Let’s be honest. Traditionally, the term “in-house agency” has evoked less-than, bland, safe. It’s been judged as the place where creatives go to gasp out their last campaigns, with the sword poised above. And yet, viral marketing and profiles of burgeoning brands are proving that the in-house level of thinking is kicking ass.
It turns out that a deep dive into one brand, that one truly believes in, can forward the thinking of creative problem-solvers, landing them in brain spaces quite unexpected. As Tim Roan, executive creative director at Lyft, puts it, “For the first time, as a creative, you’re not a rock star. Lyft is an engineering company. Here, the spin is product and business.” He’s clearly excited about the fact that the creative department spills over into other areas of the company, seeping into daily decision-making in everything from product line extensions to city ordinances to packaging.
Here are three examples of in-house entities proving that the discussion is no longer in-house “instead of” agencies. It’s now “as well as.”
Dollar Shave Club
Looming large over Times Square in Manhattan at New Year’s was a giant billboard showing a wizened old man wearing nothing but an undershirt and his tighty-whities. He peers down into his underpants, taking a look at his “parts.” The headline reads: “Dollar Cologne for Spraying on Your Neck, Wrists, Clothes or Even Your Junkyard Club.” Companion posters were papered over the entire Times Square presence, all replacing the word Shave in Dollar Shave Club, aka DSC, with a medicine-cabinet-full of the brand’s other grooming supplies.
Founded in 2011 by Michael Dubin and acquired by Unilever three years ago, the manscaping subscription service is clearly aiming, in this campaign, to show it is much more than quality, reasonably priced handles and blades shipped to your home. Seven years in, the brand is the ultimate makeover story, offering eight categories of product lines for all things grooming and thriving out of its Marina del Rey headquarters.
In a video cut to Steve Lawrence’s version of the song “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a diverse variety of men, including a shop-worn worker, a dad, a drag queen and even Dubin (in a cameo), show how embarrassing, funny, cringeworthy and sometimes painful their bathroom regimes can be. The result is an engaging message that sums up with: “However you get ready, welcome to the club.” Aptly named “Get Ready,” and running at 3 minutes and 40 seconds, the piece was designed to be edited into social postings, broadcast TV and other showings. Dollar Shave collaborated with production company MJZ director Steve Ayson, noted for his Old Spice campaigns for Wieden+Kennedy.
Dollar Shave Club’s work is all conceived and largely produced by its in-house creative team. It’s funny, frank and relatable. Matt Orser, senior creative director, says, “We have a core group who have been through the agency journey. We feel we’re doing some of our best work, in-house.”
Alec Brownstein, vice president of creative, executive creative director, was the first creative at the company. It began as a casual helping-hand conversation or project now and again with Dubin, whom Brownstein knew in college. Eventually, Dubin asked the writer to come on board and lead creative. “We’ve always run really lean,” Brownstein says. “Recently, a friend of mine who’s a creative director in an agency asked me about a project. When I told him how few people worked on it, he couldn’t believe it.”
That leanness extends to the overall structure of the company. “We’re streamlined,” Orser says. “We think of an idea, we walk down the hall, we present it and if we sell it, we make it. People think in-house agencies are less creative and take fewer chances, but it’s the opposite. We’re part of the company—we’re not in any danger of losing the account. We can be even more daring and challenging.”
Matt Knapp, vice president of creative, executive creative director, says, “We’re all on the same team working toward the same goal: growing the business. When you’re in an agency, awards are what motivate you. When you’re inside, it’s the comments you see in social media that fuel you more than any award could.”
The best part about Dollar Shave Club may be that it retains the playfulness Dubin launched the brand with, even through immense growth and a sizable acquisition. That smells nice. (Kind of like DSC Calming Amber and Lavender body cleanser.)
