Andrea Ruskin: On an in-house mission

By Leah Montebello & Maddy Smith
andrea ruskin

Andrea Ruskin, co-founder of Blum Consulting, discusses the key to IHA success, mission statements, strong leadership and inclusivity.

Business Within A Business

“IHA’s are a business within a business. They are a separate entity that has to deliver on those business results. One of the core advantages they have is being closer to the business and driving the goals, but they still have to define themselves”

Andrea Ruskin’s love for marketing and advertising started with journalism. While at Hollins, a small all-female liberal arts college in Virginia, she went on an exchange program to Washington and Lee University to take advantage of its Journalism program. Not only did this give her the first taste of creative production, being a news anchor host, radio DJ, news program producer and editor, but it’s also where she got “hooked” on storytelling and video content.

Now, over 30 years into her career, Andrea has established herself as both an expert in the in-house agency space and a powerhouse for effective creative production.

The genesis of Blum

In 2016 Ruskin co-founded Blum Consulting, a specialist consultancy dedicated to optimizing creative marketing organizations and in-house agencies to drive better return on marketing investment. The idea for Blum Consulting came from a gap in the market as Ruskin explains, “marketers are managing a really complicated, expensive and nuanced process that they may not fully understand, so the goal of our company is to help fill that gap and offer the expertise to help drive forward the creative agenda, whatever it may be”.

Working with Marketers and IHAs from the likes of Dell Technologies and Chick-fil-A, one of America’s leading QSRs (Quick Service Restaurant), Ruskin is keen to highlight that while “there are no two IHAs that are the same”, a lot of brands are tied together by the challenge of making effective advertising for different channels, platforms and formats within the confines of the corporate environment.

Her business partner, ex Film Producer (Behind Enemy Lines, Fox 2001 and Flight of the Phoenix, Fox 2004) and Production Company Owner, T Alex Blum, shares this vision of making creative processes function effectively, ultimately developing an environment where brands can ask the right questions about their in-house structures; “sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know”, Ruskin emphasizes.

It is therefore Blum’s mission to fill this chasm of expertise with tailored support.

The pandemic – accelerating the rise of in-house agencies

Discussing the past two years, Ruskin comments on how “crisis creates a lot of clarity”. Indeed, the pandemic made brands realise that they needed to pivot and take control of their own messaging; this sometimes meant setting up their own in-house agencies, taking control of their own production process.

“In the US, the pandemic saw brands set up in-house agencies in their droves”, she explains. While this trend was on the gradual rise for some time, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for change. As companies rapidly pivoted their operations, including marketing, in response to the pandemic they increasingly turned to in-house capabilities for quick turnaround in this new world.

For instance, Aleka Sansom, Executive Creative Director of Vanguard, the US based investment advisor managing around $7 trillion in global assets, set up a 30-person in-house agency team, Red House Creative, in the midst of and as a direct result of the pandemic. Vanguard has now grown to employ over 100 people and have recently won 25 industry awards for creativity.

Under Sansom’s leadership the internal team now manages the end-to-end creative process for direct-to-consumer campaigns, enabling new capabilities including video/tv, video production/editing, photography, creative and UX strategy, logo and identity design, social and digital content creation. As well as supporting the Red House Creative team through this transition, Blum Consulting also explained that the IHA was able to transition 100% of their paid media marketing from external to internal in only 6 months by adding capabilities.

Setting up an in-house agency – understanding the challenges 

“The challenge now”, Ruskin adds, “is for brands to understand the difference between corporate and creative culture”. She continues, “There is no more stigma about going in-house”. Ruskin continues to explain that the benefits, lifestyle, pension and the job security, have all contributed and have only been highlighted by some of the struggles that advertising agencies have experienced due to the pandemic. For example, “You’re not constantly pitching for work [or] constantly churning”. This fell alongside the issue of the talent deficit which has been well documented in advertising agencies.

Additionally, Ruskin praises the more general shift to remote work, where “talent from all over the world becomes accessible”. This is a huge positive in terms of creative output and diversity of talent, which is a trend she hopes will be here to stay.

On the trend of IHAs doing more Tier 1 work, Ruskin comments how it is a tricky area to get right, she regards Tier 1 production as “a mature business, you need to have a solid understanding of standards and practises before you take it on. It is essential to have production expertise on the inside to be successful or to partner with experts that can drive the process”.

She continues, “Everybody claims they have a solution to drive a more effective creative process, but everyone is starting to sound the same, which can be really confusing for marketers. For example, a SaaS company sounds like they offer the same benefits as a strategic consulting firm when in fact, tactical or automated problem solving is quite different from strategic problem solving. This is something that she also reiterates in her ANA sessions, where she trains brands on how to manage a successful relationship with the IHA.

