In-house, in control: why Xero does its own creative

Xero’s global director of media, Patrick MacFie, describes content as “a ravenous beast” more than capable of chewing you up and spitting you out.

“There’s the potential to fail quite miserably at it,” he says, chuckling, almost matter-of-factly, as we kick off a discussion about the accounting software firm’s advertising and content strategy.

Despite describing content as though it were a disgruntled circus lion, MacFie and the team at Xero have accepted the risk and taken it upon themselves to do all their advertising and content creation in-house for the local, Australian, US and British markets.

And this isn’t quite as simple as repurposing a few corporate blog posts for each of the target markets (MacFie will be sharing how Xero takes on the world stage through their content strategy at the 2017 Content & Communities Summit in March alongside other speakers).

“Last year, we produced around 400 individual pieces of video content,” says MacFie. “There’s definitely more than a deadline a day, and we even knock back a few briefs. We can’t say yes to everything.”

Alongside video content, Xero’s creative team also develops podcasts, social media campaigns and traditional spots—each of which must be on brand.

“As much as we can, we try to keep a uniform brand message, but there are peculiarities to every market that influences the way we speak to them.”

Altogether this constitutes a massive creative output facilitated by a global team of around 50 staff, 18 of which specialise in live action and animation video. 

The decision to take on this task with an internal team wasn’t made because of any animosity against advertising or content agencies, but rather because it allows the brand to be more responsive in the digital age.  

“You need to be able to flick the switch and have something ready in days, every day and everywhere around the world.”

MacFie also makes the point that keeping things in-house also tends to be more cost-effective in the long run than outsourcing creative services to production companies or agencies.  

“I’m not diminishing the value of agencies to other brands, but our preference is to invest in our own people,” he says.

“It’s more affordable and we prefer to have complete control of everything.”

Of course, affordability doesn’t always equate to quality, and a common criticism of in-house work is that it’s inferior to that produced by agencies.

MacFie isn’t ashamed to admit that the Xero team has made a few creative missteps in the past, but these aren’t reason enough to give up on the approach.

“When you step into that realm and you really commit to investing in your people, you have to accept the good with the bad,” he says. “And, for us, there have been some rough times.”

MacFie welcomes this as part of the process, seeing creative errors as an integral part of staff development.

“We try to take risks, we try to break stuff, we try to grow new muscle, and we try to provide our creatives with a level of creative satisfaction at the end of every day,” he says.

While there might be the odd hiccup along the way and although there are risks involved, MacFie believes that in the future more brands will take an increasing share of their creative in-house.

“I think it’s very much the [way things are going],” he says. 

“In the current era of content, you need to be very agile and you need the ability to respond if you want to be a content or video-led company.

This trend is already taking shape at other local brands such as Air New Zealand, Trade Me, Burger Fuel and Karma Cola, which employ internal teams to look after some aspects of communications.

This is not the first time this kind of shift has happened in the industry and is in some ways reminiscent of the changes that have taken place in the retail segment.

In previous decades, production companies earned a significant chunk of revenue from developing the basic retail advertising for major clients. But, over time, this work was moved in-house into retail specialist agencies, such as Ogilvy and 99.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see major brands—particularly those active at a global level—taking bits and pieces in-house and then only calling on agencies when they require specialist skills.         

“As we see video become more and more prevalent, I think you’re definitely going to see more and more in-house video teams popping up inside of large brands,” MacFie says.

He sees this as an interesting evolution for the industry, but adds an important caveat for brands thinking of taking the plunge.

“The learning curve will be steep,” he says.

Xero has been doing this for quite some time and has a good sense of what works and what doesn’t, but these are all things that brands, which previously relied on agencies, will have to come to terms with.

One of the biggest mistakes MacFie sees in the content space lies in the fact that many brands don’t place enough importance on the amplification of campaigns created in-house.

“To have beautiful content without amplification is like putting up a big neon sign in the middle of the desert,” he says. 

“It’s cool if that desert happens to be in Las Vegas, but it’s not so cool if you’re a business trying to attract people to your content.”

The point here is that too many brands are too cheap when it comes to distributing their campaigns through social channels.

“You don’t know the quality of your creative until you’ve had the amplification in order to get the eyeballs to it. So many people just miss the amplification stage or don’t spend enough money on it.”

The reality is that it’s very rare that something goes viral organically. Everything is about paid. Facebook is a paid channel. And if you can’t come to terms with that, you’re going to suck at Facebook.”  

He says that YouTube is one of the few digital media channels where marketers can still get organic reach, largely because it functions as the second biggest ‘How to’ channel in the world.

He says that if you have “a strong SEO game”, you could potentially attract significant search-based traffic to your creative, but this is really dependent on the type of video you’re looking to create.

The other mistake brands make, according to MacFie, is that they place too much emphasis on the way the content looks rather than what it is.

“People often take the technical specification, like ‘portrait grainy’, and then presume that that’s why a video is popular,” he says.

To explain this point, MacFie uses the example of a man sitting out in the boondocks in his grandmother’s house, recording videos from the living-room, and attracting millions of views in the process.

“It’s not about the fact that it’s on a webcam and in his grandma’s lounge and that it’s grainy. It’s actually about the quality of what he’s doing and how he’s delivering in an approachable way.”

The simple point being that no matter what type of content you produce and where it’s delivered, the long-standing tenets of storytelling continue to apply.

“We get it wrong all the time,” says MacFie.

“But we learn from it, and that’s how we do it better. We’re not afraid to get things wrong. I’m not some old man at Xero with all the answers. We’re working it out every day, like everybody else.” 

Find out more about Macfie’s session, and check out the full agenda for the 2017 Content & Communities Summit taking place on 28th – 29th March – click here  

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