It’s no secret that there has been a sharp growth in the development of internal agencies. Ad Age reported about a year ago  that 78% of Association of National Advertisers members have now developed some level of in-house agency. That’s up from just 58% five years ago. Further, of the 22% that didn’t have an in-house agency, 8% said they were considering it for the near future.

This year (2019) my team has worked closely with more than 30 Fortune 500 companies on helping to operationalize a content marketing approach, and we’ve seen this trend firsthand. As content marketing becomes a more recognized piece of what the company is doing, centralizing the approach and creating a content-focused team is a natural extension.

At The Service Of – Not IN The Service Of 

For our clients, building a team to manage and serve internal clients with a streamlined set of creative services, production capabilities, and even media buying may be an extraordinarily productive strategy (though I think the pendulum may be swinging too hard in that direction at the moment). However, our experience is that looking at the content team as an internal agency is a mistake. Content marketing is a fundamentally different approach and needs a leading, not a serving, approach.

Content marketing (and content strategy) should be an active and discrete business model within any organization. Thus, for any company, the content team is more akin to your R&D team, your legal team, or your accounting team.

No sane company would never look at the legal team as an internal agency (or a firm) that services internal clientele. Can you imagine going to the lead lawyer for the business and telling them, “marketing didn’t really care for your take on this case, we’re going to need you to punch it up a bit.”  No. Legal, accounting, sales, procurement are all part of the standardized fabric and strategy of how the business operates. They are AT the service of the organization, not IN service to anyone there. They are strategic leaders within the organization and serve as standard-bearers to lead the business through their area of expertise. The content team should be viewed in the same way.

Intel’s move away from the internal agency model is an interesting example. As reported in Fast Company (from a report in The Information), Intel Agency Inside – which was primarily a storytelling and content creation team – is being scaled back as the organization pivots to a B2B-focused strategy.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why Intel is scaling this team back – not the least of which is the recent turnover of Intel’s CMO position. But it strikes me that the disconnect here is more about what the internal agency focused on (content and storytelling) rather than whether it should have an agency at all.

Organization, structure, and scalability will be the keys to smart content marketing in 2020. And we can all (in the agency world) expect new pressure to help our clients structure strategic content teams either as part of or in the model of, an internal agency approach. I would highly encourage pushing back hard against that pressure.

Where Does That Leave Today’s Agencies?

We all serve clients in various ways. But the one thing we should all be striving for is to be strategic counselors to our clients. You can see this imperative in the tectonic trends in the agency world. As Ad Age noted, four consultancies (Accenture, PwC, Deloitte, and IBM) have now cracked Ad Age’s ranking of the largest agency companies in the world.  Why? How? Because these companies have the trusted ear of the C-Suite. They are providing a litany of strategic service to the leaders within the business. 

Let’s say (and I’ll fully admit the story is still being written as I write this) content teams do indeed start to have the same kind of strategic leadership empowerment that Legal, Accounting and others have. If they do, it will be the trusted counselors to the leaders in content that will win all the bounty of the exceptional work coming out of that. 

 In short – if you’re not quickly developing how to develop strategic content as a function in the business, you may find yourself on the commoditized side or production services that Madison Avenue agencies are finding themselves quickly becoming today.

If I’m wrong – well then we just got good at empowering content in our client’s business. And even if it is an “internal agency” – they’re still going to look at who’s leading them to help execute the “other things” they don’t have the expertise or time for.

If we are to survive in the long run, we have to lead clients to transformation, not just simply execute the transformation given to them by someone else. 

Oh and P.S.: We need to also do it for ourselves.