Deliveroo and Heads Up Production discuss how brands can successfully build an in-house agency on a daring deadline
In October 2017, online food delivery brand, Deliveroo, set up their first in-house creative agency. By March 2018, Deliveroo Studio produced their first global ATL integrated campaign rolling out in the UK, Germany, France, UAE and Ireland followed by a further eight markets. Not only was this an incredibly fast turnaround for any brand campaign, it was massively successful for the business, out-performing the campaign KPI's around both volume growth and awareness.
We sit down with Global ECD Helin Kotan to discuss how she was recruited to pull an in-house agency together from scratch just six months before the campaign went live. Joining her are expert production consultants, Jody Allison and Tim Page, of Heads Up Production. The former Heads of TV & Integrated Production respectively, weigh in on how brands should be approaching production if they have an in-house agency and how Deliveroo’s campaign was so successful.
Left to right: Tim Page, Helin Kotan, Jody Allison
Q> Helin, you joined Deliveroo in September 2017, only a few weeks before the in-house agency got underway, how did you approach the first conversation to setting up this agency?
Helin Kotan> I came in as an external consultant and Jamie Swango [Global Marketing Director] and I had initial conversations about how we would approach the global campaign which was planned for Q1 of 2018. We asked ourselves, ‘do we take it to an agency or do we do it in-house?’ At that point, Deliveroo had a small design studio in-house and the team had never handled a full 360 ATL campaign before. I recognised we’d have to build our agency capabilities if we were going to pull this off across multiple channels. We needed to convey a message in a very clear and distinct way but this was a great opportunity to make it work! Deliveroo is a tech start up and things happen quickly here. They act fearless and venture out and do stuff that’s never been done before, so in that vein we decided to go for it. We started executing on our decision the very next day.
Q> So, what were your first steps in terms of building out the right team for the job?
Helin Kotan> For me it was an incredibly exciting challenge. I came in, assessed the existing team - looking at what the strengths and weaknesses were and identifying key people we needed to get things off the ground. I’m sitting on 17 years of experience working at advertising and design agencies, taking on challenges that have allowed me to grow through a multidisciplinary approach from design to creative through to strategic roles. I took all those skill sets and applied them where and when necessary. Because of the tight turnaround I took on a number of trusted freelancers from my own network with the goal to bringing in permanent staff for the agency, full time. When I came in there were nine people in the studio - three designers, three art workers and three in photo and film production. Today, the department varies between 25-30 people. We scale depending on the number of briefs in the studio.
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Q> You brought on some external partners, including Jody and Tim on production. Were these from word of mouth referrals too?
Helin Kotan> Yes, a very trusted former colleague pointed me in the direction of Jody and Tim. I needed someone I could trust to do the job well and do it fast. I didn’t have time to mess around in recruitment processes for months on end. Also, I didn’t feel like I could risk starting a journey with someone that turned out sour a couple of weeks in. I was in desperate need of a true partner I could work with as my right-hand agency producer. Not just a hired hand. So, personality was important as well as proven track record.
Q> Jody, what did you have to have a keen eye over when it came to this project in particular?
Jody Allison> There wasn’t a lot of time on this project, so it was important we were all singing from the same song sheet. We really became a key point of communication and structure for the project. Whilst they were still building out ATL agency experience, we were able to step in and provide our experience and plug the gap. Having held senior production positions, we have a broader understanding of the dynamics of a business than perhaps your average freelance producer. We are also very used to communicating with senior level people at brands and know how to make that communication relevant to the project in hand.
Q> Helin, how crucial was it to have someone supporting that structure throughout the process?
Helin Kotan> When you’re working on timelines as tight as this and you’ve just joined a company to build something from scratch, it was vital to identify key players with the right expertise to bring in. When we brought Heads Up on board, I didn’t have an executive producer and I was having to put on all sorts of different hats to lead the charge. Jody came in and actually took on part of that role. She was an integral part of the team from day one and was there to support with advice whenever we needed it - which included getting important decisions made on time. What’s interesting about bringing in agents or consultants who have experience mediating between brand and agency, is they know how to support the process - this is vital when operating in-house as there are many stakeholders to manage. Working direct to client without the protected structure of a creative agency is not easy. It requires additional skill sets and capabilities to be successful.
