Taking work in-house in times of corona? What comms teams can learn from agencies

Cornelia Kunze, Moritz Kaffsack
Juli 1, 2021
6 min read

Corona or no Corona: In-house communications team have been in transformation for years. Driven by shrinking budgets, the desire to operate with more flexibility and independence, and the rising expectation of communications within organizations, there has been an ongoing evaluation of the work given to external agencies to determine what parts can be moved to internal teams. Headquarter teams are put in charge not just of strategy and project management, but also more specialized functions such as planning, creative, media buying, and even the tactical execution across channels and markets. Highly qualified in-house hires are accelerating the trend. Some companies even go so far as to set up an in-house agency.

It appears that in-house communications teams have become serious competitors to agencies.

The corona crisis is creating cost pressures reminiscent of the last financial crisis. On top of that it is changing how we work together. Home office and remote work, previously frowned upon by many, is now the norm. But beyond the increased digitalization of work processes, there are other, more fundamental changes taking place. The crisis is a catalyst of a development that was already on the way: to achieve more agility when working across markets, channels and external agency relationships, communications functions are expanding and upgrading their-house teams.

This trend then poses three questions to in-house teams:

  • How can they offer best-in-class career development to attract and retain the talent needed to achieve the desired independence from external agencies?
  • How can they be effective, motivated and successful while working in a partly remote organization?
  • How can they achieve a complete focus on value-creation for the organization?

While in-house teams and agencies may be operating in very different structures, processes and organizational cultures, there are experiences and strengths that come naturally to agency teams and could hugely benefit in-house teams in this situation. Having led international agency teams, often remotely, for many years, we’ve asked ourselves what in-house teams can learn from agencies as they expand their capacities and capabilities. Here are five strengths unique to agencies that can become game changers:

  • Profit-Centre Mindset. In times of cost-cutting, any area that can’t show it’s significant value to the business gets cut first. Agencies are profit centres with revenue and margin goals – so they live by this maxime. Agency managers are trained to allocate resources not by personal preference but wherever they create the most value for the firm. All projects start with a projection of time investment for every member of the team. Time invested is tracked via (the beloved) timesheets, which are checked against plan. In case of discrepancies, corrections are made, resulting in most cases in either efficiency measures or renegotiation with the client.
  • Creativity rules the roost. At agencies creativity and innovative solutions are held in the highest regard, to the extent where they’ve become the raison d’etre for many firms in the industry. Without creativity there’s no business, no talent, no reputation, which is why great ideas and campaigns are put on such a high pedestal. There’s a strong focus on hiring the best creative talent, as well as training teams to boost creative thinking and celebrating creativity at award shows. In-house teams can also hugely benefit from creative specialists, who bring new perspectives to teams that are ‘stuck’ and push for innovative solutions. These skillsets are especially needed in times of rapid change and shouldn’t be shut down by risk minimization efforts born out of crisis management mode.
  • Adhocacy First. Pragmatism and rapid action are key to managing the current crisis – two qualities that are deeply ingrained in agency teams. Good agencies don’t reward those who stay in their box and busy themselves playing politics or covering their tracks. Whoever is present in the moment and takes decisions right then and there that positively impact the pitch, the press release, the presentation, the media interview or the social media post gets the credit. This enables a culture of helping hands, across siloes, without considering processes or hierarchies. Teams are encouraged to directly approach colleagues several levels higher or in markets halfway around the world in order to quickly get the support they need. The same goes for client interaction, where teams are trained to take the most direct path, with little regard for hierarchies. The often long and winding road of the corporate world slows teams down and creates inefficiencies. Agency teams manage entirely according to client deadlines, everything on their side is designed to be as fast and efficient as possible – which also explains the limited centralized structures in many agencies.
  • Team spirit. When team interaction is limited to emails, phone calls and videoconference, something is missing. Informal chats and daily banter are part of the glue that keeps a great team together. Agencies under strong leadership are driven by pride to belong to a great team, transcending divisions, business units and country borders. There’s a solidarity and a commitment to each other that helps carry teams through tough times. Even international teams that aren’t bound by P&L can develop an amazing culture of ‘we’, if united behind a strong vision – even if they have never met in person. This is why many communicators stay on the agency side, despite the challenge in keeping a work-life balance and the tremendous pressure they are at times subjected to by clients. Inspired agency teams get up in the morning because they’re part of a team that wants to do great work together. In- house teams that manage to recreate this team spirit will be motivated and in synch even when working remotely.
  • Center stage. At all times but especially in a crisis, team members that are fully invested and working hard to add value need to be recognized. The guiding principle at agencies is “lead from the front”. They excel at recognizing achievements and reward team members who push the boundaries of their comfort zone, display courage in difficult situations and are not afraid to step into the lion’s den. In-house teams can embrace this spirit and reject their position as a support function. An organization’s reputation is core to the business, those who manage it actively and successfully deserve the same respect and recognition as those working in sales or R&D.

