How Verizon’s In-House Agency 140 Came to Be

The telecom’s new in-house agency aims to play an integral role in the brand’s repositioning

By Anne Field

The rollout of Verizon Up, the brand’s loyalty rewards program that launched in 2017, was one of the first major projects carried out by the company’s in-house agency, 140. Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Four years ago when Diego Scotti joined Verizon as CMO, he faced a daunting mandate: Create a plan to help in the company transformation from a stodgy telecommunications leader to a state-of-the-art, 5G-powered tech pioneer.

Success, Scotti realized, required not only an overhaul of the company's brand but of its entire marketing structure. He laid out a blueprint for launching Verizon's new brand identity and a three-year timeline for building an in-house agency that could help form a seamless brand presence across every company-owned channel.

In forming 140, the brand's in-house agency — named for the iconic Verizon-owned building at 140 West St. in lower Manhattan that houses the agency — Verizon joins a trend of brands bringing agency work in house. In fact, according to a recent study by the ANA, 78 percent of ANA member respondents report having an in-house unit in 2018, compared to 58 percent in 2013 and 42 percent in 2008. Like Verizon, they're seeking greater control over brand messaging, dedicated staffs, and better cost efficiencies.

While the mission of 140 is inextricably connected to a major corporate repositioning, it provides an instructive look at the challenges facing any in-house unit, from attracting talent to working with outside agencies. Here's how Verizon built 140.

 

Pouring the Foundation

In laying the groundwork for 140, Scotti whittled Verizon's roster of traditional agencies from 46 to 18 and then, in early 2017, hired industry veteran Andrew McKechnie to be Verizon's chief creative officer. As the former global group creative director at Apple, and with high-level stints at traditional agencies such as Y&R and DDB, among others, McKechnie was well positioned to turn Scotti's blueprint into a real, functioning organization.

Scotti had already laid out general guidelines for which marketing functions should come in house and which would remain with traditional agency partners, and then worked with McKechnie to make the final determination. Together they decided to keep the resources that gave the agency the greatest level of control over the brand and the customer experience: Verizon's website, app, retail store design, online advertising, and social media campaign development. "We wanted to bring in-house the areas we could have the greatest impact on," McKechnie says. "And what made the most sense was our owned channels that we already touched."

Most important was creating a system that would allow the agency to be nimble, while maintaining a clear voice. "We're focused on being able to react quickly to changes in the market and always to have creative clarity and consistency," McKechnie says. And to that end the basic structure of the agency resembles the setup of most small-sized creative organizations. "There isn't anything super-secret about the way it's built," says McKechnie, explaining that 140 consists of six departments focused on creative, account management, strategy, digital, social, and production. Teams are assembled from each department based on the skill sets needed for a particular project.

 

Building Up the Team

As with any in-house agency, the success of 140 depends largely on recruiting and maintaining the right talent. Beyond the usual designers and copywriters, 140 requires a range of highly specialized professionals. The revamping of Verizon's thousands of stores, for example, is handled by a 40- to 50-person team that includes architects and interior and industrial designers.

The leadership determined that staffing would be done in a series of stages rather than all at once. "It helped us build at a pretty rapid pace," McKechnie says.

In the first six months McKechnie focused on building up the digital team, with an eye on e-commerce and refreshing the design of the website and app, as well as online advertising and video.

In September 2017, Warren Chase came on board as 140's chief operating officer. A seasoned pro in marketing, advertising, and agency management, Chase developed an operational readiness plan, worked closely with Human Resources on defining job descriptions and qualifications for each of the roles that needed to be filled, and created a detailed five-part plan that took into account the type of work and skill sets needed, the volume of pieces that had to be created, turnaround times, and budget. "With all that information, I can build a staffing plan to deliver against it," Chase says. Each phase is slated to take six to nine months.

At the outset, 140 faced two primary hurdles to finding top talent. First, in-house agencies have long had the stigma of being where burnt out creatives go at the ends of their careers. Second, many saw Verizon as a fusty telecommunications company — the very perception 140 was created to help change. McKechnie, Chase, and their colleagues reached out to their own personal networks, but recruitment still turned out to be a significant undertaking. "That was one of the biggest challenges we encountered," McKechnie says.

Their big selling point was something they hoped would be both an appealing and unique offer: the chance to be part of a major corporate transformation and a switch to a technology that would allow profound innovation, one Verizon claims will quite literally change the world. "We invited them to be part of this revolution," Chase says. "It would be far more exciting than just selling phones."

For creative team hires, McKechnie and Chase see another selling point: the chance to participate earlier in the development of creative ideas, greater ownership in seeing those ideas through to fruition, and, as a result, an increase in the odds that their work would see the light of day. And because team members sit in close proximity to each other in an open environment, it's easier to lean over, propose an idea, and get it approved quickly. "Having more autonomy and control — the ability to influence the way a brand is going to be perceived during a big transition — that's very appealing to people," McKechnie says. "They want to be part of something that's entirely new."

By their accounts, McKechnie and Chase's pitch has proved successful. In the past 20 months 140's staff has grown to 150 team members. And while much of the staff have traditional agency backgrounds, it's by no means the only place they came from. Chase points to employees who worked everywhere from the Whitney Museum of Art and Jet Blue to the United Nations before joining 140.

 

Blowing Off the Roof

By the summer of 2017, with the digital team up and running, 140 cut its chops by taking over the launch of Verizon Up, the brand's loyalty rewards program. Since its launch, more than 6 million consumers have signed up for the program, according to Chase.

Next, 140 turned to updating the thousands of Verizon retail stores throughout the U.S. Previously the look, feel, and customer experience inside retail locations had been divided among an external agency and a separate internal department that's now part of 140. Under 140, the retail experience has become a major focus for the brand, so much so that nearly 30 percent of 140's staff is divided into two teams dedicated to retail. The 3-D team focuses on the physical space, everything from fixtures and tables to music and attire, while the 2-D team produces in-store videos, printed material, and other visual displays.

McKechnie notes the amount of work the retail team is tackling can't be understated. "You can't just go in and flick on a switch and have it all done at one time," he says. It's a slow process, yet, according to McKechnie, the team has revamped hundreds of stores so far.

It's this kind of work by the retail team that's so central to the core mission Scotti set for the in-house agency: ensuring a singular brand identity across every channel. Another example is the decision to centralize lifestyle photography and bring it in-house. Previously, photography was divided among multiple agencies, each producing its own photographs and campaign content, but McKechnie realized that the agency's mandate to form a cohesive experience required creating the same images for all related campaigns. "Taking that in-house allows us to showcase the brand in a consistent way with one clear point of view," he says.

But outside agencies remain an important part of Verizon's marketing engine, and 140 works collaboratively with each of them, according to Chase. "Since our primary focus is stitching the brand's tone of voice and narrative across all Verizon-owned channels, whichever agency is leading a project, we work hand-in-hand with them along the way," he says noting that staff at 140 meet regularly with agency counterparts.

 

The Finishing Touches

McKechnie and his team have followed Scotti's blueprint closely when necessary, veering from the plan when a different approach seems to offer a more effective alternative. "We've always known the plan would evolve along the way," McKechnie says.

Just 20 months after opening for business, 140 is still evolving. The agency is far from fully staffed, McKechnie notes, but he feels it's well positioned for success to meet the challenge in Scotti's mandate. "We're doing something that's never been done before," he says, referring to Verizon's push into 5G technology. "And we're helping the company go through a major transformation."

 

 

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