At last month’s HOW Design Live conference, I facilitated two discussion groups focused on what in-house creative resources can do to arrive at a place of mutuality with their internal clients. Nearly 60% of US marketers have an internal agency or creative services group (2013 ANA study) and though some are dedicated to executing “fast and cheap,” more are focused on becoming trusted, valued partners to the businesses they support. So how do you make the shift from order taker to business partner? Here’s what I shared with the folks at the HOW event:

Become an expert.

Everyone wants to be strategic. And you know what? Everyone thinks they are. The reality is that in order to be considered a strategic partner, you must become an expert in your client’s business and the business of your in-house agency.

To become an expert in your client’s business, you need to understand everything from the history, size and philosophy of the business to the products, pricing and distribution channels. What are the client’s business objectives? How is the target audience defined? What does the competitive landscape look like?

Now you might wonder, “Why do I need to know this stuff? Isn’t that the client’s job?” Sure, it’s the client’s job. But if you’re reading this, you probably noticed the title of this blog post. To make the move from order taker to business partner, you need to be able to keep up with your client’s program requests as well as the rationale behind them. There is also an expectation that you will be similarly well versed in the functions and focus areas that comprise your agency team.

Demonstrate your acumen.

Internal agencies are connoisseurs of the corporate brand. In fact, one of the benefits of having an in-house team is the institutional knowledge they have surrounding the brand. Unfortunately, too many internal agencies hang their hats on brand alone. Don’t get me wrong, brand is important, but only if you know where and how to promote it. That’s why you need to understand the latest tools, trends and technologies available to advertisers today.

Take content marketing, for instance. According to a recent CMI study, 92% of marketers are deploying some type of branded content strategy in 2014, with 58% of B2B marketers and 60% of B2C marketers expecting to increase their content budgets in the year to come. As consumer engagement continues to expand, you need to become as proficient with emerging platforms as you are with the tried and true. The speed with which the marketplace is changing is undeniable, with new methods of outreach popping up almost daily. Your job is to keep pace, demonstrating your acumen far beyond brand.

Manage your projects.

A big part of everyone’s job within an in-house creative team is managing projects—from scoping, scheduling and budgeting to monitoring workflow and meeting deliverables. There is a discipline associated with project management that involves skillful oversight of people and processes.

The people part is about ensuring that everyone understands his/her role on the project—that and holding them accountable for meeting their commitments. If you do a good job ensuring that everyone understands what they are responsible for and when it’s due, you’ll have a much easier time managing performance.

The process part is about ensuring that the proper procedures are in place to support the work and that those procedures are clearly communicated across the team. In the absence of a well-designed process, even your top performers will fail. So it’s essential to ensure that the operating practices make sense for the work and make sense to the individuals who are expected to follow them, including your clients.

Delight your clients.

Here’s what clients want from their in-house agency partners:
Someone who is invested. They want you to care about their business—being responsive, responsible and making decisions in support of their objectives.
A proactive partner. Clients welcome new ideas and want you and your in-house agency colleagues to bring fresh thinking to the table.
A flexible backbone. Contrary to popular belief, clients are receptive to push-back to make the work better, as long as you maintain flexibility and adapt when needed.

In contrast, clients don’t want:
An order taker. And you know what? You don’t want to be one either. Don’t execute without thinking and don’t wait for your clients to tell you what to do.
A pushy salesperson. Educate them and inform them; don’t sell to them.
A fighter. If you view every encounter (or any encounter) with your clients as a win/lose, you need to rethink your approach. As an internal agency, you all work for the same company. When your clients win, you win. And when your clients lose, you do too.

To find out what more you can do to go from order taker to business partner, give us a call. Stiglin Consulting provides customized solutions related to Organizational Strategy & Structure, Process Design & Development, Resource Planning & Optimization, and Talent Assessment & Training to enable the success of in-house teams.