Making the in-house agency model work
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Paul van den Berg, executive director and chief evangelist of Oliver Africa, part of the broader Oliver Group. “All of our on-site agencies are built based on an understanding of what the client actually needs.” Oliver, which has seen significant success with its U-Studio offering for Unilever, including a 2020 Bookmark Award nomination locally, is looking to expand its in-house agency model in South Africa.
“Bespoke” is a keyword when pitching the model to clients, says Van den Berg, as is “efficient”. The aim is to provide a full agency service, while only billing for the resources that are actually needed — so there’s nothing superfluous siphoning profits. In addition to Unilever, Oliver counts Investec and Liberty among its major clients in SA. Van den Berg says that his team is looking to diversify into other sectors this year, demonstrating to the country that the model works beyond FMCG, financial and professional services.
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Oliver has global credentials when it comes to building in-house agencies, because the way it does so strikes a balance between fully out- and in-sourced models, says Van den Berg. “We believe that our hybrid model gives you the best of the outsourced models, plus all of the benefits of having a team on site,” he says.
It’s not trying to take on the big lead brand agency roles, he emphasises, but rather rolling up its sleeves in the digital space and helping to solve problems of volume, scale, and efficiency. “I don’t think brands always understand the fact that, when they’ve got agencies on retainer, or even on project work, they are effectively employing staff vicariously,” he adds. “So, the first thing we do is run an analysis with the client on what they’re spending, and how many hours they’re effectively paying for; then we build a team. We have a principle that anyone dedicated to a brand should be at minimum 80% utilised. We are finding, locally and globally, that we are cheaper, so there’s immediately a cost benefit to our model.”
During normal conditions, many staff members work on site where possible (the covid-19 pandemic has necessitated a work-from-home approach), committed to the clients — which typically sign on for a minimum of three years — for at least 12 months This is important to build continuity from a business partnering point of view, says Van den Berg, especially when it comes to key roles. If extra hands are needed for overflow work, he and his team arrange them on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Making sure that the on-site teams receive adequate creative support and leadership is part of the job of Alison Stansfield-Franks, Oliver Africa group creative director. Assembling the right teams is one thing, she says, but building a culture conducive to creativity, within an existing business, is by far one of the biggest challenges. “In certain instances, the on-sites come with staff who’ve already been working for these companies, and the question is how do we get the best out of them? And how do we push for better in general, from a culture point of view?”
Van den Berg expands, “I think one of the fundamental differences with our model, compared to the typical outsourced agency model, is that there are no buffers between the brands and the creatives. Typically, your creatives are sitting in an ad agency somewhere, doing whatever they like; in our model, they are sitting on site, so the challenge is creating that agency culture on site, within a corporate space.”
Success in this, however, builds strong trust between the Oliver teams and their counterparts, which has led to work which Van den Berg and Stansfield-Franks wouldn’t have previously thought possible. They mention the #AromatComedyClub as an example (Aromat falls under the Unilever brand family).
Oliver’s U-Studio agencies support Unilever’s digital marketing in 18 countries, with the South African team, which is 20-strong, based in Durban (overall, about 100 people work for Oliver in SA). Globally, about 400 people work on U-Studio, says Van den Berg, linked to and supported by hubs from Cape Town to Joburg, Chennai and beyond.
“I think the thing that works really well is how connected the U-Studios around the globe are to each other,” says Stansfield-Franks.
In SA, Oliver has seen growth over the past year and a half, with local revenue almost doubling to push the agency into the R50m revenue bracket, says Van den Berg. “Given the socio-political situation in South Africa, there is a lot of consideration by big brands on how to optimise, how to work smarter, how to be more efficient, how to be more effective,” he says. “I think our model lends itself to that.”
And how does the model work during the time of covid-19? “Our ‘Inside’ model is not just about proximity but rather our partnership approach with our clients, and so we have managed to integrate with them and their work-from-home policies to ensure we are still an extension to their brand teams,” he says. “Our leadership has daily check-ins with all our client teams, and we have a company-wide Zoom call at the end of every day, largely for morale, and also for everyone to see some friendly faces and keep the agency culture going, albeit virtually.
“As we have been working with a decentralised, often remote and largely agile model for a number of years now, we are well-placed to manage this new work-from-home world and have only had to adapt small parts of our operational processes. In fact, we have seen an increase in some of our client teams’ work, given the amount of brand comms around the virus.”
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.