Andy Brenits of InSource: Big Change for In-House Designers

Big change is afoot for in-house designers: more projects, more influence, more resources. That’s according to Andy Brenits, president of InSource, the network for sharing experience, knowledge and best practices among in-house creative leaders. Just recently celebrating its 10th year, InSource has grown from a 75-member regional organization to a 3,500-member international network.

Andy should know: He’s spent 20 years in the design field, many of those working in-house. His day job is creative director at Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest public utility, where he leads a team of designers, video producers and a roster of outside freelancers. He’s served as InSource’s president for about 4 years and has held leadership roles with the organization since 2007; he’s also taught design management at Pratt Institute, from which he received a master’s degree in the subject.

Over his design career and his leadership at InSource, Andy’s seen all the ups and downs of the in-house creative field. We recently asked us to fill us in on what he’s seen, what challenges in-house designers now face, and how organizations like InSource and events like the InHouse Management Conference, part of HOW Design Live, can help creative leaders prepare.

Andy Brenits IHMC

Give me the elevator pitch on InSource. What’s the organization’s mission? Who are your members?

InSource now is an international, connected network of in-house creative team managers and leaders. (Learn more about InSource.) We’ve shifted the focus of the organization to being a network, as opposed to an association like AIGA for a number of reasons.

When InSource started, there were no resources for in-house designers, and the world of social media wasn’t what it is now. Today, it’s much easier to make connections and share resources. When I joined the board, it was in the midst of the worst economy. I just gone back into the in-house environment, and I needed resources to learn how to manage my team. I had management experience, but this was different. Leading and managing teams is tough enough—but trying to do that with a group of creatives—people who buck authority by nature—it’s a whole different animal.

Rather than being an organization that was about everything in-house, we shifted our focus to everything that has to do with managing and leading a team. There were plenty of other places for people in earlier stages of their career to go for tips and tricks and training. We offer resources for people who manage a creative team and creative resources. There are specific things those people are looking for: processes, coaching, mentoring, hiring, selling value to the people higher up in the organization.

The second part of our change was to offer regional roundtables around the country, not just in the NY/NJ area. Those are gaining in popularity, because the content that’s being presented is specifically targeted to creative leaders. We’re also planning events in Canada and the UK this year.

InSource recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in support of corporate creatives. What are the major changes that you and the organization have seen during that time?

The in-house industry is maturing on a couple of different fronts. One, we’re seeing (especially now that the economy is bouncing back) that corporations have a desire to bring in-house the work they’d typically outsource to creative agencies. Small teams are growing larger; companies that didn’t have an in-house creative function are building that in. That isn’t to say that agencies have anything to fear—there’s plenty of work going to agencies as well. And in-house managers need to know how to manage those contract relationships.

Two, the in-house business has matured: Companies and creative people have realized that just being creative isn’t enough for an in-house agency. The people who are managing in-house teams have to have business savvy, they have to understand it’s about subjectiveness, they have to understand what drives people above them in the C-suite. People in positions like mine are becoming more knowledgeable about running a business.

My job is to build the playground that my creative staff gets to play in. Sometimes I have to shield them, sometimes my position is to say no, and sometimes it’s just as much to be a cheerleader. I have to give them context, to help them understand why they’re doing the work they’re asked to do, to get them to buy into producing really excellent work.

As a manager, you have to understand the language of business—to translate between the executives who don’t speak design and the designers who don’t speak ROI. Designers have to understand how their work fits in the whole marketing ecosystem.

Looking at the InSource membership data, it seems that most members work for fairly small creative teams within fairly large organizations. What are the biggest challenges for in-house designers in this business climate?

We have two surveys going on right now—the InSource BOSS/Cella benchmarking survey and an InSource member survey—that ask members what their big challenges are.

I think the biggest challenge is managing the growth of your in-house team. There are going to be newly promoted creative directors who used to be designers, and they have to be prepared to meet the challenges of their company and the volume of work. What do they have to be armed with over the next two years or so? How do they need to be prepared for the growth of the in-house industry and the increase in the project volume, and not be blindsided by it? There a few of us who’ve been in the business for 20 years, but there are a lot of folks who became in-house managers during the recession and don’t have as much experience with that kind of growth.

I think project management is another big challenge as more work comes in house. As departments grow, your plate could become overfull very quickly. If you’re an art director and you went from working on 5 projects at a time to 15, how are you going to keep organized?

Designers and communicators can feel like square pegs working in corporate environments. How do events—like the InHouse Management Conference or InSource’s own gatherings—help them connect and learn?

The HOW event specifically is great for meeting people, networking, talking to other managers about challenges and best practices. Everyone gripes about, “Well, they just don’t get us”—and it’s nice to be in a room of people who get me. But it’s also great to be with people who I can say, “Here’s the challenge I have—have you dealt with it or overcome it?”

Being with people and talking about challenges and having conversations about how they’ve done things and managed business issues—hearing what other people have gone through—sparks ideas that are incredibly valuable. We all have our creative specialties, but when we’re also business leaders, we have skills that other business managers don’t have: we have a design mindset. We approach problems differently. And then I meet someone at an event, and we can all share these experiences. You start talking, and all of a sudden you have 5 pages of notes you can take back.

That’s the biggest value of large conferences or small roundtables. Someone who gets the Big Ticket and walks into the InHouse Managers Conference will walk out with a stack of business cards and a network of people who can help advise them.

Are you an in-house creative leader? Learn more about InSource, and then plan to network and learn from your peers at this year’s InHouse Management Conference. Be sure to register by February 11 to take advantage of big Early Bird Registration savings.