On today’s episode, Kunle is joined by Kasper Sierslev, CCO of Zite, a platform that helps build in-house agencies so brands can utilize and maximize resources in an efficient manner.
Heading the creative team of Maersk and a background in jazz music, Kasper marks the start of his colorful journey to be one of the builders of Zite. His deep understanding of the world of creatives enables him to provide valuable insights to brands and companies. He knows that by hiring the right people and setting aside time for the creative teams to breathe and find inspiration, the team can come together to produce high-quality work and foster an environment of creativity and innovation.
Using Zite as an agency-building tool, brands can create in-house agencies of their own. Companies can take advantage of Zite’s platform to utilize talents and resources efficiently. Zite’s platform also provides insights and analytics to help companies make the best decisions for their business.
It’s an interesting episode as you’d hear Kunle and Kasper talk more about building an in-house agency, allocating staff, balancing between in-house staff and external agency, setting a workflow organization, and a fascinating story about a ring sizer app.
Here is a summary of some of the most important points made:
On today’s interview, Kunle and Kasper discuss:
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Kasper, welcome to the 2X eCommerce podcast. I’ve been looking forward to this um, especially given the fact that your key ethos is giving organizations and giving companies, whether it’s D2C eCommerce businesses or large consumer brands, the capability of moving their creative competencies in-house. I’m looking forward to this conversation. Before we get started, I’d like you to please introduce yourself. You could go back as far as you want. I love to know your journey up until you know what you guys are doing at your agency, which is Zite.
We’re running a company that helps businesses move their competencies in-house. We both analyze their companies’ needs by looking at how are their vendors set up and their. We also help them design it. We also move on and hire people in, set it up, and run it for some companies where that makes sense. It all started years ago when I joined Maersk, which is a big global container shipping company that most people know where I was heading up the creative team.
I also realized that heading up a creative team, we were using so many different agencies around the world doing the same thing. In different markets, they didn’t have that overview and they were producing the same onboarding guides for eCommerce, how to book a container, and so on. I started out building a small in-house team. I didn’t have anywhere to look for inspiration and I didn’t know anyone so I had to figure it out myself. That was fun.
I realized that a lot of it was looking at some of the boring stuff. I’m into the creative thing but the way I figured out that you could work with creative minds and do better creative thinking was to free up time by not doing too many revision rounds and so on. In a way, I realized that it was a lot like when I started in high school playing music. I was playing in a jazz club in Copenhagen every Thursday night. I’m not that good but I played with better musicians.
We were the backing band and then we had good musicians and famous musicians from Denmark and around the world coming in and jamming with us. In a way, this is the same because we knew the jazz standards, so to speak. There are 30 or 40 standards that we would play and everyone was coming in and saying, “Could you play Autumn Leaves in A minor or something like that?” We knew the standard. We knew how to play. We knew the workflow to use that story.
The good musicians or the soloists would play on top of that. In a way, it’s the same that we do now, we establish these firm workflows, “Where do we put in our competencies? This is where we’re brief. This is where we do the creative ideas and so on.” That frees up time and resources to be more creative in different places. You can jam the idea at the right time, so to speak. I realized not necessarily at Maersk where I built the first in-house agency but later on when I moved to Saxo Bank, which is completely different. It’s not even a bank, it’s an online trading platform called Saxo Capital Markets in the UK.
I realized most of what I was doing there was the same as at Maersk, not necessarily ideas and the brand on top of it but the creative production, the translation, the versioning process, creating all the different banner sizes, the social media content, and so on. I then moved on to Georg Jensen building another in-house team and I realized this is the same. It was more eCommerce driven and more brand storytelling driven but it was the same.
That led me to write the first book called Moving In-house about all the things that I learned from that jazz approach, so to speak. That’s my story. We then started the company called Zite where we now are around 100 people helping companies build in-house capabilities, knowing when to pull in the experts, and when to have in-house teams doing the more day-to-day work and being in the knowledge of products and brand stories and so on.
Thank Kasper. That’s detailed. What type of jazz do you like best?
It was very traditional old school. I do like some of the modern stuff but I also like Branford Marsalis, the ‘80s stuff.
