Inside In-Housing in association withLBB

Inside In-housing: How giffgaff’s Hybrid Model Keeps the Brand Creative and Community Driven

Advertising Agency
London, UK
Abi Pearl and Georgina Bramall on how the pioneering in-house set up has evolved and why its flexibility and sense of community has readied the brand for the age of social commerce
As brands’ marketing needs evolve, in-housing is becoming an increasingly appealing avenue for marketers. From full-service agencies and content studios to hybrid models that allow brands a more a la carte approach, there are many ways to approach in-housing. ‘Inside In-housing’ is a feature series created in partnership with OLIVER (the pioneer of the in-house model for brands), in which marketers explore the different opportunities and challenges of modern-day agency models.

When UK mobile network giffgaff decided to go in-house in the mid 2010s, it was something of an oddity. There was no template to follow, the marketing team took a ‘let’s crack on’ attitude. They just knew that with their highly engaged online community of members, it was important to take the creative ideas closer to that community. The brand also had huge creative ambitions that traditional agency relationships just weren’t fulfilling Ash Schofield (then marketing & experience chief, now CEO) and Tom Rainsford (former giffgaff brand director, now marketing director at Beavertown Brewery), brought Abi Pearl on board as agency manager. The team worked directly with production companies and with freelance creatives to make punchy, creative commercials designed to give its audience a thrill.

These days, Abi is head of advertising and the in-house team has evolved into a sophisticated hybrid set-up, which allows them to bring in collaborators while creating content in-house that chimes with their members. It’s not uncommon for giffgaff to share ad scripts with their community ahead of production or even bring their members in to take part in campaigns. On the flip side, that relationship is a two-way street, and the team has to be open to appraisal, criticism and suggestions from the community. According to Abi, that keeps the brand honest. Moreover, it plugs the brand straight into a very politically aware youth audience and gives them a steer on how to stay true to their values. 

As the marketing environment evolves, so too will the giffgaff model. There’s no sense that the team have found a mythical perfect model and they’re always open to trying new things. But as developments like social commerce loom ever larger on the horizon, the current set up which allows the team to integrate marketing and content with different parts of the business make it feel ready for the future.

Abi Pearl and Georgina Bramall, head of brand strategy, discuss their journey with LBB’s Laura Swinton.

LBB> I remember going to the giffgaff offices back in 2015 and at the time this in-house set up felt very new and unusual. Did it feel pioneering at the time?

Abi> I think it did feel pioneering the start because it was so different to what everyone else was doing. Our in-house really came from the fact that we couldn’t continue as we were; we had really big ambitions, we wanted to make really, incredibly creative work and we had to find another way to help us achieve that.

We had a great team, we worked with great producers, and we just tested it out, to be honest. It was like an experiment. At the start, we had a creative director, who would concept ideas, an executive producer who would help us do things with the production companies, and then I did everything else like account management, legal approvals. We muddled our way through and in the first year we did three ads and a TV sponsorship all without an agency. And it just worked. The work was really good, and we just started to attract more people who wanted to work with us.

It was born of necessity, but we managed to create some wonderful work over the years. We’re really proud of what we achieved.

LBB> Now that things have grown and formalised, what does the set up look like?

Abi> Now we have a larger team, a larger social team and we have lots of people who are quite ambidextrous. We’ve got a social content producer who can animate videos, we’ve got people who can design things as well as managing social campaigns. So we’ve started looking for different types of people to build the team. We’ve got a design team now that’s four people strong, whereas before we had one designer who would do bits and bobs and was very busy.

We’re a professional business so it’s not just about having one style that lives on the website and another on the advertising, we’ve linked all that up a lot more. We’ve also been really conscious that we have a really hybrid model. We’ll reach out to bring in different teams of people to work with, according to whatever the job is. Recently, Katya and the PR team ran a really amazing campaign called ‘Have a Proper Chat’ and they did that in collaboration with Don’t Panic. It’s really, really flexible and we bring people in as and when we need them which is really essential to our model.

Georgina> That’s something you do really brilliantly, Abi. I think you get that fresh perspective, connecting with the external world as well. With in-housing, sometimes there is a danger that people become so ingrained in the brand. What Abi does so brilliantly through her massive network of contacts is to make sure that we’re always getting that fresh perspective and fresh stimulus.

LBB> giffgaff is pretty plugged into the general creative and production community. Why is that so important and how do you figure out who you want to work with on a project? 

Abi> It depends on who’s running it. I like the organic nature of it. One of the ways I get to meet people is through D&AD. You have to keep up your industry connections. Now we’ve got Katya [Escala, PR and Comms lead] in-house and she comes from an agency background too; you need to understand creative talent and you need to feed that in. It’s very easy to lose that connection to the wider world.

Judging awards is helpful; I used to do lots of work with the UK Music Video Awards – looking at newcomers that are up and coming is another great way to spot talent. But sometimes you just meet people and people will talk to us and if they are really passionate, we might try them out on a brief.

We pay people for pitching. I believe it’s really, really important; I think there’s too much exploitation out there. And we see what people come back with in a very quick way. You can also figure out very quickly from very easy conversations without wasting too much of people’s time deciding if you’re right or wrong.

I think the more we’ve grown, we’ve seen people have different approaches. It’s about making it work with whoever is leading that group.

LBB> giffgaff has always had a very engaged user base. How much has that informed the need to have that hybrid, in-house approach?

Abi> I think the beauty of working the way we work is that our community wants to be able to do things. We’re able to share scripts with them in advance. Now they feature in our ads, which is really different. You need to get your partners on board with that; we’re not working with polished talent, you need people who are going to be able to nurture a response out of our members. These aren’t people who are used to having conversations to go into a TV ad. 

