It’s easy to see here. Step number 5 is where you telegraph that you don’t intend to need them. 

They’re not final decision-makers. We know. You’re saving everyone’s time by opting-them-out. We know. You’re ready for some fresh eyes on the problem. Let new blood take a crack at it. We know.

(Your intentions can be golden across the board here.) Although using these points as reasons to ignore the teams — well — it increases the risk of re-work. No one wants that. 

Many times the in-house teams are well aware and have familiarity with the types of challenges you’re facing. They’ve formulated or are forming perspective on how to think about the opportunity at hand. 

It’s all the more reason to involve in-house teams, not ignore them. A heads up is useful. Even more useful is involving the team into the requirement gathering or scoping process. That way they’re empowered to help define what that agency engagement looks like. Your internal team can often (but not always) tell you better than anyone where their pain points are. And where an outside opinion can help.

Mistake: Pretend that your corporate brand team won’t care

If you’re a part of business unit, or interacting with the corporate brand team, then you already know this brazenness raises blood pressure. There’s more complexity at enterprise scale. More things to work out. And more need to align the naturally sprawling nature of brand efforts during growth. Oh, and because there’s already a procurement process set up for this. 

During new product moments or rebranding, you want more perspectives, not less. And to a degree, you can involve more team members without dramatically slowing the process down. 

Facilitating sensitive moments between product and corporate teams — It’s part of what you’re hiring an agency to do. Navigating the waters of company and product nuances. Developing solutions that balance the needs of everyone. Some projects naturally draw out anxieties, power dynamics, and biases. Product and company messaging, and product identities, to name a few. 

Mistake: Shut them out of the process

Remember that one time when you let the in-house teams see what’s being worked on — but didn’t let them participate in the conversation?

Sometimes the last thing the timeframe needs is to bring everyone into every meeting or workflow. It can slow the process down. Tremendously. There are ways to mitigate that.

There are also plenty of times when you want to go slow now, so that you can go faster later. Meaning, you take the time now to gain feedback, and involve team members whose work will be impacted. One tip — play representative democracy. For example, involve the Design Director rather than the full design team. 

You can also use responsibility and accountability models. You probably already have a RACI, RASI, ARCI, (RASCAL? j/k) at play — we prefer the DACI model (by way of Atlassian). When many teams are involved — who’s driving? Who’s approving? Who’s contributing? Who’s informed of progress? 

Much of this is all an expectations game.

It happens when leadership’s high expectations — We need to break through! — collide with the in-house team’s expectations that they’ll be able to apply their expertise — But that’s our role!

Alignment is off. 

Mistake: Only see in-house as implementers

Remember that one time when you viewed in-house as implementers who shouldn’t inform the deliverables?

For example, you get to the end of a process: new product identity. You hand off the guidelines to the design team. It’s their turn to run with everything. 

But they bring up two issues with the guidelines. (This is when you start to realize they have a point.)

Number one, where in-house says: “These guidelines are so prescriptive that they minimize the role of the designer to 100% doer. There’s no flexibility.”

The process and outcomes are signaling: Don’t think about the brand touchpoint, just follow these rules. Nevermind that they don’t provide the right balance of guidance and openness to accommodate the range of necessary communication these days.

Number two, where in-house says: “These guidelines have key pieces that are off, missing, or simply won’t work.” 

The process signals: Follow these rules, don’t mind the exceptions. Nevermind if they don’t work. It’s your job to fix this thing. 

Mistake: Overlook human nature

It’s useful to empathize with the people on your in-house teams who are designing and writing for your brand every day.

If you bring in an outside agency, the in-house team has a very high chance of feeling personally slighted — unless you actively do something about it. If you don’t get ahead of the narrative, it will be perceived that an agency was needed because you (team) are inadequate.

So if you ignore in-house early, you are dramatically increasing the chances they’ll challenge the work. If it’s not outright organ rejection—they’ll pick at it relentlessly until it dies a slow death.

This is also known commonly as the “NIH” (Not Invented Here) principle. But I think it has deep emotional factors that can be hard for even the most humble and accommodating team players to control.

New Kinders have been on both sides of this one…

Mistake: Fail to provide context

Related to the above mistake is what happens when you excitedly hand off the final deliverables to cold hands. Fast forward 90 days—the creativity and uniqueness you were so fond of is stripped from the work. 

This is common when implementers don’t have access to the insights that shaped the work they’re using.

Like when a writer is tasked with rolling out new messaging, but wasn’t involved in the preceding strategy process. They have the message framework, but don’t have access to the thinking, insights, or customer research that led to those conclusions. They miss a lot of useful context that would help them create, and help the company leverage its previous investment. 

Another example: a design system project. Where the brand team is updating the brand system. If the process doesn’t involve a UX lead or a product team representative — then you may find your brand colors may not have any counterparts in the product UI. Another miss.

In-house teams have so much to produce, and are continuously working through the backlog. They’re typically open to bringing in an outside partner to handle a potential workstream. Especially when they get to offer their thoughts.

Consider this shortlist a starting point for finding smart ways to maximize in-house team input and overall success.

Achieve brand alignment with your in-house teams 

Hint: Do the opposite of the headlines above… Avoid the risk of rework, and the pull to make haste. 

Here are five smart ways to involve in-house teams:

  1. Invite them to help you scope what’s needed from an agency partner
  2. Invite them to build the case with why an external partner needs to be brought in
  3. Invite them to outline the requirements that the end deliverable needs to meet
  4. Invite them into the process, while shaping the type of feedback you’re looking for
  5. Invite them to share the biggest landmines you must avoid during the process and  implementation

Everyone will be better off. And in-house folks will notice your efforts to fight the forces that can squash a process. You’ll build mutual trust and increase the probability of a successful outcome. Not to mention you’ll be addressing common pain points the internal teams face. 

Bank the goodwill. It’ll come in handy during the inevitable volatility of the creative process. And the perpetual give and take of evolving company and product brands brands simultaneously.

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