Soothing In-House Content Teams’ Growing Pains

The debate of either-or should finally be put to rest.
Itch graphic climbing the ladder

In recent years, there has been a major shift toward in-house content teams and a reduced reliance on external agencies. In 2019, the Association of National Advertisers reported that 78 percent of marketers had an in-house agency, compared with 42 percent 10 years earlier. While there have been some reversals, such as Intel reducing its internal agency from 100 people to 30, those seem more one-offs rather than affecting the trend. 

COVID-19 is accelerating the trend.

As described by ANA CEO Bob Liodice, the closure of the production community has led to marketers leaning heavily on in-house infrastructure as their hands have been forced. He stated, “Clearly, in-housing is far more cost-effective. I’d much rather have a 100 percent dedicated individual who has capabilities in certain areas to be working full time against my specific needs as opposed to multiple other competing marketers who might be out there.”

This shift to in-house agencies has been underpinned by many factors, but these stand out: 

  • Agencies were unwilling to manage the increased complexity of channels and instead put the focus on integration onto their clients, who in return started to build resources internally to facilitate integration and governance rather than working with multiple agencies. 
  • In-house creative teams know their core audiences better—especially as the media landscape has shifted rapidly from broad, impression-based traditional media to digital ecosystems where success or failure reports itself in real time.
  • The emergence of technology has made content management and distribution much easier. Rather than armies of project managers managing workflow, tools can handle this automatically that then connect to publishing on various channels.

The result is that marketers are building in-house capabilities and view agencies as less essential. That said, most marketers still rely on a blend of in-house and external resources to retain flexibility, scalability and innovation.

As marketers consider the right balance and blend, here are three focus areas for those responsible for in-house agencies—talent management, organizational structure and performance—that are likely to lead to higher-quality content and better results:

1. Talent management that prepares for 100 percent turnover 

Keeping in-house talent energized is the No. 1 concern, according to a July 2019 study from the ANA, closely followed by attracting the talent in the first place. In-house agencies are likely to struggle to retain the best talent, as the work’s lack of variety becomes stifling to people who thrive on diverse challenges in a multitude of disciplines—in a corporate rather than creative environment. Creative culture needs to emerge, distinct from but connected to the company’s corporate culture. 

Talent acquisition is a discipline in its own right and should be staffed in preparation for finding each new generation of the team. Every four to five years, the team will completely turn over. The pursuit of excellence, knowledge sharing, learning and development, career paths, and compensation are the keys to improving retention and becoming a magnet for top talent.

Some roles and functions are harder to sustain internally—more conceptual creative work, enterprise content strategy, advanced analytics and innovation. These are the types of work that an external partner can help support in a hybrid model. In response, the external partners should be deliberate in acquiring and retaining their industry subject matter experts. Conflicts policies should be relaxed to allow agencies to become the industry expert based on more than one client in that industry.

2. Content effectiveness to improve the 5 percent rule

Many marketers are reporting a five times increase in content development to meet the growing need for original content and atomization to fuel channels and personalization engines. For all the effort put into creating content, studies show that consumers summarily dismiss most of it. Just 5 percent of content is responsible for 90 percent of results. That’s a lot of waste.

Before you multiply that waste times five, you need to truly understand the 5 percent of your content that is driving the lion’s share of results. The bottom line is that most of the content created is categorical and not helping brand objectives, and the quality is low, resulting in zero engagement. So before marketers create five times the content, the content strategy should be clearly defined in a way that improves results, rooting out the 95 percent of content that is doing nothing for your business. 

In 2018, the Content Marketing Institute reported that only 39 percent of marketers had a documented content strategy. An additional 39 percent of marketers said they had a strategy but had not written it down. We suspect the vast majority have not done the appropriate content strategy homework.

Content strategy requires experience and expertise that is missing in many client organizations. This is another area where working with an external, specialized and impartial strategy and analytics team can provide a stronger foundation.

3. Organizational structure inspired by audiences

Strategic content approaches require new thinking. We have to transcend legacy marketing structures that work like an assembly line, making sequential decisions, and the advertising development processes that involve the pursuit of a singular idea. 

Whether resources are internal or external isn’t as important as bringing all key disciplines to the table, including content creators, engagement and performance experts, and analysts.

This team construct will encourage experimentation to find out what works and build on success in real time. At Manifest, we call this structure the Audience Engine. Our tailored and scalable operational model consists of a multidisciplinary pod working seamlessly as a unit to provide persistent innovation, optimization, strategic leadership and flawless execution. 

Comprising data science, creative, account management, engagement management and performance marketing, the Audience Engine eliminates silos from the traditional model and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, as everyone is accountable to team performance instead of discipline, agency or client.

When done well, both quality and quantity of content grow as audience intelligence is acquired. The name “Audience Engine” is important, because content is not the end goal. It is merely one way to meet your audience’s needs. Said another way, content is not king (or queen); it is currency of the realm. Your customer is always king and queen.

Ultimately, it should not matter whether talent sits internally or externally. In the highest-performing content teams with involvement from in-house and external agencies, sometimes it is hard to determine whom people are working for. What is clear is they are all working to fill audience needs.

If you need or want some help, or a sounding board for your ideas, as you refine your approach to high-performing content teams—or you just want to talk shop, please email

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