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Inside Out or Outside In

I’ve started this essay a number to times, writing it various different ways but kept scrapping each iteration because in the end it was much too negative. What I want to talk about is uncomfortable.

It’s hard when you work inside a large machine to not get caught up in the gears some days. But a good tact for the essay finally materialized and my hope is that you not only glean something from it, but find it valuable.

Enough of the pre-ramble.

I spent a large part of my career on the agency/studio side of the fence, but over the past nine years I have been working in-house, riding the wave so many creative folk have been on after the financial meltdown in 2008. In-house used to be the place good creatives would go to die, giving up fighting the good fight out in the agency world to settle in for comfort, security and a steady paycheck.

There was a cycle to it: The economy goes south, people run for cover in big corporations to shield them from whatever hardships were coming their way, but as soon as the economy picked back up again, they bolt for the nearest agency to get the hell out of the machine before they got chewed up.

Not so much anymore.

The cycle broke over the past decade. For any number of reasons, creatives with some serious chops are choosing to stay in-house rather than jumping back into the agency world. According to The Drum, Campaign and other industry pubs, this is being felt all over the world. Business has indeed come around to the idea of having top talent inside the borg. They are willing to pay the good salaries and often times contend with issues brought about by creative types because they recognize the value these individuals bring to the company. I won’t belabor any of this here; you can read about elsewhere as this subject all over the interweb.

What I want to dive into are things I have noticed, learned and even acted upon on after years being in-house. Again, enough rambling, just get on with it:

Starting on a positive note: The business world has caught up the Mr Watson’s quip from 60 or so years ago and finally agreed that Good Design is Good for Business. This is a game-changer for those of us who create for a living. Another thought that spurred me to write this essay was something else I read recently. I’ll paraphrase Mr Bill Bernbach:

Creativity is the last advantage a corporation can legally use over the competition. 

A little more cut-throat than Mr Watson’s much kinder, gentler thought, but true. I think you see it more in the UX/UI side of the design business, but it is prevalent everywhere, even in the old, dusty marketing department of your favorite Fortune 500. Good work for good companies is there to be had by good creatives, all under one roof.

Now a negative to the trend: The downside for creative professionals is that corporations are not set up to address the career of a creative. For example: At Schlumberger, my title was Creative Director, a plumb-sounding gig. But if you looked at the back-end of the HR system, my title was actually Marketing Specialist 3. I’ve never been one to get hung up on job titles, but what this actually tells you is that a CD doesn’t  truly have a place in that particular machine. They recognized they needed the work creatives provide, but do not understand how to get it out of people and help them sustain their careers. Notice I am no longer working there.

This leads me to career progression, which most companies struggle with, especially with creative types. Once you have succeeded, where do you go? How do you reward creatives for all the good work they do to move the sales needle or save the company some money? Or both, in some instances.

Marketing organizations, even at large corporations, are relatively flat management structures and there is not much room to maneuver. This is a particularly tough issue when dealing with the Millennial generation who thrive under praise. (That is not a critique of the generation, just an observation, mind you.) The bigger the company the slower they move to change, and trying to get creatives shoe-horned into nice, neat career paths is quite an undertaking. One of which I tried and failed. Career development was not an issue when designers left companies and went back to the agency world when the economy picked up, as mentioned earlier, but this is a critical issue to address as creatives look to have longer careers inside big business. The situation creates a unique opportunity for change.

One plus and one minus. What is a big plus for keeping creative in-house?

I grokked on this and it led me to writing this mad ramble. The one benefit that a good creative brings to the job everyday that is extraordinarily beneficial to their company: Objectivity.

A good creative-type from the agency world brings this outsider’s attitude with them wherever they go. Their training and experience has them always keeping a sharp eye not on the company, but the company’s customers. But it can be a double-edged sword.

Even though objectivity is the most important thing a creative can bring to the in-house table, it is often times the hardest thing to maintain. When you are part of the organization, you have to be able to strike that delicate balance between being responsive to what your boss (or her boss!) is asking for yet still be able to stretch your imagination to push the company forward. It’s kind of like saying “conceptual PowerPoint” — it is an oxymoron. It is tough but it is possible.

Keeping yourself at arm’s length from the company while being inside is your superpower, allowing you to see things how they are, and more importantly, how things can become. The only way to do that is to not be totally immersed in the company culture. Not drinking the Kool-Aid can be very hard to do. And it can cause you problems, as noted above. Being at odds with the prevailing winds can make your life in the office difficult. But remember this:

Conformity kills creativity. 

If there is any one take away from this long piece, it is that. One last story:

I got in hot water with the VP of Marketing at PULSE when I worked there. In full transparency, he gave me a project and I totally misunderstood what he was asking for. So much so that two other people sided with me on this matter. But he was angry with me for NOT delivering what he desired. He called me into his office to scold me. While berating about willfully disobeying his direction, he called me “subversive”. He did not mean it as a compliment, but that was exactly how I took it. I said “thank you” and thought I might get fired.

I always strive to create positive change in all the things I do, trying make situations better for the company and its customers.

If you plan to work inside a large corporation, be subversive. Stay objective in all your creative work while you look to push the company forward. Fight for that change. Maybe that’s why so many creatives are staying in-house?