What I Learned Working at Agencies

Today is my last day working at a digital agency.

Monday I move client-side, and I can’t wait! However, like the reflective introvert that I am, I wanted to note down what I’ve learned from working at agencies and what I’m taking with me.

A quick tally…eight years, five agencies, two countries and dozens of clients. Roles I’ve held: copywriter, account manager, producer. Industries I’ve worked across: politics, financial services, hospitality, beauty, fashion, travel. Specialisations I’ve developed: direct mail marketing, subscription-based marketing, website design and build, email marketing, social media marketing. Photo shoots I’ve assisted: three. Video shoots I’ve managed: one. Influencer activities I’ve organised: upwards of ten.

No wonder I’m knackered!

I’ll get this out of the way first: working at agencies has not always been easy for me.

Agency turnover rates are shockingly high. You live in a perpetual state of exhaustion. There is never enough time, money or staff to deliver what the clients want. Burn-out is a regular occurrence. I’ve had to take time away from work due to stress, and I’m definitely not the only one.

Agencies are also magnets for alpha personalities – notoriously difficult to work with, unwilling to listen to conflicting views. These places often seem to be created by and for extroverts, putting into place ways of working that aren’t conducive to delivering quality work and that alienate different personalities and working styles. And in their relentless pursuit of awards, agencies often push past what’s right for the client and customer and deliver work that is overly complex and misses the brief.

Rant over.

Working in agencies has also taught me so much, and I’m grateful for the people I’ve met along the way, many of whom I count as friends. I know one of the things I’ll miss the most is having a group of passionate people, always pushing the boundaries of their specialisations, always on top of trends, always willing to learn and evolve to meet the needs of the day.

Here are six things I learned working at digital agencies:

Embrace the unknown
One of the joys of agency life is that you never know what the day will bring. Working across multiple client accounts means you’re always answering a new brief, which is as exhilarating as it is challenging. I’ve developed a framework, but the details are always changing. I’ve learned so much, not just about digital marketing, but about business and strategy and human relationships.

Get good at creative problem solving
A good agency is always trying to deliver work that’s never been done before. Which means I’ve had to throw out my need for a rule book. Yes, we’re making it up as we go along – based on what we’ve done in the past, what we can see working for others, what we instinctively feel is right. When results aren’t what we thought they would be, we pivot. When faced with a blank wall, you need to visualise the mural and then start painting. The rest will come as you go along.

Organisation is key
The time pressures and multiple client accounts that all deserve the same attention mean that you’re rarely able to focus on one thing at a time. Being hyper-organised is how I managed to deliver any work at all! I keep meticulous notes, file documents and conversations immediately, and regularly update my active items list. I truly believe that if you aren’t organised, you will struggle in an agency setting.

Always get back up when they knock you down
I’m a huge fan of stoic philosophy and think that anyone working in agencies would do well to study up. There are always obstacles. Projects will never go according to plan. It doesn’t matter. Channel Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and whenever they knock you down (whoever they are), get back up. I’ve developed confidence as a result of hard knocks. No matter what is thrown at me, I know I can handle it.

About the client, about the work, about the customer, about your colleagues. Caring gives your day meaning and helps you stay engaged during the tough times.

…but don’t care too much
Not a contradiction to the point above, and essential to maintaining your sanity. There are multiple stakeholders in a project, both internally and client-side. Your brilliant idea or solution will not look the same when it comes time to putting work live. Don’t take it personally. You may not be proud of the final product, but if you’re doing the job right, you can be proud of your contribution.

Looking back over these eight years makes me realise how much I’ve accomplished and how much I’ve grown as a person and as a professional. While I’m so looking forward to Monday and everything that comes next, it is daunting to face the unknown. But I know that everything I’ve learned has given me a strong foundation on which to build.



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