The corona crisis is an extreme pressure test for in-house teams and agencies alike. Pre- corona we may have been talking about the need to transform and evolve, steadily, and without a clear timeline. Now we’re forced to evolve or perish in all areas of our professional lives. And while we never consented to this giant experiment, it presents opportunities to establish a new working culture.

Cornelia Kunze and Moritz Kaffsack are co-owners of i-sekai, a virtual boutique consultancy specialized in international communications and co-founders of fluid, a global collective of independent consultants. They have held leading roles in-house and in agencies in Europe, Asia and the US. I-sekai works with communications teams to build up in-house resources and more effectively run international communications programs.


Brand fluidity in times of Corona: What comes after the fight or flight-response?

Lisa Collin and Cornelia Kunze
Mai 16, 2020
8 min read

When in immediate danger, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, an unconscious chain reaction starts, and the chemical messengers in our brain create cortisol. This leads to suppression of the immune system and a boost of energy, preparing for fight or flight.  Once the threat passes, our cortisol levels go down – and the conscious parts of our brain take over again. Relief!

At this time in our lives the threat has not passed and we’re all unsure about how long we will go through distress, hardship, uncertainty.

The Corona crisis seems to trigger the same kind of almost chemical reaction in businesses or brands. After a first startle reflex and a moment of immobility and disbelief, organizations are becoming hyper-active, fueled by corporate adrenaline, focusing on cash protection first: state subsidies, longer payment periods, third-party contract termination, suspending rent payments, reduced working hours and salaries and putting a freeze to brand activities. Others also rush to empathize and to signal as loudly as possible just how much they care, without fully considering how to make this care tangible, useful or effective.

The responses during and after the immediate reaction can be largely divided into fight or flight.

Those who fight,

  • sustain their operations, keep their employees safe and use all their power and resources to mitigate the effects of the crisis for us all.
  • re-purpose their factories and produce face masks and gloves instead of luxury fashion, hand sanitizer instead of body cream, or find themselves under presidential pressure to produce ventilators instead of cars.
  • stand on the side of their employees, customers and suppliers, put action before words, stay human, do what they can, provide relief for their own stakeholders and beyond.
  • And communicate thoughtfully; joining the dots between their stakeholders and the real needs of the audiences they are striving to support.

Those who take flight,

  • let worst-case scenarios rule over their headcount decisions, bonus agreements, supplier contracts, rent obligations and customer relationships.
  • look for legal loopholes, seize the cost-cutting and state subsidy opportunity, even if they don`t have to  and serve shareholders first
  • disappear from their channels, as they believe they have nothing to do or say now
  • or worse – take advantage of the crisis to re-surface as the winner or hero

We know that crisis brings out the best and the worst in both, people and brands. #BoykottBrandX will scare brand leaders now, and some may think that consumer memories are short-term, and budgets are best used when life picks up again.

Maybe – but maybe not.

There is reason to urge brands to stay in touch closely, behave consistently and prove their relevance more than any time before.  To do so, they must recognize that life has become, and will remain, more fluid. Corona has supercharged the forces on business and brands that were already there and set a new paradigm for future operations.

Listening and adapting day by day is paramount.  A singular message, broadcast once, will not suffice.

This phenomenon of fluidity will be the new normal for all of us, as we will have learned dramatic change the hard way, accepted uncertainty because we had to and often found some joy in our new lives.

