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Unique Hurdles for In-house Designers
by David C. Baker
The draw of working at an in-house communications department has not changed much over the decades. In general, in-house careers offer better benefits, more rungs on the career ladder, greater financial stability and significantly more structure. It’s a myth that in-house creatives are less creative—they’ve simply weighed the pros and cons and chosen certain career paths that align more closely with their goals.
What’s changing, though, is significant, and it has implications for in-house departments and for the independent firms that work with them. The main change is that the employee count on the in-house side is rising. That I know for sure. While I don’t know the following for certain, I strongly suspect that this time the increase will be permanent.
How will this change impact outside creative firms? First, they will have to become comfortable handing off conceptual work to others who will implement it. Designers are crazy sensitive about this, largely because they see themselves caring more than the client and fearing that “their work” will not be translated well as it takes shape. Even if that’s true, you cannot care more than your client and at the same time maintain a sustainable approach to your craft. There is a direct relationship between caring more than your client and burning out early and leaving the field.
Second, you will have to be comfortable working yourself out of a job. Fortunately, the job you’ll be training others to do is the lower-level work, so this is something that should thrill you. If it makes you paranoid, it’s quite likely that you don’t have a clear idea of what makes your skills unique, thus placing you in the death-spiral category of “replaceable within one week.” For the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would fear losing lower-level work. Embrace it, help them set up the right systems (like PTI’s MarcomCentral), staff them, train them and be a terrific resource.
Third, you’ll have to craft a way of working with an inside department without it looking like it’s only necessary because it’s not doing its job. The more clueless c-level executives often come to that very dangerous conclusion about the in-house department: “If you were doing your job, would we really need these outside people?”
So a few things are changing, but largely they are the same. The frustrations have simply become more acute. If you don’t work at an in-house communications department, consider reading the short remainder of this article for no other reason than to understand and help them deal with their plight. If you do work at an in-house department, maybe you can take these suggestions, see which you agree with, and then improve your department’s relationship with the mother ship. Here are the eight most common problems I see at in-house departments, each followed by
a simple suggestion for improvement. There are an additional half dozen issues, but they are minor.
One, and perhaps most important of all, you are not considered experts. We all know that because you are thought of more as a pair of hands than a sharp brain, you aren’t brought in very early in the process and other departments sometimes treat you like a glorified Kinko’s. The reason is simple but the solution is not. The reason is that you are too accessible and in developed cultures like ours, the experts are the least accessible people. And you are right down the hall. (In undeveloped cultures, the most accessible person, like the village elder, is the one with the most expertise.) You are not likely to have the freedom to move into another building at the edge of the office campus, but you can quit jumping every time someone yells for something. What message do you think you are sending by constantly shielding your internal clients from their foolish decisions?
Two, and the other really important point, is that you have a client concentration problem. In the outside world, that means that you simply have one client who represents too much of your business. They would consider themselves in jeopardy if any single-related source represented more than 25 percent of their billings, but here you are with a client that represents 100 percent of yours. What happens in those circumstances? The same thing that happens on the outside: you quit telling the truth, pushing back, guiding them with courage and swimming upstream. You become a genetically wired “yes” person in order to keep your job.
Three, and regardless of the titles you use, you too frequently combine the roles of account service with strategic leadership, and clients don’t want to hear big strategy plans from their day-to-day contact, for the same reason I’ve explained above. There should be a daily contact and there should be a strategy person who moves in-and-out of the relationship when appropriate to preserve their mysterious impact.