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Karin Onsager-Birch on In-housing, and Where Agencies Go Wrong in Supporting Creatives

Lyft’s VP of creative and former agency stalwart Karin Onsager-Birch gives LBB the inside story on why creatives are leaving agencies

Karin Onsager-Birch joined Lyft as the American ride sharing app’s VP of creative in February 2021. The move came off the back of Karin’s two decades agency-side creating award-winning work with Goodby, Silverstein, and Partners before leading Ogilvy’s Blue Hive in London - ahead of its rebrand to GTB - and as FCBWest’s chief creative officer. 

She’s an advertising stalwart whose move to the brand side came at a moment when the ‘in-house versus agency’ dynamic was just beginning to crystallise. For this series examining the future of creative talent, Karin is a go-to. Here, she tells LBB how creatives are leaving jobs due to a lack of their own growth, where agencies are getting it wrong with talent, and why fostering insecurity in your creative teams is one of the worst things you can do. 

How To Invest In Talent 

Investing in talent also requires investigating talent. Karin tells LBB how she is ‘curious’ about the talent on her team at Lyft, ‘especially junior talent.’ She says: “I investigate their superpowers, and lean into them. Instead of just hoping they’ll grow into well-rounded creatives, I focus on giving them projects and opportunities that build on their strengths and give them room to grow.” 

Across advertising, there’s an ongoing conversation about attracting talent; are they going brand-side instead of to agencies, and what can be done to latch onto them? But as Karin suggests, perhaps agencies are missing a trick with their pre-existing talent. “They’re under-investing in growing the skills and careers of their best existing talent,” she says. “It costs more to recruit and hire new people than it costs to nurture the talent you have.”
So what makes the talent leave? “A lot of creatives leave their jobs because they don’t feel like they are growing enough. They’re not getting enough variety, on-the job training, mentoring, or exposure to new media and technologies. Then a competitor comes along and offers a bit of what’s missing, and it doesn’t take more than that to lose a valuable team member who has great potential.”
It’s a multifaceted situation, as Karin points out that brand-side leadership could also be doing more. “They could invest more in exposing their teams to inspiring work from other brands; sending them to creative bootcamps, conferences, and festivals in order to keep their talent fresh and prevent them getting stuck in echo chambers.” 

The Impact Of In-Housing

The influx of in-housing has sparked important and powerful questions about the future of the traditional agency model. Karin’s own move in departing from the agency world to lead creative at Lyft encapsulates this movement in many ways.

So what has in-housing done to the shape of agencies? Karen says it’s mostly continued to lower agencies’ margins, making it harder for them to attract great talent. “There’s an inherent wrongness about the round-the-clock hours expected of agency creatives, while also having to put up with the lower compensation at agency vs brand side,” she says. “Agencies have perpetrated a myth that people “who go for the money” are hacks. It’s a fallacy that has been working well for agencies for years, but great creative talent is discovering that it’s bullshit.”

Company loyalty as an expectation is at a breaking point, with the aftermath of the pandemic highlighting how staffers are at a turning point, as Business Insider reported last year. 

“Competing for great talent, you now see some of the best folks moving in-house, Look at Tor Myhren at Apple, Scott Turner at Impossible, Scott Trattner - first at Facebook and now at Airbnb, - and they all take their teams with them, building creative powerhouses on the brand side,” says Karin. 

Golden Opportunities Hide In Crises 

Karin tells LBB about how she joined Lyft in a time of crisis: “The rideshare business had been cut to less than half, and the team was suffering from exhaustion and low morale after massive layoffs,” she says. However, she adds: “Golden opportunities hide in crises.” 

It’s a theme she says has been true for her career: “When the status quo is no longer working, companies are more willing to try new things, which opens up the opportunity for a new leader to create a bold vision for how you will grow out of the crisis to create momentum. It also sifts the great and resilient talent from the complacent.”

Where Agencies Can Do Better

LBB asks Karin, where do some agencies, or the agency model, go wrong? She says: “The belief that creatives always need to be a little insecure, in order to keep trying hard.” 

The image of the tortured artist has long been established - but perhaps the impact this image has on creatives in adland hasn’t been quite addressed. “Fostering that kind of insecurity is distracting from what’s important: creativity and collaboration,” says Karin on the issue. “I also think the competitive model at agencies is outdated. Internal teams shouldn’t be competing against each other, they should be competing against the competitor’s creative team. That’s the smartest focus for our competitive spirit.” 

Creatives need to be inspired both by the work, and the people around them - and that includes mentorship too. Karin concludes that a lack of ‘consistent mentorship and clear, measurable goals for creative teams’ is something she feels agencies are missing and can lead to problems. “ I prefer a growth-mindset culture where teams are constantly progressing on a path to success. How to achieve that is something I’m learning here on the brand side that I’m really grateful for. It takes a lot of deliberate effort and conscious investment from leadership,” she says. 

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