Building an in-house creative agency from scratch can feel a bit like entering an empty room for the first time and not knowing where the light switch is.
I know, because I’ve been there.
In the last few years, Canva has built a team of roughly 60 brand designers, videographers, photographers, motion designers and copywriters—and boy, have we learned a lot in the process. The hard truth today is that brands have to create an unbelievable amount of content daily—social posts, emails, memes, videos, infographics, digital whiteboards—it goes on and on. And every single piece has to meet a creativity and engagement bar that is on message without fail.
But over-relying on agency partners to generate all of this content is a losing battle.At the end of the day, brand leaders—who are privy to their company’s product development, sales strategy and other business functions—are best positioned to anchor their work to the strategy of the entire organization. So when I saw that a recent report from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) found that 82% of brands are building in-house agencies—up from 58% a decade earlier—I was far from surprised. Creative talent comes with a premium. It’s the fuel that revs the engine of most marketing organizations, and investing in it wisely pays off in dividends. There is art and science in building a team that is moored in a strong creative culture.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my process of building an in-house team that I now can’t live without.
Develop a bespoke skills rubric
To build a successful creative team, brands need creative directors, designers, copywriters and project managers invested in producing top-quality work. Yet, similar to most industries, two significant challenges in recent years have been attracting and maintaining top-shelf talent.To overcome those obstacles, I recommend developing a highly bespoke skills outline for the roles in your agency. It’s not enough to look at how others have done it; your company has its own nuances, needs and culture that each hire must be suited to live every day.
To identify the best candidates, we developed a 12-skill rubric that’s been our north star, not only for building out my creative team of 60 people, but also for doubling our headcount across the entire marketing function, which is now more than 400 people worldwide. These skills reflect the areas that are most important to driving impact at our organization—and as a result, the areas we want everyone to focus on continuing to grow in.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates a bad hire costs up to 30% of the employee's salary for the first year, so making the best hire not only supports your project and team goals, but it positions you well financially. The rubric helps my team avoid missteps in this area by outlining how to hire, evaluate and retain talent, shedding light on the vital skills needed for a growing company.The 12 skills fold into four pillars: craft, strategy, communication and leadership/coaching. These overarching pillars help us uncover critical marketing acumen such as technical expertise, delivering customer value, problem-solving, navigating complexity and rallying teams to make things happen.
Further, a hiring rubric is a guide that helps pinpoint a candidate's true strengths and weaknesses, allowing for better decision-making when there are multiple worthy finalists for a single role.
While it’s fantastic if a candidate checks all the boxes, it’s rare to get all 12. Once you’ve found a designer or marketer that can get close, the rubric becomes a skills journey that allows new hires to expand their abilities over time. Our rubric has helped my in-house shop build and nurture exceptional talent, and it can help you hire smart people who do fantastic work.
Democratise your creative organization
The ANA report also finds that some of the tallest hurdles in-house agencies face are managing projects, workflows and resources. That’s why hiring shouldn’t be the only solution to scaling. Look no further than your current staff roster to expand your creative room—especially when it comes to design work.In a world where marketing communications is increasingly visual, you likely have digitally native colleagues for whom creating a high volume of content like social memes, video and GIFs is second nature. This talent is ready-made to be placed in your creative room in a way that powers efficiency and greater productivity in your organization. Moreover, visual and design literacy are skills professionals across an organization need to succeed, so a brand’s creative team shouldn’t be the only people creating. Instead, creatives can be involved in educating and empowering folks in other roles to advance their visual and design skills. Design isn’t the only role where your talent may already be on staff. In-house agency leaders should let their teams know that copywriters and project managers are also welcome to come out of the woodwork, expanding not only an in-house agency’s volume of ideas but also the potential perspectives that can go into branding, strategy and planning.
Ultimately, there are challenges to staffing up in-house creative agencies. But a highly-tailored hiring rubric, and democratizing the creative room, can boost brand success. In a world where time is short, budgets are tight, and productivity can’t be compromised, securing the right talent has become the most consequential aspect of leading. It sets brands up to win or lose talent wars, and the opportunities you create through your hiring and retention process won’t go unnoticed.
Zach Kitschke is the CMO at Canva.