I’m a fan also of people on jazz. Great stuff there. I love your background. From what I picked up, you’re originally an agency man who moved into the main industry. You mostly started your career in logistics and shipping. You tidied things up internally and gave them lots of competencies in-house at Maersk and then you moved on to Saxo so it did the same thing. You moved on to another company and then did the same thing and found insights.
You’re helping companies now bring in-house competencies rather than relying on agencies, which I find fascinating. The first question I have is more about, why the proposition? Agencies have been in the ecosystem helping brands, their crutches, a lot of the time, supporting what they’re doing in-house. Why would you want to bring all those processes, all those people, and all those systems in-house? Does it not affect head count and then it becomes a management issue? Am I overthinking things?
First of all, I don’t think I will bring everything in. I can also see that, when we’re talking to people, a lot of things have changed. You can now run a lot of these things from in-house and you get better knowledge. You can work better with your data because you’re sitting right next to the people who own the data, so to speak.
You can build in learning loops so you can look at your performance of how your content is doing and you can do it fast.You can have a hypothesis saying, “I believe this will work.” You can do some early creative content stuff and, within a few hours, you can see if it’s working or it’s not working. I believe in the agility. The amount of content that we have to produce these days has changed years ago when I was in agencies where we pretty much did bigger campaigns.
It was more like an in and out where now it’s always on, it’s for different personas and different user journeys. Money-wise and resource-wise, it makes so much more sense to be closer to the platforms. When you’re working with eCommerce platforms or digital platforms like that, you have to know what’s possible. You have to know the templates that you can use. Otherwise, you have to create an agency doing something nice and when you have to embed it, it’s difficult. From an efficiency point of view, it makes sense to bring things in.
What would you say are the first principles leaders should take on board when considering an in-house agency or an in-house settlement?
First of all, normally, we describe it in steps. The first step is what we call a production agency, so to speak. Is it just the graphic designers, some copywriting, or some basic stuff that you bring in? It almost always makes sense to bring in those resources because you buy them expensively. The next step would be the content house or the content studio and that makes sense to do that, to bring in content people that can create your day-to-day content, and so on.
The next step would be more creative and the final step would be a real lead agency, so to speak. I’m sitting in Copenhagen, Denmark and we have 3 or 4 companies that have a lead in-house agency. LIGO is one of them, the biggest Danish television station, TV 2, or something like that. It’s not a lot of companies that make sense to have their own. In the UK, it would be something like Under Armour or something like that, that would have their own in-house creative agencies.
You already have your people working on your platforms so why not also have the people working on the content that is put on the platform? You can easily turn things around because you know the brand, you know the products, and so on. It’s easier to craft the content you need for your platforms and also have this knowledge from your data so you can look at it. Every morning, you could watch your dashboard and say, “That piece didn’t perform that well. Maybe we should tweak it or do something else.” Whether you’re using external agencies, you see the data, you go back, and then you have one week, they’re coming back. It takes a lot of time to turn things around.
Production agency, content studio, and then an in-house creative agency, that’s a lot. With regards to a production agency, there’s the website. Besides the website, if you have an eCommerce website, for instance, I’m speaking on behalf of our industry, you only get to build it once, and you update it every now and then.
What you get to do often is landing pages for performance marketing, email flows, and all of that stuff. With the production agency, what are the first steps, in your opinion? I’m not speaking from a cooperation standpoint. I’m speaking to an eCommerce or consumer brand in the region of anything from £1 million in revenue as far as £50 million or £100 million in revenue. How would you structurethis out for middle market eCommerce businesses?
The first thing is digital designers or web designers who can look at the images you put in the content that you have. Sometimes, people say, “We are in this digital transformation phase.” The digital transformation in most companies that we work with has been going on for 10 or 15 years. It’s not a transformation anymore, it seems like a constant. Things change.
If they took a picture of the websites at Maersk when I started and when I left, it was pretty much the same. In the background, we’ve been doing ten different sides and then technology changed and then it has to be responsive, it has to be mobile first. We had to then figure that people were booking containers somewhere far up in the Yangtze River in China. We had to go down on data quality. We were testing all these things behind the scenes. It’s a constant journey to optimize these things but then it’s also about embedding content in your eCommerce platform.
