After a 16-year in-house career as a Corporate Communications Director, Paul Barker made the transition to agency Partner. Although after one year he has decided to return in-house, he believes that the comparisons between in-house and agency roles and individual candidates’ suitability for one over the other are not clear-cut.
There exist some rather unsurprising differences between in-house and agency roles that have been observed and commented upon many times before: the constant ‘hum’ of activity that derives from meeting the needs of multiple clients or the buzz that might result from pursuing and winning a new business opportunity within an agency; against the insider’s experience of specialisation, proximity and deeper day-to-day involvement in strategy-setting and validation, particularly in the circa 45% of UK companies where senior communications ‘consiglieres’ occupy a seat on Exco boards.
Variety is very often cited as the spice of life that can’t be recreated anywhere but working for an agency and, by and large, this is unquestionable. Yet, there are plenty of corporates who are well known – for better or for worse – for packing ‘four seasons into one day’ and so here the communications challenges in-house can be just as many and varied. And whilst the levels of all-important access to a CEO and their fellow C-suite executives can be more problematic for external advisers to achieve, it can be both professionally fulfilling as well as valuable to clients to draw on the shared ideas, cross-client experiences, best practice and specialist expertise that often are ‘on-tap’ within an agency.
And so whilst many communications professionals might nail their colours firmly to the mast of agency or in-house based on these and other differences of ‘environment’, others have found that they are equally at home as insiders as they are at an agency. Indeed, most, if not all, of the skills required to deliver good strategic communications are the same whether in-house or for a consultancy firm. Sound judgment borne from experience, in particular, is a requisite that is crucial for senior communications practitioners on all sides.
Whichever of these roles we perform and wherever we choose to practice them, there is no questioning the increasing importance of strategic communications in helping to shape the behaviours and reputations of leading businesses. In-house communications has, as a consequence, become ever more professional and attuned to engaging with corporate stakeholders on multiple issues and across an array of different channels.
This evolution is undoubtedly challenging agencies to adapt to ways of working which continue to add value to their corporate clients. Yet, they remain an important part of the communications mix, able to provide a valuable service as senior counsel and practical support. Equally, given the increasing prominence of their roles and responsibilities it becomes ever more incumbent upon the in-house to understand how to get the very best from their agency relationships, developing these as trusted and complementary ‘extensions’ of their own teams, ensuring that they are more than only superficially engaged.
Having transitioned from in-house to agency and (hopefully) back again, the oft-heard adage that ‘you’re either in-house or agency’ might well have rung true for me. Despite this, I remain unconvinced that the maxim is one-size that fits all or, indeed, that never the twain shall be able to meet.
If my experiences leave me with one observation it is that the common skills, purpose and value we bring as agency and in-house practitioners outweigh any differences that might exist between the roles.
Biog (if required)
Paul Barker was until recently a Partner in the Financial & Corporate practice of Bell Pottinger. He has 16 years’ senior corporate communications and IR experience, including HMV Group, Freeserve/France Telecom, Monarch Group, Segro and Leicester City Plc.