The feedback loop. For Sandra Nam, creative production director, it’s key to efficiently producing on-point work for the website design and building company. “Speed, transparency and knowledge of the product—it’s the trifecta,” says Nam. “The creative team here is nimble and gets to execute very quickly on a lot of concepts that would typically take much longer on the agency side. In-house creatives understand the product better and deliver faster than ever. Especially if you hire people who are Swiss army knives.”
Started by Anthony Casalena in his dorm room in 2003, Squarespace has grown to a team of more than 900 and has provided an easy solution for millions looking to make beautiful websites. The creative department at Squarespace now numbers at nearly 60, and, as in other in-house agencies, it seeps into other areas of the business. “It’s not a silo model,” Nam says. “We’re involved on every level, so we get to be entrepreneurial. Our creative team isn’t part of marketing. Brand is shared by marketing and creative. It’s a very collaborative and mission-driven process, with the entire company working on a beautiful product that will help bring the customers’ dreams to life.”
For Super Bowl 2018, the team proclaimed “Make it Happen” with a Keanu Reeves adventure, in the form of a 30-second spot. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, known for the movie Sexy Beast, it’s set in the desert landscape of Lancaster, California. Reeves rides his motorcycle down a lonely road—standing on the seat. Rather than avail himself of a stunt double, the actor, who’s known for doing his own stunts, performed the feat himself. Nam recalls, “The bike was moving at 35 miles per hour. Keanu was rigged onto the bike by a process trailer, and the bike was rigged to the process trailer as well. The rigs were removed in post, but he did the stunt and everything was real. Nothing was nished with effects.” Besides broadcast TV, the Squarespace team creates content for YouTube, Instagram and paid social, among other platforms.
Transparency and a unified end goal are the hallmarks of Squarespace’s model. “Our team is constantly iterating and finding ways to breathe new life into our product, enabling our customers to see just how dynamic our all-in-one platform is,” Nam says. “We might have a media buy, for example, but everyone’s open to changing the buy if we come up with a new thought. It’s been really nice to have the process so flat. We are basically laying the tracks together.”
Having come from Nike and Virgin America, and with a past as a well-known skateboarder, it’s a logical progression that vice president, creative director Jesse McMillin leads the creative efforts at a company designed to move people through space. Even the Lyft logo seems to be on the move, with its swishy letterforms. Updating the logo was one of McMillin’s first jobs at the ride-sharing company when he joined in 2014.
“Jesse is a big thinker who keeps an engineering company realizing that everything we do is a chance for people to love the brand,” says Lyft’s Tim Roan. According to Shachar Aylon, associate creative director, their work demands a 360-view of the brand mission. He says, “We think about how many touchpoints the creative [has to] influence the brand. It’s this idea that you can come into a workplace knowing that what you’re doing is sustainable beyond work hours.”
The ride-share startup, founded in 2012 by John Zimmer and Logan Green, was originally known for its fuchsia mustache–festooned vehicles riding around town. Today, it’s a publicly traded company encompassing cars, scooters and bicycles. McMillin and his team, which numbers around 50, have grown with the burgeoning company. “I started four years ago, when [the company was] 400 people,” recalls Brian Button, associate creative director. “Now we’re pushing 5,000. Back in the beginning, it was Jesse and me and the cofounders in a meeting. We’d walk away feeling like we were part of something.”
Button likens the traditional ad agency model as “a game of telephone.” He says, “Maybe your creative director or an account person takes your work to the client, but he or she isn’t that familiar with it. At Lyft, we get to sit at the table while the work is evaluated, and we can advocate for it. It makes the work go faster too. When you have to move fast, like with social, we can’t wait a week to hear back.”
McMillin adds, “Social has enlivened us. It’s shaken up the creative landscape. We’re no longer doing a 60-second commercial—we’re now in a nimble environment. As a reaction, a lot of brands are developing their in-house agencies, making them stronger and stronger. It’s become necessary to bring creative closer to the brand. It’s caused a lot of innovation.”
In a nutshell, from Roan: “I think we’re in a totally new era of in-house creative power. Someone left Wieden+Kennedy recently to go to Twitter.” ca