Illustration © 2013 edfredned

Illustration © 2013 edfredned

Branding / Business / Commentary / Creativity / Freelancing

How In-House Innovation Teams Could Benefit from the Addition of a Creative Quarterback

By Bruce Miller

In the late 1980’s when several top marketers, specifically in the fashion industry, were setting up “in house” advertising agencies, they made a point of bringing top creative talent into the mix in order to keep the quality of the messaging on creative par with ad agencies they once employed. The same typically holds true with the internal packaging, promotions and digital media departments most large companies have today. There’s usually someone at the director level on staff to oversee internal creative efforts as well as to help give creative guidance when external resources are brought in.

So, what bearing does all that have on the innovation department? Well, throughout the recent recession and with budgetary woes still lingering, many leading marketers have been forced to cut back on using outside innovation agencies and in many cases have foregone their services all together, opting to bring their innovation efforts in house. While internal staff can assume many of research and project management roles their innovation agencies once provided, one key role is much harder to fill with existing corporate resources and usually remains conspicuously vacant : The role of the innovation creative. “Innovation creative?” a client might say, “But we’re all fairly creative and can brainstorm ideas internally. We do it all the time. Our consumer insights assistant can write the concepts, and our packaging intern can sketch the visuals . . .” Yeah, and my plumber can probably change an electrical socket, but I’m not about to let him wire my house!

As Chief Creative Officer of a leading innovation agency, I was often called upon to pull a client’s wayward internal innovation project out of the proverbial fire. One example that comes to mind is of a highly regarded food company that created a handful of new product concepts using their internal team. The team leader was a bit unsure of the consumer appeal of a few of the concepts and wanted our professional opinion before going into qualitative testing. Okay, “a bit unsure” is putting it rather mildly. As I thumbed through the deck I could barely keep my face from contorting into the “yucky face” my kids often make when they see or taste something they wish they hadn’t. One concept was for a new meat snack called “Ham Bar.” Yes, you read correctly, “Ham Bar!” The image below the headline was a primitive marker rendering of a 7” long bar of processed ham! How’s that for “yucky face” material? My gag reflexes wouldn’t allow me the time to read the concept copy before turning the page to the next gem of an idea.

I’m not trying to make the point that all internal innovation teams, sans outside creative support, are completely incompetent. Most include highly intelligent, hard working, well-meaning marketing professionals. They just do not typically include a trained innovation creative adept at concepting, and producing strategically grounded, powerful new product concepts. That is the simple point I am trying to make — The addition of a seasoned innovation creative could greatly increase a company’s internal innovation efforts chances of success. Period. Conversely, just think of how an internal ad agency would function without a Creative Director, or how the digital media department would perform without a Digital Design Director.

So who would this innovation team “creative quarterback” be and what should his or her background/credentials look like?

Look for someone who has experience as a CD or above in an innovation agency, ad agency or branding agency. They could be from the art or copy side, but ideally this person would have a track record of developing product concepts that made it to market and grew revenue. They should bring some knowledge of your category as well as a strong sense of strategy and brand savvy to their creative problem solving efforts. Depending on the size and needs of your company, he or she could either be a staff person or an independent contractor. Companies as large as PepsiCo go the independent contractor route for many of their marketing positions.

What would the job description look like?

Most likely it would include (but not be limited to) the following:

• Working with consumer insights and brand group partners to identify areas of innovation opportunity.
• Helping to develop innovation drill sites or platforms to be used in creative exploration.
• Taking a lead role in internal brainstorming and ideating sessions.
• Helping “non-creative” team partners develop their idea nuggets.
• Optimizing existing past and current product concepts. (Did someone say Ham Bar?)
• Facilitating the writing and art direction of product concepts.
• Assisting in the screening of outside innovation resources if needed.
• Taking on a creative liaison role when outside resources are brought in.
• Setting standards for outside resource creative deliverables.
• Attending formative and validation research and leveraging consumer feedback, oftentimes on-the-fly.
• Developing, implementing and assessing all viable creative approaches including those leveraging digital and social media.

Most importantly, what are the key benefits in creating such a position? 

The benefits of having an on-staff Innovation Creative Director are multiple, including:

• Deeper immersion into core brand equity than outside creative resources.
• More creative accountability.
• Better translation of strategic platforms into creative solutions.
• On-demand creative resource.
• Creative input beginning with the project initiation phase.
• Higher quality product concept output.
• Consistent creative oversight of internal and external resource deliverables.
• The addition of a higher degree of clarity to the “fuzzy front end.”
• No more “Ham Bar!”
• Last, but not least, cost savings would be significant, allowing for a larger portion of the project budget to be shifted to commercialization.

There you have it. You may agree. You may disagree. But if you show me two in-house innovation groups, one with a seasoned Innovation Creative Director as part of the team and one without, and give them both the same exact assignment, I can tell you right now which one will be most likely to produce concepts that pass quantitative testing hurdles and become revenue-building brands in the marketplace.


Bruce MillerBruce Miller is based in Stamford, CT and has been on the creative side of product innovation for the past twenty years with countless in-market successes under his belt, many in CPG food categories. He has written several articles on creativity as it relates to advertising and innovation. Currently, Bruce is a front-end innovation consultant and the creator of the BrandCORE™ innovation process.  He can be reached at  


Illustration © 2013 edfredned


  1. Mary Quaranta says:

    Great article… and so true! I’ll be sure to pass it on!

  2. Peter Tarlton says:

    Great article Bruce!

    An innovative team leader to rally, guide and drive [ internal and external ] individual team talent, to maximize the creative ROI output is a master’s insight.

    Thank you for sharing, I learned a lot.


    PS: I grew up on Old Long Ridge Road