Inside Nationwide’s 150-person in-house agency

For Terrance Williams, chief marketing officer and president of emerging businesses at Nationwide, an in-house agency is a way to keep marketing aligned with the brand and do it cheaply.

“We want to be able to create quality content aligned with Nationwide, and do so at a very competitive cost,” said Williams, who moved into his role three years ago just as the 93-year-old financial services company was setting up its in-house agency, called Inhouse.

The idea is to use Inhouse to provide cultural expertise, even in cases where an external agency may be called in, he said.

Nationwide’s 150-person in-house agency handles programmatic as well as creative services. It’s housed within Nationwide’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and includes a 15-person content studio that makes videos and photos that are posted to social media channels, and has recently been experimenting with virtual reality.

Nationwide declined to comment on the marketing spend its internal agency controls, but the company reportedly spent $255 million in measured-media ad spending in 2016. Nationwide isn’t alone among large financial brands that are putting resources behind in-house capabilities. Beyond cost reductions, financial services’ in-house agencies also benefit from their access to data. Inhouse’s rollout coincides with the launch of Inner Circle, Chase’s content agency that’s also based in Columbus, and other players investing in similar efforts. SoFi is reportedly building a creative team from scratch, and Wealthsimple and Mastercard have established content studios to enhance their storytelling capabilities. Nationwide said the in-house agency doesn’t take away the need to work with agencies to address specific needs — it still works with McCann for media and Ogilvy for creative campaigns — but Inhouse adds three key benefits: agility, compliance expertise, and team members who work closely with product developers.

“We have the right talent makeup — there’s value in [a team member] that looks, breathes and feels like a ‘Nationwider’ — it’s hard to manufacture that,” said Mike Boyd, svp of enterprise brand marketing. Inhouse’s team is housed within Nationwide’s offices, but functions as full-service agency with multiple business lines, including account managers that are embedded with the company’s core business teams, creative services and copywriting staff.

Boyd didn’t say what proportion of Inhouse team members who come from within the company versus newer hires, but he said the majority of them already worked for Nationwide prior to Inhouse’s creation three years ago, with additional employees coming from agency and media backgrounds. As for the scope of Inhouse’s work, it covers a broad swath of creative services. It’s currently exploring doing more podcasts, a virtual reality experience for financial advisers, and it’s developed recruiting videos and annual reports. Nationwide still uses agencies for many core marketing tasks; a recent example included it’s “On Your Side” online social video campaign that was spearheaded by Ogilvy. But in-house capabilities, said Williams, lets the company react more quickly to emerging needs, or those that require input from a range of internal client groups. The advantage goes beyond cost saving — in-house capabilities are complementary to agency efforts, he said. Prior to Inhouse’s launch, creative capabilities were scattered across the different parts of the company, and one of Williams’ first objectives was to bring them together under one unit.

To gain top talent from the marketing and agency worlds, Inhouse’s physical layout resembles an open, modern office space where staff members can wear jeans — a tool to attract talent from outside agencies. “We redesigned that space a year ago — the furniture design is different and so is the dress code, with people wearing jeans,” he said.

In-house agencies give brands additional control over the message through employees who feel a connection to the brand and are invested in its success, said SoFi’s executive creative director Shahin Edelati.

In-house structures also add a degree of stability for brands when agencies are plagued with turnover, said Rose Walker, vp of consulting services and solutions at executive recruitment firm Creative Circle, who added that in-house agencies’ turnover is around 5 percent. But agency creatives looking to branch out may need assurances that the work will be of a standard at par with agencies, and that the in-house shops will offer sufficient autonomy to innovate, she added. It may be difficult to quell concerns about a lack of variety and clear career progression.

The risk that a larger bureaucracy will override honest feedback is also a concern for agency executives pondering a move to in-house shops.

“[Sometimes] you lack objectivity and a best-practice sounding board — there are different reporting lines [in in-house agencies]”  said Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research.“You’re more likely to have an [external] agency tell a client ‘in your interest and ours, this is a dumb idea.’”

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