One key to success – creating a clear mission statement

However, the road to success is paved with focus: “companies that are single minded about their mission are poised for success”, Ruskin says.

Citing brands such as Apple and Patagonia, “they are very clear about who they are, their mission statement and what they stand for. That comes through in their advertising and their business practises… their advertising is clear and focused. If you look at Patagonia, you know they are about social justice and responsibility and that is present in everything they do”.

The same message is true for in-house agencies. “One thing that we try to teach and train in house agencies is that they need to have a clear mission statement The mission statement is the guiding light and North Star – it tells the in-house team who they are producing work for, what kind of work they will produce, what capabilities they need to deliver on that promise, and who they need to hire to be successful”. Indeed, she believes that IHAs need to shift away from simply fulfilling orders and delivering on execution and move towards understanding what is driving results within their brand.

For example, one mistake that IHAs often make is to hire a talented creative director and expect them to be responsible for operations. In this context, Ruskin’s advice is to hire a Creative Operations Director who understands how to run an agency. They can put a team under them to be responsible for creative resourcing, on-boarding new employees and technology, to match the culture and the requirements of the brand. Ruskin says that you should save the role of the Creative Director for driving forward consistent messaging strategies that are “on brand” and approving creative.

Ultimately, a mission statement needs to come from the IHA itself and be endorsed by the marketing department, Ruskin explains. “IHA’s are a business within a business, they are a separate entity that has to deliver [on the] business results”. She continues, “One of the core advantages they have is being closer to the business and driving the goals, but they still have to define themselves”. This helps to define the role of the IHA, making it essential, continues Ruskin.

Advice: Four questions for IHAs

When migrating work to an in-house agency, Ruskin advises the brand  to ask four fundamental questions:

  1. What is the overall goal for working in-house?
  2. What kind of work are you planning to migrate and why?
  3. What are the technology requirements that you need to support that work?
  4. What are the challenges versus the opportunities?

According to Ruskin, once you have these answers nailed, it will be easier to be a successful in-house agency.

Strong leadership for IHAs – support, communication and trust

Aside from having a clear mission, leadership is also key for any IHA, with Ruskin claiming that “you can’t underestimate what bad leadership does to a company”.

Ruskin defines her own leadership style as one that is rooted in finding the best people to surround herself with and always learning and evolving because of this. Interestingly, she claims that some leaders don’t always adopt this style and can sometimes feel threatened by strong talent within an organisation. However, in her view, “you give people space to succeed, not to fail”, and culture is built from this cohesive and collaborative mindset.

“The thing about leadership”, she says, “is that [while] some people are born leaders, [you must] evolve into a style of leadership that brings people along the path with you. Good leadership means that you must trust and communicate with your people. It’s not about keeping things close and just making your superiors think you’re doing well”.

She continues, “something that I think drove a lot of my success is that you have to support the people who work for you. They need to know in no uncertain terms that you have their back. That’s how you build trust, it takes a lot of communication and training. But you must be clear about your expectations, make people feel valued and show them what success looks like. Leadership is the backbone of company culture, open channels for communication is a key factor [as] people want to be heard”.

TED Talk – Focusing on the ‘I’ in DE&I

Speaking with Ruskin, she feels well placed in helping brands and in-house agencies to know their purpose; as a mother of two and stepmom of three, Ruskin exudes drive and direction against any kind of adversity.

Ruskin says her TED talk would focus on the ‘I’ in DE&I. When discussing inclusivity, she questions if organisations are considering people with special needs. “There’s so much more to DE&I that needs to be considered”.

“There’s a huge, missed opportunity here. We’re talking about DE&I as everyone’s main focus. But you see, I raised a special needs child and so my whole world was focused on how to create an environment that made her feel included. We had to create a world within a world. We needed her to function in our world to be successful, but she also needed an environment where she could feel safe”.

Ruskin continues, “I don’t typically talk about my daughter in this way because I don’t like to label her. She’s a lovely, caring 26-year-old who lives independently, has a healthy relationship and a full-time job. She’s very successful as an individual and she’s built a world for herself where she’s safe and comfortable”.

This outlines a wider issue with disability understanding. For example, the nuances between the characteristics of those with autism can vary dramatically. Therefore, people often lack a point of reference and struggle to cater and adapt for those with spectrum disorders.

As such, brands and agencies need to be genuine, Ruskin stresses. “They need to take the best talent regardless of labels, striking that balance addresses both simultaneously”. She reiterates that in reality you can learn much from inclusion as it offers a broader point of view.

As a strong business leader and an even more inspiring woman, it is clear Ruskin channels the passion to help brands drive the in-house agency landscape forward to even higher levels.

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