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By Maddy Smith
Well, in fact she did. Julia Arenson, Head of Creative Operations at Specsavers’ The Agency, talks about her move to in-house, global expansion and recognising great work from the iconic brand.
Recognising Great Work
“There are other in-house agencies that are recognised for doing brilliant work. I guess I just think of us as an agency – to be recognised you must do great work, like everyone else!”
Julia Arenson will be presenting The Agency @ Specsavers: How it all works, at Henry Stewart Creative Ops conference London on Friday 18th March.
Based in North London, Arenson travels to Guernsey once a month to connect with her in-house team at Specsavers, simply otherwise known as The Agency.
For nine years Arenson was Head of Creative Production at agency VCCP Blue before her move to join the Specsavers team. “Moving to Specs was really a no-brainer for me, it had everything I was looking for in my next challenge”, she explains.
Moving to Specsavers
Searching for a great brand that does good things for both its customers, its partners and its colleagues, Arenson felt she had found the ideal company at Specsavers. She adds, “Specsavers’ in-house also has a track record for making industry defining creative”. At that time, around three years ago, in-housing in the UK was still a relatively new concept, Arenson says.
For Arenson, Specsavers offers the best of both worlds, as she says that not many brands are both driving strategy and creative from in-house. “Specsavers is just so bloody iconic”, she says, “How could I not join!”
The in-house agency has a team of around 100 people, partnering with various external agencies for their specialisms in social, PR and media. Specsavers work with external as an extension of themselves, building them into their ways of working.
The objective is always around how to get the best work together, “So it’s imperative that they are a part of everything we do”, Arenson explains.
In her role as Head of Creative Operations, Arenson covers Agency Operations, working together internally to achieve the best possible work. She works closely with client operations and client partnership to ensure that their process fits with what the team needs, to deliver against for the marketing team and the wider organisation.
“I directly manage Integrated Production, our Studio and systems operations. We’re the teams that are the lynch pin with in the agency, pushing and pulling on our many levers to get to great work”, Arenson explains.
Building talent and growth – a unique competitive edge
While the agency is not pitching for other business outside of Specsavers, they are still constantly pitching ideas – whether they’re to answer a brief or pilot something new. Having also recently launched in Canada, this brings a whole new market to consider, Arenson says.
Because our driver is to be the agency of choice we are always measuring our work against what’s out there and what we think we can achieve. Our competitive edge comes from always pushing our work, supporting our colleagues, our partners and our customers. We’re committed to the growth of our business and that gives us a competitive edge – as they say we have skin in the game.
Measuring performance to identify great work
Within in-house agencies, it can be challenging to know if and when you’re doing great work, but there are some key actions Arenson and the team at Specsavers use to gain insight into their successes.
“We are constantly measuring our work and using performance metrics to optimise or inform what we do next.” She continues, “We share this information after and during every project to make sure that it’s the most effective as possible.”
In terms of efficiency, Arenson explains that the agency has a robust system to identify work that comes in and filter through to the right place. “We’ve created teams and workflows around different types of delivery to make them as efficient as possible. We are developing a system where all our work falls into 3 Tiers – Create (bespoke work), Calibrate (update existing work within guidelines and tone of voice) and Deliver (adapt and supply from Master). We have a core team in the agency that owns the process for the work that comes under those tiers, keeping it clear on the way we work and what’s expected”.
Ways of working
To work in the most efficient way, Arenson advises to create a way of working or process that allows people to be creative and flexible in order to get the work done.
“We’re not a factory line where everything is made in the same way”, she explains, “but we do need to know what we need to achieve and how. We’ve developed a process that includes milestones and responsibilities but allows for the team to achieve those milestones in a way that they think is most effective”.
Arenson outlines that while every project will have its own nuances, the goal is to ensure that the best results are achieved, which is something that can’t be achieved with a cookie cutter approach.
Specsavers doesn’t solely operate in the UK, but also in Ireland, Australasia, Scandinavia and most recently in Canada with a C$100m investment and a plan to open 200 stores across the country by 2024.
“We work with all our regions in different ways, supporting them with what they need”, Arenson says. “For Canada, we created the new campaign in house and all their elements for launch. We are looking at how we structure our offering to support them in the best way for what they need, whilst continuing to lead the creative ideation from Guernsey”.
Across multiple territories, the brand’s image is managed by Specsavers’ Brand Expression and Activation team (BEAT), together with their designers. The BEAT team are responsible for making sure that all parties are singing from the same song sheet globally, as well as managing their global briefs.