When I was at Georg Jensen, we realized that the more storytelling we put in our websites telling about our heritage or the craftsmanship sold more of the I would say cheaper products made out of steel in China. When we told stories about the silversmiths where they were hammering out things and it took 4 to 6 months to do something, we would sell the cheaper stuff because of the storytelling and because we could embed it on the website and have the user journey approach on that.
It makes sense. Going back to the production agency focus, I liked the fact that you spoke to the fact that everything is changing. It’s a moving target now. Today, we’re trying to figure out how to best utilize AI in all we’re doing whether it’s generating code or putting together content, how we can scale it up, and systematize it. It’s always changing and the target is always changing.
We own a few businesses and what has worked for us is it’s not in every instance that you can afford these resources. We’re certainly not Maersk. We can’t afford full-time staff. Sometimes, to be honest, a web developer who’s not challenged is going to say, “I’m going to quit because these guys are not challenging me enough.”
What we’ve done in my company is we have a trusted network of freelancers, they own businesses, but we get a chunk of their time so we guarantee that every quarter we’re going to utilize so much of their time. They’re on retainers. In that respect, they’re vested. Some of them will message me early in the morning or late at night saying, “I have this idea,” because we’re in that tight niche. That’s what we’re doing.
We need to sit into that production agent to the needs of your ability to respond to market changes quickly. Do you have anything to say to that point in regards to bringing production in-house and the importance and not just saying, “I can do it myself.” I’ve seen a lot of founders say, “I could do it myself,” or, they’ll wait in the long queue for an agency and they miss the boat.
I agree. We have a matrix that says if we don’t utilize a person more than 63%, it’s precise, but we’ve been measuring it for a couple of years now, then we should go with freelancers because then we’re not using them enough. On the other point, that’s also why I’m talking about these steps. If you try to bring in the rock stars, the web developers, or someone you cannot challenge if it’s the creative people and you’re pretty much giving them the bread and butter tasks and so on, then they will leave you or they will go complacent that you will not get what you’re paying for. That’s the other story.
It’s important to know which level you’re building in-house capabilities at. You don’t try to build a big creative setup when you only need a production house or maybe it’s worked fine with having external people coming in. For me, that’s when we wrote the second book, WIN-WIN-HOUSE. It’s taking the best of both worlds. It’s not necessarily being 100% in-house. I don’t think it was ever a question about either-or. It’s about figuring out and that goes back to designing the workflows, back to the jazz story, so to speak.
It’s knowing when to bring in people and when to have the resources available in-house or having the retainer for them. Maybe that makes a lot of sense for a lot of companies to know when to do that. We also see a lot of companies that just have freelancers working 100% within the company and that’s an expensive way to set up your systems or you bring in people who are jack of all trades. That’s not necessarily good either.
Sometimes it makes sense to have someone who could do a bit of both but it also makes a lot of sense sometimes to hire the experts just when you need them. It’s not rocket science. It’s figuring out what are you paying and how much are you using them. What we realized when we did the last report was that there are not a lot of companies who have done this calculation or have done the business case. “Should we bring people in? Should we use only external agencies?” It seems, for a lot of companies, that it’s a gut feeling. That’s my main point.
I love your points on your 63% rule. If you cannot utilize at least 63% of the time of an in-house expert, then move to freelance. That in itself is a nugget to take away from there. That 63% rule is amazing. Good stuff there. From a production standpoint, when you bring people in-house, how do you organize workflows? First of all, let’s go back to that 63% rule. With the 63% rule, how do you measure utilization?
In that way, we’re very agency-like so we track time. For the companies where we run the in-house agencies, we sell them 100% of the people but we do track their time. How much are they working on different tasks and so on? We have a dashboard and we can show them the outcome of all the things we’re doing no matter what task we’re doing.
People also register if they’re not doing anything, if they are having internal meetings, if they are drinking coffee, and so on. Of course, I would say we’ve never had an issue where we had to let someone go because of that but we had to sometimes when we needed to move people to another in-house agency because they were not using their skills or resources the right way. We figured it out, it’s very simple math. How much are we paying for this guy? How much would it cost if it was an external we brought in and so on?