As consumers, employees, entrepreneurs, we are building muscles and resilience. We are inventive and less needy, perhaps rediscovering a resourcefulness we’d suppressed. And we are instinctively sorting out abusive or one-sided relationships with people, employers, agencies or brands. The crisis is a catalyst to many things.

For example, to e-commerce, as it was proven with SARS in Asia. Or for better personal hygiene. We all will feel uncomfortable singing happy birthday only once, when washing hands. Or video-conferencing: Why get up at 4 am in the morning to fly from London to Berlin for a meeting, if I can meet people on Zoom? Or going back to office on a full-time basis after so many weeks of freedom. Or the retainer contract with the agency.  Maybe home-schooling is the exception. Some parents among us might thank or bribe schools and teachers for taking their kids back and ensure they are happy and educated.

We see four trends, which are not necessarily new, but which will impact brands even more than before the crisis.  

  • Every product or service will have a digital alternative tomorrow – except for toilet-paper may be. You can be replaced by those digital siblings immediately. People don`t need you. They might discover that they need your whole category less after the crisis. Been with grey hair for 6 weeks? Maybe stick to it. Not travelled the world for the last months? Maybe enjoy home. Learnt to sew and cook? May be reduce fashion and restaurants altogether. Of course, even if they don`t need you, they might still want you but these discreet shifts in behavior represent an opportunity to improve the value exchange with your audience.
  • Nothing will ever stay a secret. Really. You charge a usurious price for your product, you tolerate shabby behavior of your organization during the Corona crisis? Trust is fragile and Google`s memory is unforgiving. Platforms, apps, social media empower everybody to create movements with the like-minded. They will hype or ditch your brand and organization, as they please. Not fair? Well, this has become a game at eye level and your behavior during and post Corona is being watched.
  • Everything is connected to everything. We might have heard before that Orangutans die, because we shower or eat ice-cream. That children stay un-educated, because we buy cotton t-shirts. That cars are made of 20.000 different parts from thousands of suppliers across the whole world. But now we also know that the actions of others in another part of the world can fundamentally change our society and daily experience; and that we need to keep the big picture in mind always. Brands are held responsible for issues, no matter how complex the supply-chain, no matter how water-proof their contracts and codes of conduct.
  • There is a higher meaning in life but efficacy matters.  Do what you do well.  Be the best at it.  But once the basics are covered, people not only want to know what a brand stands for but what a brand stands up for. Brand purpose has too many times proven to be a shallow promise, a mere communications exercise. All of us have been disappointed too often, a trust bonus would be naive. If the only reason to exist for a product is profit, people will behave as transactional with you as you do with them. There are many alternative brands, who do contribute their expertise and money to a higher meaning and a better world.

If our environment is ever changing- fluid – there is an imperative for brands to adapt. Not to simply respond to the forces exerted upon them but to echo or resist, as makes sense for them.  They can apply fluidity too, once the fight-or-flight-response is over.

At this moment, as businesses large and small tackle the many immediate challenges that each day presents, the notion of ’what is next’ may feel too removed or too difficult to consider.  But beyond just keeping things moving, there is an imperative to consider how we not only get back to normal but strive to get back to better. This is a good time to re-vive and re-vise a brand; to assess the rational and emotional value we contribute and develop brand ideas fit for future based on fluidity. The current situation is good for some ‘zero-base’ exercise: What is the true anchor of our brand, which has brought us to where we are today? What are the actions which will make the life of our stakeholders better? And how will we build and nourish our key connections with customers, suppliers, talent and the society at large, so that we together can add value.  Perhaps whether a brand chooses to proactively plan for a different future or not is the true test of flight or flight.


This essay is part of a series of opinion pieces shared by FLUID, our global collective of independent senior consultants from around the world, who come together on a project basis to solve communications-intensive business issues. We identified the concept of ‘fluidity’ as a primary characteristic of the world in which we live and operate. It is characterized by the undermining, deterioration – and even ultimate collapse – of traditional norms, structures and processes. And it challenges organizations, brands and people to apply fluidity to their thinking and their actions. “In a fluid world, it is sometimes difficult to see the dots – let alone to connect them.  Fluid helps you do both.”