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In-house needn’t be the poor relation

The Information Standard held its first member event last week. It was really well attended and it’s fantastic to see so many people animated and interested in the creation and promotion of information for, about and from patients.

There were a number of presentations that can be found on The Information Standard’s website and each was fascinating and informative in its own way.

I was, however, taken by the results of research commissioned by Terence Higgins Trust and presented by its marketing director, and now co-chair of the standard’s executive committee, Dominic Edwardes.

The research looked at 23 HIV campaigns targeted at gay men. It wanted to assess its effectiveness and usefulness among its target audiences against comparative evaluation criteria of memorability, coverage and reach, immediacy, imagery, synergy and novelty (newness, not quirkiness) of message.

Much of what the research showed reaffirmed what designers know. Be clear who you are talking to and go to lengths to understand them better. Unravel the message to keep it simple and pertinent. People are busy and you should respect their time to get the information and see its value. Metaphors can be useful and memorable. Stats need to come from a credible source to acquire trust.

However, one thing that was a little surprising was that participants in the research could tell if the communication had been produced by a ‘professional design agency’ or in-house. In fact, they could identify campaigns accurately from anything from 75% to 100%. The reasons given consistent design style, the right balance of information, and lack of the so-called ‘Photoshop’ effect. Those communications produced by agencies were seen to be of a higher quality than those produced in-house.

Writing a blog for a ‘professional design agency’ would suggest that I would be jumping up and down for agencies. But in fact, this was all a little disappointing since it needn’t be the case.

My experience of in-house designers is that they are, more often than not, very good. Channel 4’s in-house team have won many awards, for example, by bringing in creative directors from agencies to bust their in-house capability. It is how the organisation with an in-house team commissions and works with their in-house team that is different from working with an agency.

So, how can in-house teams match the quality perceptions of external agencies? Here are my seven things in-house teams can consider.

  1. A good starting point is a rebranding or refresh. Co-create with the in-house team if working with an agency. They will be greater advocates and help fight for consistency internally.
  2. Ask your brand agency to run creative reviews every quarter with the in-house team to talk through projects and learn why things are going ‘off-brand’ and celebrate success.
  3. Develop a publication and information strategy. The Information Standard is obviously a good starting place for health and care organisations, but setting out what good information looks like will help in briefings.
  4. Talking of briefings, get a written brief. No one briefs an external agency without confirming it in writing: communication objectives, to whom are you talking and how do they feel, effective channels and tools, tone of voice and brand guidance, as well as budget and timings.
  5. User involvement. Dominic’s research demonstrates its amazing value. In fact, user participation in the design phase will bring about even better insights in the end product.
  6. Ask your agency if you could do a job swap. An in-house designer works at the agency for a week, and vice versa. Knowledge transfer would enable the agency to understand the client’s daily creative needs better and the in-house designer will see different ways of working.
  7. Encourage your in-house team to do all the things agency designers are encouraged to do: attend exhibitions, student shows, galleries, join professional bodies, and speak and blog. Creative folk need nurturing differently.

The main thing though is that organisations have to change perceptions that the people in the corner with the expensive computers and software, and a more relaxed clothing policy aren’t the poor relations. In fact, they are vital to an organisation’s success in communications.

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