We’ve been doing it for years measuring, “How much are we charging for this guy and how much are we paying him?” There could be another way of doing it. You could also look at, “Should it be freelancers? Should it be moved offshore or something like that?” Right now, there’s a lot of brand marketing tech AI coming in but still, you need someone running it.
I interviewed a chap named Nirav Sheth who runs an eCommerce agency that is similar to what you guys do. What they focus on is UX design and production. What they were doing in theirs is if Athletic Greens, Rothy’s, or True Botanicals, you will have staff, which is allocated from his agency. They walk on a dedicated basis on your projects. They have a shared project manager who goes on that serve overseas because a project manager would not be full-time from their perspective. Do you think a lot of organizations will be going down this route of having staff that are not their staff but dedicate all their time toward building out their assets?
I think so. That’s where it’s going. For products like this where you can both be a digital nomad, you can travel, and you can sit anywhere in a hybrid world where you can work from anywhere, more people will choose that direction. There are two tendencies we see at the moment and one is going in-house. More and more people are bringing in.
It’s not a constant. A lot of people have seasonality or have projects. Right now, we have two UX designers working in a company for the next four months and then they’re out again. They are embedded in our client’s team. They know the product, they know what they’re working on because they are embedded, and they are working directly with that one customer for the next four months but then they are going to move out because then the project is over. We’ve seen that for many years.
I feel it’s going more and more in that direction. As you’ve seen with cleaning and canteen or in bigger companies, the company is not necessarily the reception, at least that’s what we see in Scandinavia. I’m not sure if that’s the same in the UK. We do see that more and more of the non-essential workers are not in the company itself. Maybe you can’t get them because it’s difficult to bring them in on a full-time employment cost or keep them interested. Maybe it’s just because you only have peak periods where you need to develop something like that. We see more of that.
At our company, we have what we call a travel team of 30 people that we shift around the different companies. When there’s a special project, peak period, maternity leave, or something like that, we bring in the people we need. A lot of them are project managers but it’s not full-time so they know our ways of working, the methods, swim lanes, and they know when to call in other people. That’s where we are now. We do have all kinds of resources that we bring in. It’s dependent on the task that the company is in.
Let’s walk down the list. The next thing was a content studio. First of all, what’s the difference between a content studio and an in-house creative agency?
For me, the content studio is more producing the day-to-day, it would be social media content, and so on, whether the creative agency would run campaigns working on paid advertising and so on. On top of it, level four, so to speak, would be the real creative agencies doing commercials and outdoor advertising and so on.
For me, the content studio, especially when you talk eCommerce, and I’m referring back to when I was at Georg Jensen where we had a webshop and we had to take photos of all the products, and we had to write all the website content but also do some of the more storytelling aspects of it. That would be the content studio. In the production studio, it’s more craftsmanship, it’s designers, it’s UX, and so on. In the content studio, it’s also a bit more creative work. I hope I’m not putting anyone down because UX and UI are creative stuff.
The craftsmanship, the builders, and the engineers, the content are the artists, the performers who can tell stories and who have a soul and you need both to work. It makes a lot of sense. With the content, you’re going to have copywriters, I presume. You’re going to have photographers and you’re going to have videographers, people with those skills that could produce content whether it’s UGC-looking content or well-produced content out there. How does their work at the content studio sync and not interrupt level four, which is a real creative? They’re going to be putting out messaging on the outside. How do you synchronize content quality or consistency across both?
That’s also one of the bigger issues. Normally, we work closely with what we call the lead agency and the marketing department. We have a wishlist. When they go to the creative agencies, we want the deliverables that they’re producing back so we can do re-edits. We can edit the stuff and repurpose some of the stories that they’re using. We also factor in some of the things that we want them to produce. Whenever they are producing bigger commercials, it would be nice to have a behind-the-scenes video.
Maybe when we have the models, and I’m just talking Georg Jensen here, they have all the rings on their fingers and so on, it would be nice to produce extra materials. That’s how they work. They’re doing the bigger, the more fancy stuff, and then we may be bringing in a photographer to do behind-the-scenes, to do model shots, or something like that for the eCommerce shop at the same time. We work in tandem with the creative agencies as well. Sometimes, it’s different tasks. It’s about telling stories about the products.
