The in-house marketing department is not an agency

When I started at Capital Newspapers, we were using Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, a Madison-based advertising agency, to do our creative and brand development work.

We were paying them lots of money to try and win us over to their ideas with the normal agency tricks and presentations. At this point, I was simply the Research Manager.

After a year, I was given the greenlight to build and manage the marketing department I had been advocating – which meant hiring the personnel and starting from scratch on our core brands.

Once we had the people in place, I took the organization through brand development exercises for each of our core properties – Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and Once we had determined who they were and who they wanted to be, we set about creating strategies and the campaigns to support them.

But throughout it all, there was always a tension in the building. The editors and publishers of both newspapers, as well as the head of advertising always believed we were their agency.

In other words, THEY would decide what they were going to do, and WE would create the “pretty ads” to support their ideas.

During my entire 8 years as head of marketing there, I fought this notion every chance I got. An in-house marketing department is not an agency.

Agencies take orders and give the client what they think the client will buy. That’s not to say they don’t care about the work. Agencies, and the people within, are always trying to build their portfolios and have great work to show. But their first interest isn’t normally their client’s business.

No matter what they tell you, there’s always some level of disconnect between an agency and the client. The agency just cannot know or care about the business as much as the client. They will rarely be allowed to drive the strategy (and many won’t even try).

But as I routinely argued to my executive team, an in-house department is invested in the business and should be driving the marketing for the company. They should be developing not only creative materials, but marketing strategies and decisions.

My teams always did that. We always worked to improve and develop our products. We would look for opportunities to make our products better, and we would invent new ones that addressed previously unanswered needs. We felt we should know more about the products and the customers than anyone in our company. And we did. We had the best marketing research resources in town, and we knew more about our product’s customers than anyone.

I recently worked with an in-house agency in my company who worked hard to divorce themselves from the strategy and product development. They were content to simply do the creative and believed they didn’t have a role beyond that.

For a long time, I tried to collaborate with them to improve our product, invent new and relevant features and encouraged them to work with me to drive our strategies. They never saw the connection, and I never understood why they wouldn’t want to take ownership over all product marketing. An invested group of individuals in an in-house marketing team would never be content to “just make the pretty ads.” They’d want to be on the front end of product development.

My point is not to take a shot at ad agencies. Please don’t read it that way. There are many great reasons to use agencies, and I’m using three right now with my current employer.

But, in-house marketing departments should drive product marketing, not be driven like an outside agency. In fact, it is the in-house department who drives the outside agency.

– My name is Jon Friesch, and if I’m not invested in what I’m doing, I don’t want to do it.

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