Is in-house production right for you?

Business flow, talent and creative buy-in: Doug Lowe explains what will help clients and agencies alike in-house successfully.
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By Doug Lowe

Having invested the past 16 years of my professional life at Cossette in charge of overall production services, I’m well versed in the age-old dilemma of “in-house” vs “out-sourced” production. It was my primary responsibility and focus to build an internally robust, profitable video/content/print offering that delivered best-in-class execution of Cossette’s best-in-class creative output.

We had some measure of success because I recognized early on that the gap wasn’t an ability to produce “traditional” TV commercials but rather the dexterity to execute quick turnaround, low-budget content. It then became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – as investment was made on internal resources, more content work came in, because much of it no longer needed to go out.

Not surprisingly, I’m unabashedly a proponent of building in-house capabilities – but that’s not to say everyone should.

It’s also not to say out-sourcing is a bad thing. Canada’s production community is exceptional. Movies, prestige TV and streaming platform shows, as well as commercial video content seen around the globe is produced in Canada and it’s not just because the favourable value of our dollar or production incentives. That volume wouldn’t hold up over the long haul if the quality of the work, talent of crews and creatives or the technical capabilities didn’t hold up.

But.

Many marketers capitalized on in-housing well before their agency partners did – not just with production, but often creative, design and digital capabilities as well. This caused no end of consternation on the agency side, but it was an understandable reaction to market conditions and a fragmented media landscape. While agency partners were (and are) valued for their big picture strategic insights and creative thinking, they generally were not as nimble when it came to efficient execution of quick turnaround, smaller-picture content.

In-house production can increase agility and speed-to-market for clients because those creating and executing the work are sitting right beside the person briefing it in and who (should) know the brand better than anyone. Fewer people are involved, so the layers (and sometimes cost) are often reduced. In short, in-house on the brand side is generally less about revenue generation and more about broader efficiency.

Even for the agencies, in-house production goes beyond potential revenue generation opportunities. Though that is part of it, it also allows them to be quicker to market. The resources are there – no need to search for a vendor to see if they can do it for the money and time available. The in-house team can also be a creative enabler, executing a rough version of an idea that might be tough to sell on paper.

It should also mean work is conceptualized collaboratively, given creative and production are under the same roof. It’s often a recipe for disaster if the execution is conceived in a vacuum.

But the sheer number of clients who’ve started and subsequently pulled the chute on in-house capabilities shows that the set-up can’t be cookie-cutter and success over the long haul isn’t guaranteed. As workflow and tactics change, so must the make-up and skill-set of the internal team. It’s also one thing to ask your agency to work five evenings in a row or over a weekend to nail a deadline, but can you ask the same of your internal team?

I’ve been asked by many companies if they should get in the in-house production game, or why what they have in place is not generating enough revenue.

Despite my aforementioned bias, my answer is not generic, because every situation is different. What’s the current client mix? What’s the workflow mix? What’s currently going out-of-house and what percentage of that could realistically be brought in, given the right set up? How consistent is the volume – it’s exceptionally tough to make a financial go of it if the workflow is intermittent or exclusively micro-budget.

Yes, you can do “low cost” but you need “high volume” and/or a decent stream of decently well-funded work that enables you to do a social media shoot for next to no money. And you need to be staffed appropriately.

You also need creative and organizational buy-in. You’re starting from a philosophical deficit – there’s generally a predisposed bias against internal production within the creative department. If the in-house production unit is a metaphoric island, or it’s perceived solely as a way to make money, creative teams will quickly smell a rat. But if the relationship is collaborative and teams have a voice in how it’s set up and who’s hired, things can work wonderfully.

The first time I hired a director at Cossette, I did one thing right and one thing wrong. The right thing was hiring a talented individual. I knew there would be crickets at the outset but was confident things would ultimately kick in. And sure enough, a case-study video here, a person-in-the-street execution there and creative teams went “holy crap, this dude’s pretty talented!”.

The wrong thing was it took longer to click than it might have otherwise because I hadn’t gotten enough of that creative pre-buy in and input. Lesson learned.

So is in-house a “threat” to the prosperity and well-being of external vendors? Hardly. There’s more than enough work (particularly content) to go around.

Dan Ford, executive producer at Radke, goes as far as saying “I don’t get why everyone gets so wound up. The internal struggle is invariably one where expectation exceeds budget, so if companies can find a solution to solve this, then good on them. It doesn’t change what we do but it helps force us to be smarter.”

One size fits all solutions won’t work across the board – it’s not a switch you turn on or off – so be sure you know what it is you want to focus on. If you’re clear on those goals and objectives and have a structure that is tailored to your workflow, you should do well. If the business vision is shared and openly communicated (is the priority revenue generation or collaborative resource/creative enabler?), I like the chances of success.

Having previously spent 16 years as SVP and GM of production services at Cossette, Doug Lowe is the founder of dspoke, a consultancy for establishing or optimizing in-house bespoke production capabilities.