“Should’ve gone to Specsavers”
“Should’ve gone to Specsavers” is one of the most memorable advertising lines ever created and is something which the brand is expanding on, Arenson explains.
“We’ve just launched our new ‘Should’ve’ campaign and expanded the line to ‘We thought you should know’ and ‘You know you should’. ‘Should’ve’ is a brilliant property and I think it’s here for the foreseeable”, Arenson considers.
She explains that the in-house team produces everything from what you see on TV, to online, in-store, print and in the office. All shoots are produced by the team working with outside talent to produce the best possible content.
“We produce our illustration style in-house”, she says. “I was really surprised at how much we did and it’s amazing to see how much fantastic work comes from inside our doors”.
She adds, “We work with all the kinds of creative production partners you would expect any agency to work with – directors, photographers, post-production houses and specialists”.
Programmatic and digital – future-proofing The Agency
The Agency uses programmatic ad buying, which is implemented through the Specsavers’ digital team. For any campaign, the team has an extensive asset list that captures everything they are making for launch. This is fed into the various specialisms across the agency and marketing, Arenson informs.
Working with the senior leadership to build a future-proofed in-house agency, the key goal here is to focus on creating a solid foundation from which to grow. Arenson reflects, “We’ve built our departments to be media neutral and incorporate specialisms like CRM and Digital into every department”. She continues, “We’ve been calling it creating a one speed environment, allowing us to build in whatever is new and emerging into the right teams to drive the best results”.
Working for a brand – creating immense personal opportunity
Working at the agency for just over two years, Arenson has seen recent changes in the world and herself as well as evolution within the agency.
This change, she explains, has come as a result of being “client-side” and being exposed to parts of the business which she would likely never have in a traditional agency.
For Arenson, the doors have been opened to the way in which the team can have a better impact further upstream and across the business.
“Specsavers is also brilliant at championing its people”, she expresses, “meaning that I have the opportunity to make sideways moves and learn and develop in ways that just weren’t possible before”.
The agency has evolved from a creative department into a full service agency. “We’ve grown to include CRM in our offering and new functions like client partnership and design production”, she says. “All these things are contributing to our growth as a full service agency and it’s very exciting to see where we’ll go next”.
Henry Stewart Creative Ops London conference
This year Arenson will be attending the Henry Stewart Creative Ops London conference, speaking on The Agency @ Specsavers: How it all works. She outlines that in the session, “You can expect to hear about our culture, our team and how we work”.
With regards to gender equality in the workplace, with the in-house team at Specsavers led by Nicola Wardell and Arenson leading Creative Operations, she says “I think we are starting to move in the right direction, there are many important initiatives not only for gender equality, but diversity as a whole”.
She continues, “It’s imperative that as a community we have diversity reflected in our teams, not just at entry level positions, but at all levels. The companies that do this well will be our leaders of the future”.
Mentoring – a two-way street
Arenson has been involved in You have been involved, and still are, in a number of mentoring projects including UK charity Migrant Leader, Who’s your Momma, VCCPs Exchange Project, Lollipop and Good Brains for Good Brands.
For Arenson, mentoring is a critical part of life. She considers, “When I was coming up through my career, mentoring didn’t really exist in the way it does now. I would have really valued someone to bounce ideas off of and to support me in my path”.
“Having the opportunity to do that for someone else just makes me feel good”, she states. “It’s that simple, I just want to help people get to where they want to go. It’s just such an easy way to support someone. I also get so much from my mentees, they connect me to what’s happening where they are and give me an [insight] into what’s going on outside my bubble. I’m getting just as much from them”.
Are there really differences between in-house and external agencies?
A bug bear of Arenson’s is the distinction between in-house and out-house agencies altogether. Fundamentally, she explains that both are there to fulfil the same purpose and as such should belong to the same community.
“I think this is starting to happen”, she says on the recognition of great work in an in-house agency. “There are other in-house agencies that are recognised for doing brilliant work. I guess I just think of us as an agency – to be recognised you must do great work, like everyone else!”
Campaign Magazine’s 40 under 40
In 2021, Arenson was included in Campaign Magazine’s 40 under 40. “It was so humbling to be included. It was a true milestone for me and I’m indebted to my team for nominating me.”
While this was an incredibly proud achievement for Arenson, she says that the highlights of her career have come from this year, with the launch of the Canadian campaign for Specsavers’ Love and the UK campaign ‘Should’ve 2.0’. “All of that brilliant work was made in-house and every single person had a hand in making it come to life”, she reflects. “It was hard work, but the response has been so worth it”.
So, what if Arenson could give her 20-year-old self one piece of advice? “Make no assumptions ever and make every day at work your best day”, she says.