You should have that internal in-house cadence towards producing it with somebody. Wrapping up, what are the traps? I don’t mean it in a negative way but I mean it from a conflict avoidance perspective. For leaders reading this episode, what are the common mistakes they make or you’ve seen make towards that journey to more in-house control, particularly in production and content?
There are two things we see and one of them is having that outside-in perspective. When you have people in-house, they only see the things that they used to do, and they’re always doing the same. You sometimes need people coming in from the outside and saying, “Other companies are doing this,” or, “You could also do it like that. This is a new fresh perspective.” That’s one of the bigger issues.
Another one would be swamped in meetings. It’s difficult for in-house creative teams to get that time off to do creative work because they’re always on a backlog of doing this and that. We see some of the companies that we work with, we need to take them outside, and we need to say, “Now you have a set-aside time to do creative work.” Otherwise, they’re doing one post at a time, they’re doing one page at a time, and they’re not taking a step back and looking at a fresh perspective. Those are the two main downfalls of having an in-house team.
Interesting. The second point you made was also quite strong, meetings are the killer of creativity. Many creatives don’t like staying in meetings in the first place. That’s all. Are there any other questions you think I should have asked you?
I was trying to come up with something. Can I tell the Georg Jensen RingSizer app story?
It’s a fun story.
Please, go for it.
One of the advantages of being in-house is that you can also sometimes go out of the brief. One time, I was at Georg Jensen and we were working with the eCommerce team and they were coming down and saying, “People are not buying our rings online. We need to change the color of the buy button.” We said, “That sounds strange. Could it be the color?” They said, “It’s too Scandinavian, too dull looking.”
We looked at the hot jar, the heat maps of the site, and looked at the user journeys and we realized that it was a lot of men coming in, went to the shop, found a ring, clicked on it, and went to the product page. It seems nice, they click buy. They found the buy button and then they click buy again and buy again. Only then did they realize there was this drop-down of ring sizes and it has these 14 or 16 different sizes, and then people went blank, the mouse was not moving for a couple of seconds, and then they left the page.
We realized it’s not a question about the design, it’s solving a more human problem behind that web problem. What we did was go back and instead of working on the project that we were supposed to work on the design of the website, we came up with a web page where you could steal a ring from your loved ones and put it on the screen and you could see the size. The good thing about that is that it didn’t cost a lot. Most of it was time for us standing with measures and rulers in the store making sure that we had the size correctly.
It worked well as a brand campaign and also it worked well on social media because a lot of wives would attack their husbands and say, “John, this one’s for you,” or something like that. It spread that way. Of course, you could have come up with this as an external agency but the brief was something different and the whole story was about realizing that’s another problem when you’re working in-house, you have the possibility to say, “I don’t think we’re working on the right problem right now. The problem is something else.”
You then could gather in the morning and say, “You’re right. Let’s do something completely different and work on it for a day or two and come up with a different solution that solves the problem.” That’s very much a testament to being close to the business, knowing, looking at the data, and looking at the insights you get from the platforms that you wouldn’t normally share with external people. We weren’t a big team. There were five people working on the content team, graphic designers, copywriters, and me. It’s not about having a big team, it’s more about trusting each other and giving each other the trust to question things sometimes, and say, “Let’s test something out and see if it’s working.”
I love that story. It started out with data, “We’re not making sales. Why is this happening?” You then realize, “This is an issue.” The actual agility to build an app that’s a ring sizer identifier is brilliant and then the outcome off the back of that. That sense of agency and autonomy in-house enables you to solve the bigger problems faster from that story you shared with us. Kasper, I can go on and on. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation up until now. There are two questions. Are you active on social media? If yes, which platform?
I’m on all of them. I’m testing it out. I’m curious. I would say it’s mostly LinkedIn.
I’ve given you a follow. You’re the author of two books and one is WIN-WIN-HOUSE. What’s the other one?
One of them is called WIN-WIN-HOUSE: How to Move Marketing In-House and Have the Best of Both Worlds. The other one is called Moving In-House.
Kasper, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the 2X eCommerce podcast.
Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you. I like your questions, it makes me also question sometimes. In-house is not necessarily the solution for everything, it’s also finding the balance. Thank you so much for your questions and your time.
Appreciate it. Cheers.