To Agency or Not to Agency

Five reasons universities should look inside first for creative communications. Guest blogger David Baker makes the case for building and keeping talent on campus. 

May 28, 2015

Market position, branding, messaging: these terms were once reserved for big corporations hawking everything from soft drinks and toothpaste to luxury cars. But such words now echo inside the halls of academia. While reasons for this are a complex stew of rising costs, declining state funding and fierce competition, it’s plain to see that universities are spending more money to attract students using media channels that didn’t exist within academia a few years ago.

In my dozen years working in communications for two land-grant universities, I’ve seen the sophistication and ambition of marketing tactics soar on campus. From traditional commercials to interactive websites and online documentaries, it’s been an exhilarating storytelling laboratory full of challenges and opportunities for personal growth for staff communicators like me. But I’ve also seen more institutions turning outside, to polished agencies of the sort that once seemed more likely to work with Fortune 500 companies and major corporations than state universities and private colleges.

There are a host of very good reasons to hire an external agency, from gaining technical experience you don’t have in-house or getting an external perspective to cut through the mind-numbing institutional politics that you often find on a campus. But after working with our talented team on the ambitious Beaver Nation interactive documentary (http://beavernation.is), I learned a few good reasons why your first consideration should always be to look to your internal resources. You may be surprised to learn that the best option is not always an ace flown in from the opposite coast, but may be a staffer working tirelessly the next cube over. Here are Five reasons to look internal first:

1. Keep your talent at home

College towns are vibrant communities filled with arts, research, big thinkers and youthful energy. There are a lot of great reasons to live in a college town and work for a big institution. But for talented creatives, the biggest salaries and most ambitious projects are often found at agencies in the big urban centers. By assigning your in-house creative team to the most demanding and ambitious projects you give the most talented and driven staffers yet another reason to stay.

Those who work in advertising and marketing tend to have skills that make your community more interesting. Our team, for example, has published writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers. Creative and ambitious work attracts creative and ambitious people. Send the best work outside, and you’ll risk sending the most interesting people out of town as well.

2. Train your students

If your creative unit is producing the university’s marquee communications products, odds are they’ll bring a few interns along for the ride. Our team makes our PAC-12 broadcast commercials entirely in-house, and our graphic design, video and motion graphics interns are always a part of the creative team. They leave our office with some real-world projects in their portfolios that are seen by millions on national television broadcasts. We’ve seen our former interns rising through the ranks of prominent agencies and studios, and it’s thrilling to think that they learned the ropes on some ambitious projects right here on campus.

3. Exhibit confidence

Producing great content and creative campaigns in-house exhibits great swagger. At Oregon State University, our brand positioning claims that we get things done. Ours is a “push up your sleeves and do big things” culture. We may be in a remote corner of the country, but we have a global impact. No challenge is too big for our students, researchers or graduates. So why should a challenge be too great for our professional staff? While communications leaders at other universities scramble to hire external agencies to tackle the biggest project, ours can just lean back and say, “No worries, our team has this.”

4. Get more value out of your creative work

 It is cost effective to do great work in-house. Our recent Beaver Nation campaign featured an online interactive documentary that saw our staff capture stories from every continent, traveling to every region of our gorgeous home state, and to locations as far away as Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Our staff members slept in tents, cars, dorms and on couches as they gathered stories of global scope. When I worked in corporate consulting years ago, renting a Kia instead of an Audi was our idea of roughing it. Our internal staff is much more willing to cut corners for the cause. Being a Beaver Believer isn’t just for the students.

What’s more, all of the amazing stories shot and produced can be repurposed for other websites, marketing materials and projects. The footage will be used in our broadcast commercials and shared with our academic units. Because we wrote, filmed, programmed and created every piece of content for this project, we own it, know it inside out and can repurpose it endlessly. I defy any agency to do the same amount of work, at the same level of quality, for a similar price.

Also, the project benefited our academic units and research partners. They contributed much of the travel funding for the campaign in exchange for versions of the content they could apply to their own needs. Everything we produced was created on a shoestring and reused repeatedly across the university. One of the feature videos from the campaign is even being extended into a full-length documentary (http://coralreefmovie.org) as a large-scale content marketing experiment. The experience knit our team into the fabric of the institution, building relationships for future collaborations. That all adds up to exponential savings.

5. Tap those who live the brand

Let’s face it: marketing and communications vice presidents come and go in higher education, just as they do in every industry.  I’ve had five different chief communicators at two universities in a dozen or so years in the business. So the institutional knowledge often resides with the longer-tenured staff. They know what we can use from the campaign we launched back in 2008, or what fell flat when we tried it in 2012. True, such historical knowledge can sometimes be wielded like a club to prolong stasis or beat back innovation, but there’s still plenty of value in taking the long view.  Agencies are often engaged for a short time, and when the contract runs out, so does the legacy knowledge. Your long-tenured staff members bleed your school colors. They’re fans and fixtures of the campus community, and they understand the brand and all its past permutations. So give them a voice at the table and challenge them to put their knowledge to work.

So, in summary…

Working in higher education is a privilege. Both in-house design and interactive teams and external agencies know this well. While world’s biggest and most profitable global brands make things like sneakers and computers, our institutions have the good fortune to produce the most amazing products in existence: flesh and blood human beings who, if we do our job well, leave our leafy campuses with a little more worldly understanding, ambition, confidence and inspiration than they had when they arrived.

And what do we get out of it? We have the privilege of telling their stories, and that little swell in the chest and sparkle of an orange tear when we see them go on to do great things.

What an amazing business to be in.


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