Q> Jody and Tim, in terms of production, what tips would you give to brands who are hiring externally?
Tim Page > In a Utopian world, if you’re able to meet with production people in advance of strategy – just for a chemistry meeting – it can be helpful. Fortunately, Jody and Helin got on like a house on fire but if you partner with external companies and you don’t get on with them, the wheels can fall off the cart quite quickly, and production is an area where trust is imperative because it’s often not a black and white journey.
Jody Allison> Also it doesn’t cost to have a conversation. It’s great to be able to scope a concept and build a relationship, so when the clock does start ticking, you know you’re all on the same page.
Q> Helin, what did you find were the biggest challenges of setting up Deliveroo’s in-house agency?
Helin Kotan> Doing something like this is really hard and it demands a lot from you, both in terms of experience as well as personal commitment. It’s not been an easy journey but it’s a great thing to be a part of. I think time was the immediate challenge. Finding good staff and suppliers you can trust quickly, isn’t easy. However, in the long term, the biggest challenge about sitting in-house has been making sure that we don’t end up speaking to ourselves. When you sit on the agency side, you have the ability to step out of the bubble and stop your client from navel gazing. This is what they are paying you for. When you sit on the brand side, you have to realise that customers aren’t part of the everyday conversations you’re having. They’re just people out in the real world who live their own lives and honestly couldn’t care less about your brand. People don’t connect with brands. People connect with people. So, if you want their attention, you always have to remember to put yourself in their shoes. Protecting this perspective has been the hardest when your client is also your colleague.
Q> Jody and Tim, in your experience, what would you say the general challenges are for brands with in-house agencies?
Jody Allison> I think the key thing brands need to be aware of when they’re running an in-house facility is being honest and aware of what their limitations are as well as their strengths. They often know what they want to say but the challenge is how to say it. How do you say it without your message being too blunt? Blunt messaging generally doesn’t resonate in sophisticated markets like the UK and US – an idea needs an articulate creative vehicle and strategy. Creative and strategy are strong in agencies but if an agency structure isn’t right for a particular brand then this expertise can be brought in. It’s important to remember that a strong creative idea will attract the right partners for the project – a good director, a post house that will go that extra mile, a band that will licence a stand-out track. The clever ones are doing what Deliveroo is doing and bringing in someone like Helin. She’s a smart creative thinker but can pin point where structure is needed and where to go and find it.
Tim Page > Inherently brands understand their products better than anybody else does, they understand who their audiences are better than anybody else does and they understand the direction of their brand better than anybody else does. If they can identify areas of expertise they need to build on, and do it, then there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a continuation in successful direct-to-brand campaigns.
Q> What would you all say is the big difference about working in-house as opposed to an agency?
Helin Kotan> In terms of process and structure, it’s not really that different. The one big difference is that in-house you have the freedom to re-invent anything you want. You set your own rules. Also, a BIG difference is that things get done at five times the speed. Decisions are made much quicker. There just aren’t the same barriers to communication that you would have as an agency creative working on a client brief. In-house, you all have the same agenda and you all understand the wider business problems. You’re focus is not only on the one brief you’re given, you carry the overall vision for the brand.
Jody Allison> When we worked with Deliveroo, speed certainly was the noticeable difference compared to working agency-side. As Helin says, when you’re all under one roof you don’t have the approval tiers you would have at an agency and decisions naturally get made faster because the communication chain is shorter. Not to mention, fast iteration is built in Deliveroo’s DNA and they are gut-marketeers. They’ve obviously made some right decisions along the way.
Q> Do people have other common misconceptions about the differences between in-house and external agencies?
Helin Kotan> I think some people think that working in house isn’t as creatively challenging. What I’ve enjoyed about Deliveroo is that I have never felt like I’m working for one client. We have several different ‘departments’ within Deliveroo, each with their own creative challenges. Essentially, we treat them as different clients and this keeps my thinking fresh. I think agency people used to look at going in-house as a retirement option. But if this is what “retirement” looks like, somebody forgot to send me the memo. The last 12 months have been the most challenging and exciting in my career. To be so close to a brand, acting as a strategic partner and leading the creative vision is a dream for any creative – especially when you are doing that for a company of this size which is growing so quickly.