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Use Inhouse Creative and Agencies

Hope reigns eternal in the early stages of the year as businesses far and wide look to regain the momentum of times before our recession. To that end, long-standing norms are being challenged in very constructive ways.

In the catalog world, one area that always has been a hot topic depending on where you stand is whether to use an outside creative agency or an inhouse creative team. Increasingly, catalogers are realizing that there need not be an either/or decision on the use of an agency in their brand's creative process. Companies representing a range of product categories and serving a diverse customer demographic are having their inhouse teams work together with agencies in mutually beneficial ways.

Some successful ways are emerging in which these heretofore competitive groups have established working relationships. The following are four of the most popular and successful ways inhouse creative teams at catalogers and agencies have found to co-exist.

Conceptual partner. One of the most important activities that a brand can perform on an annual or seasonal basis is the development of a cohesive set of brand concepts to guide its creative execution. Exploring and reaching agreement on the basic design elements such as color, typography, photographic style, page layout and copy voice drive the alignment and creative consistency critical to the communication of a clear brand message to consumers.

Often, however, an inhouse creative team can become so overwhelmed with the production process itself that longer-term, strategic thinking can fall victim to a lack of staff and/or time. Calling in an outside agency offers catalogers a resource unencumbered by the past and unconstrained by daily deliverables. If properly guided by a key member of the inhouse team, the agency can handle the task of planning the evolution (in some cases, the revolution) of a brand's message to make it most relevant to existing and prospective customers.

Category specialization. Many businesses, especially as they grow, expand into new, often very distinct, product areas as a means of increasing revenue. The challenge inhouse departments often face is that the talents and interests of people hired for one area commonly do not overlap onto another area. The best staff fashion apparel art directors, for example, may have little experience or desire to become involved in a cataloger's growth into home furnishings.

Therefore, using an outside agency to support a new area of a cataloger's business delivers focused talent deployed in areas perhaps outside existing inhouse expertise. In addition, a cataloger may want to test new areas before deciding to staff internally to support a new venture. In this case, agencies offer instant capacity required to complete the work in a much shorter time.

Executional support. The position full-service agencies used to take that they were interested only in business where they could do it all is no longer appropriate today. Catalogers realize that the use of agencies on an a la carte basis can add significant value without significant cost. In the case of a company needing production services for a photography shoot, the use of an agency to identify, negotiate and hire models and photographers and organize travel can be a very cost-effective expenditure versus keeping staff internally.

Beyond photo production, there are many areas today where agencies are being used to support inhouse teams on a piecemeal basis. From art direction to printing supervision, catalogers are tapping the vast experience available in the agency community.

Peak demand capacity. Depending on the product category, many catalogers' promotional plans are very seasonal, leading to peaks and valleys in resource requirements. Inhouse teams often are ill-equipped to handle year-round demand, and they historically have relied on freelance talent to buffer these staffing gaps. Partially as a result of the near-full employment status of the past few years, freelance availability has declined, as they have become either busier or taken staff positions themselves.

Therefore, to maintain some staffing continuity, albeit on a peak-only basis, many catalogers are turning to agencies to provide that needed extension of their own teams. Together, agencies and their clients can plan these needs throughout the year so that companies get their capacity without having to keep it around all year.

A one-size-fits-all approach no longer exists when it comes to meeting the creative needs of the cataloger. Agencies are more open to more flexible working relationships, and inhouse creative teams are less threatened by the prospect of opening their doors to outsiders. Given today's economic realities where companies are looking to maximize value at reduced cost, a combination of inhouse and agency resourcing of creative execution is becoming a popular alternative. This new era of collaboration has only positive implications for those who have the courage to explore.

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