You need to understand the importance of the community – and you need to understand that they are going to tell you exactly what they think! You’re going to be told it by other team members, you get told it by the community, you see it on social. I remember Ash had an email someone had written about the voice of our voicemail – we’ve re-cast it three times in the last two years.

LBB> giffgaff’s community was initially very active on its forums, but how has the proliferation of social channels changed the way you connect with them?

Abi> I love the explosion on TikTok over Covid. I thought it was brilliant to see people being able to create content, being really funny and involving their families. It created all of these really fun things that you do really need in order to be embedded in that community and to have some level of influence. I thought that was really wonderful and inclusive. In terms of using different channels, it’s just about trying to be where your audience are, but to do it in a really authentic way, so you haven’t just entered into it because there’s a massive audience. You have to do it in a way that has value.

Georgina> I love the thought of anticipating where that audience is, and I think that’s also a really key part of the in-housing model, actually. As we need to diversify into different platforms, finding the right talent to help us make that next epic journey is really important. For a brand that is quite youth-orientated, we’ve been part of some of those evolving platforms. It’s been really important to make that connection and to show our personality in these spaces as well.

It’s ever-evolving. The stats around social commerce are so interesting, especially when you look at what’s happening in China. Now that platforms are growing as actual sales channels, being able to make connections and build our presence is going to be really important for the future.

LBB> While giffgaff has always had that engaged community on its member boards and forums, I’m curious how that engagement is changing. The younger generation lives online more than ever and they’re particularly engaged politically and have a sharp eye for companies failing in representation, inclusion and things like that?

Abi> You can engage on so many levels, can’t you? There’s the community on the forums, there are people on social. Our own team members are also really important stakeholders, so you get a really good temperature check with expectations and our community members’ expectations. They are really happy to challenge everything. They challenge everything to make sure that we’re being true to the brand and whether we’re being fair. We can’t always do everything they say but it does shape what we go on to do. 

I think it’s been a really interesting time over the last year. There are different polarisations in terms of what people expect. There are people who expect us to act with really strong ethics, real care. The team is really good at pointing out that you can’t just make empty promises, you have to make sure that you can substantiate everything. 

Our engaged community and teams will call anyone out. I think that ability to challenge will help make us more conscious. 

We work with the Unmistakables and we run these workshops so we can start to pull all that negativity that might come out of trying to do good, pull things apart. That keeps us honest, and it means you can’t exist in a bubble because as soon as the work goes out, you’ll get called out.

LBB> So is the community on the forum and the social audience quite distinct or is there a big overlap?

Georgina> What’s brilliant is that there is an intersection and I think what’s so great about such tight teams working together internally is that the information is shared, so you can really easily work out where the bigger themes are. Our CRM emails for members become a really great touchpoint for direct feedback as well, helping us understand what’s really important. 

We orchestrate that in a light touch way – regular meetings, teams sharing best practice, having a content calendar that people can dip in and out of that we can also shape according to our channel really helps with consistency and makes sure that we are helping our members on each step of the journey. I guess people access us at different points, depending on where they are on the journey and what needs they have. 

LBB> And, as you brought up social commerce earlier, these intersections between marketing and community are going to become more important as social becomes a major sales channel. In-housing seems a good way to keep all of that close.

Georgina> Definitely. I think the giffgaff brand is really well placed to navigate into that space because we do have that inherent understanding of a community model. If you think about what social commerce is, it’s effectively a community model. But for us to bring that authenticity into that space from a brand perspective I think is going to be our challenge.

LBB> giffgaff has been something of a pioneer with in-housing and quite distinct within the Telefonica group on that front historically. Do you find that colleagues in the wider group are coming to you for insight?

Abi> Whenever it happens I forget that what we’ve done is so different. We just did it. There wasn’t a great big strategy. We believed it was the right thing to do and we powered on and proved ourselves. 

But I think there are some really key things that you need to run a model like ours. It really depends on the people that you’ve got in-house. You cannot run this model with a traditional marketing environment model. You need to have so many different skills. One minute you might be talking about activations, the next it’s ‘what shade of pink is the right colour to put on a sticker’. All of these conversations have equal importance.

I think one of the things we’re lucky with is getting our creatives to think commercially. Our designers are out to prove the commercial value of great design. I love when they share their work and say, ‘this is how many extra clicks that got’. 

I believe it’s the right thing to do, but we had a lot of autonomy and there weren’t lots of people in chain. It works really well because we have a lot of trust.

LBB> To wrap things up, how has this flexible, hybrid in-house model helped you navigate what has been a pretty choppy year?

Abi> I think it definitely has. We managed to put out a new campaign. I think the fact that we always had choices helped. We could always pick who we thought was right for each part of the job.

We had a campaign with Made By Blah where we filming people on soap boxes up and down the country with refurbished phones… But you couldn’t go out last April filming people around the country – it wasn’t the responsible thing to do, so we had to switch things up. The team had another idea that involved using voicemails from real people and we brought on board Stink Studios to bring that to life. I think being able to flex what we were doing to make it work for the production challenges we had and to do something we could get on air quickly – we had two months from start to finish – the flexibility in the model really helped. 

Again, we just cracked on and did it. The ‘Have a Proper Chat’ campaign that Katya and the PR team did was a great idea that they went ahead and did it. It was something as simple as a mobile network getting people to chat for an hour.  I think that flexibility allowed us to go ‘we need something new and we’d like to work with these people’ and we just cracked on and did it. It seems to work quite well for us.