Balancing In-House Creative and Operations: Q&A with Norwegian Cruise Line’s Rebel Fish Creative Group

By Peter Kenigsberg

Earlier this year, Norwegian Cruise Line announced one of their best kept secrets: a full-service, in-house marketing agency called Rebel Fish Creative Group. However, Rebel Fish got their start in 2019 and has since grown to a global team of 50 passionate and talented creatives. The in-house agency now assumes responsibility for all Norwegian Cruise Line's creative work, from conceptualization to execution.

How did Rebel Fish Creative Group get that far, that fast? The secret's out: it's all about teamwork. Luije Padron, global creative director, and Marie Philemon, director of creative operations, represent a tight partnership between the creative and operations teams within Rebel Fish that allows Norwegian Cruise Line to maintain top-tier brand quality and consistency on a global scale.

Luije and Marie are sharing the stage to talk about their creative and operations partnership at the 2023 ANA In-House Agency Conference from June 12-14 in Orlando, Florida. If you work in or lead an in-house agency and need advice on internal processes, mark this session on your calendar.

I sat with Luije and Marie to learn more about their team dynamics, how they define value as more than cost savings, and what they're most looking forward to at this year's In-House Agency Conference.

The speed at which Rebel Fish Creative Group has grown into a global in-house agency of record is incredible. How were you able to achieve this growth so quickly?

Rebel Fish's growth can be attributed to a combination of key factors. First and foremost, there has been a strong demand for creative services as Norwegian Cruise Line's business continues to expand. We recognized the best way to meet those demands was by establishing a robust in-house team. Over time, our team gained the trust of our leadership and became the go-to choice for all of NCL's creative needs.

Effective marketing and business development efforts were also crucial. Despite operating within Norwegian Cruise Line's business, we actively pitched our capabilities to earn the trust we have today. Everything started with a blind pitch where we competed against external agencies in an RFP, and we won the pitch! From there on, each completed project added to our portfolio, providing inspiration and valuable content for future assignments.

Furthermore, talent acquisition and retention have been vital for scaling our in-house agency. By creating a positive work environment that fostered creativity, collaboration, and growth, we attracted skilled professionals who contribute to our high-quality work.

Operational efficiency and scalability were key considerations. We streamlined internal processes, leveraged technology, and implemented project management tools to enhance efficiency. Automating repetitive tasks and establishing efficient workflows allowed us to handle a larger workforce and an increased volume of projects effectively.

It is important to note that none of this would have been possible without strong leadership and vision. Our leadership team fully embraced Rebel Fish as an integral part of Norwegian Cruise Line's marketing organization. Their support and guidance were instrumental in propelling our growth and cultivating an innovative and successful culture.

That's a great blueprint for any in-house agency to find success. But sometimes, the biggest challenges of in-housing come from within the in-house teams themselves. Creative and operations teams can often come into conflict, yet Rebel Fish's teams work well together. What makes your partnership unique compared to other in-house agencies?

Well, here's our secret... we actually like working with one another! Our team is a tight-knit group of people, all swimming in the same direction. We are silly, we have fun, we don't take ourselves too seriously, and we simply get the job done, and we do it right.

But when it comes to the business, one of the key factors that make our partnership special is clear communication and collaboration. We prioritize open lines of communication, idea sharing, and close alignment of objectives. By embedding ourselves in every project, we ensure there are no surprises when it comes to timelines or budget, allowing us to stay in sync effectively.

Moreover, our partnership is built on shared goals and vision. As the in-house agency of record for Norwegian Cruise Line, our singular focus is on elevating the NCL business. By starting with a shared vision and aligning ourselves with the bigger picture, we cultivate mutual respect and understanding, fostering a unique working relationship.

Recognizing and appreciating the expertise and contributions of each team is another crucial aspect. The creative team brings their artistic and innovative skills, while the operations team focuses on efficiency and logistics, then we all execute together. This mutual respect creates a positive work environment that encourages collaboration rather than conflict. In the fast-paced world of advertising and marketing, being flexible and adaptive is essential, and that's where we excel. No matter how crazy the situation, we understand that we are all affected one way or another and we are in it together. Our teams embrace change, iterate on ideas, and adapt to evolving project requirements. This encourages experimentation, innovation, and agile decision-making, leading to unique and successful outcomes.

Lastly, the most important ingredient in our partnership is that well... again, we genuinely like each other. Our positive and supportive working relationships create a strong bond within the team, fostering a fun and rewarding partnership experience.

I especially agree with having mutual respect for each team, it's the golden rule. The ANA recently released their 2023 edition of The Continued Rise of the In-House Agency report. In the report, cost efficiencies remain the top reason why companies establish in-house agencies. If cost continues to be a rationale for in-housing, how can in-house agencies make the case for more funding to expand their services and headcount? What are some strategies you used to help Rebel Fish to increase its capabilities and staff?

The secret to getting more funding is not to make it about the cost efficiencies. Yes, cutting costs is a big deal, but that can't be the only reason why a company has an in-house agency. The internal product knowledge and experience with the product is invaluable. The insights an internal team can work from are by far more targeted than anything an external agency can bring to the table. The funding to expand only comes once upper management understands the true value of the in-house agency, and when the quality of the work has earned you a seat at the table.

That's exactly right, the value is less in the cost savings, and more in the institutional knowledge. Finally, why would you recommend in-house agency leaders attend the 2023 ANA In-House Agency Conference?

Since ANA gathers professionals from various in-house agencies, industry experts, and thought leaders, we look forward to networking with peers in similar roles which could be invaluable for exchanging ideas, insights, and best practices. Building connections with professionals facing similar challenges and opportunities can provide a fresh perspective, foster collaboration, and potentially lead to future partnerships. But it's important to note that while networking is a key benefit, the ANA In-House Agency Conference offers a wide range of other advantages as well, such as educational sessions, industry insights, access to new tools and technologies, inspiration from creative campaigns, and opportunities to benchmark ourselves against other in-house agencies' standards.

Thank you, Luije and Marie, for your time! I'm excited to see you both on the stage in Orlando this June!

To join us at the 2023 In-House Agency Conference, being held from June 12-14 in Orlando and virtually, register here.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Peter Kenigsberg is a director of Brand & Media at the Association of National Advertisers. In his role at the ANA, Peter supports the marketing organization area, which includes in-house agency, marketing procurement, production management, agency relationship management, and marketing operations. Prior to joining the ANA, Peter was an account supervisor at CDM New York, acting as the agency of record for two of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Peter has an M.B.A. in Marketing and a B.A. double major in Pre-Law and English.