Where is it written that an in-house agency must only work for its parent client? Not anywhere that Cliff Stevens, managing director at Liberty Mutual and head of internal shop Copper Giants, could find.
So, in 2017, Stevens and the insurance company struck out on a mission to create a best-in-class agency that just happens to be inside of — and almost wholly dedicated to — a major client. The idea behind the strategy is to better position the shop to attract top-notch creative talent and projects from outside brands. Earlier this year, Harpoon Brewery contracted Copper Giants to create a campaign for its Rec. League beer, putting the in-house agency on track to meet its goals.
“For now, [our model is] let’s get a couple of projects a year so we can create a development opportunity for our teams and we can recruit talent,” Stevens said. “At the end of the day, I want Liberty to be proud of this work and the group we’ve developed.”
The talent side of the equation is a key building block for Copper Giants. Stevens used to have a standard question he would ask of prospective employees: “If we were to make you an offer, what would be the number one barrier for accepting the job?”
The answers were fairly predictable.
“Nine times out of 10, it was, ‘I don’t want to work on one brand,’ or ‘I don’t want to work on just insurance,’” Stevens said.
Such reluctance was understandable; Stevens himself had worked at several agencies (including McGarryBowen, Hill Holiday, McCann, DraftFCB and JWT) and across a number of categories (including automotive, packaged goods, technology and financial services) before joining Liberty Mutual in 2017.
“We said, ‘What if?’ What if you could do the majority of your work at this great company with a great group of people, and you might be able to work on a project or two a year that can stretch your creativity and build your book and keep your brain fresh?”
That time arrived when Harpoon Brewery contracted Copper Giants to create a campaign for its Rec. League beer. The campaign, which began running in August, encourages people to celebrate “little victories,” such as finding an onion ring in a bag of fries, with the beer.
While some might think the assignment was born out of some previous connection, Harpoon’s relationship with Copper Giants is completely organic. A third-party consultant working with Harpoon was familiar with the agency’s ambitions and set up a meeting.
“I liked what they were doing, the idea that they were trying to break the mold and come up with an innovative and creative way to keep their team fresh,” said Jon London, CMO of Harpoon parent Mass Bay Brewing. “They are like a small agency with big agency resources.”
For years, in-house agencies were considered also-rans to the big creative agencies. The advertising agency came up with big concepts, flashy commercials and cutting-edge programs, while the in-house agency was left to create promotion-based advertising, coupons and other, less-exciting collateral.
In recent years, however, the industry has begun to reconsider the in-house agency’s purpose. At a time when access to data, particularly the first-party information supplied by consumers, is critically important, the in-house agency has a distinct advantage. According to the In-House Agency Forum, in-house agencies experienced a 7% growth rate between 2019 and 2021.
In-house agencies gained further traction during the pandemic when teams were scattered and advertising programs changed on a day-to-day, even hour-by-hour, basis. When decisions needed to be made quickly, it was much easier to task an in-house team to come up with creative approaches. Copper Giants is a part of these trends.
“I started to see these in-housing trends take shape in the early 2010s, and there were a lot of great teams doing great work,” Stevens said, noting that during his time working for Bay Area agencies he observed brands such as Intel and Clorox investing heavily in their in-house capabilities. “I would say it's really been scaling over the past five years. But they started to get a little more visibility during the pandemic.”
Nevertheless, adding outside projects will always be secondary to Copper Giants’ primary client and owner, Liberty Mutual. The unit already handles about 80% of the company’s consumer-facing work, most notably the “truth-teller” campaign that features customers on a pier with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which created that campaign, now handles the brand’s retro-themed “LiMu Emu and Doug” campaign.
“It’s a great relationship and that comes down from our leadership of deciding who does what work,” Stevens said of the two agencies working together. “I want Liberty to have options. The team at Goodby has been very supportive of us. When they come out with new LiMu and Doug work, we’re excited to see it because we know it’s great for the brand.”
And having another agency on the roster helps create some space for Copper Giants to take on new projects. As a 30-person shop, Copper Giants doesn’t have the capacity to pitch or take on big clients looking for long-term relationships, Stevens conceded. But that has never been the intention anyway. The goal was to create a “carrot” that could lure talent to the agency and retain them for longer tenures.
“We put that out there to say we want to be good enough so that we can take on any challenge for Liberty Mutual and handle any challenge they ask of us,” Stevens said. “We also said let’s get good enough that we can offer it here and that we can turn it on externally.”