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Should you work at a marketing agency or in house?




I'm not usually one for viewing people in binary terms where everyone slots perfectly onto two neat sides. But if you were to pull together all the marketers of the world and ask them to pick between agency marketing and in-house marketing, very few would claim to have no preference. 

It took me a while to discover it for myself, but I'm an in-house girl. I love getting to know a brand inside out and truly understanding its message - especially when I get to work in an industry as fun as travel! My only brush with agency work has been through internships and work experience, where I had to learn very quickly the brand message of each client (which could differ immensely from one to the next). That wasn't for me, but some marketers thrive on a variety of projects in an agency setting.

So which should you personally choose when you enter the marketing workforce? The only way to truly know is to experience both. While you're at university try and get internships on either side to work out where you'd be happiest. But to give you an idea on where you might belong, I've asked my marketing buddies on both sides what made them choose the agency or in-house path.

The variety of work

The basic rule of thumb is this: agency marketers love a variety of work and in-house marketers like working with one brand. But like all basic rules of thumbs, there can be exceptions.

Some agencies specialise in a particular industry (I once interned at POSH Communication who specialise in hospitality) and some big agencies will have specialist teams who deal with certain types of clients (B2B, B2C, corporate, third sector etc). Plus, not all clients receive the same level of attention and the variety you crave might not realistically happen. My friend is an in-house web developer at a Glasgow branding consultancy and says he spends 80% of time carrying out web work for their biggest/most important client and the other 20% split between the rest.

On the other hand, working in-house isn't always about one brand. At Barrhead Travel we own several child companies and all their marketing is controlled by Head Office so, in reality, I'm switching my hats more often than my aforementioned agency pal.

The relationship between in-house and agency

I once heard someone (who doesn't work in marketing) say "most companies do their own social media and pay a company to do the creepy things like SEO" and another person (who does work in marketing) say "in-house tends to do strategy and the agency does the creative". Both statements have been completely untrue in my experience, and how the work is split between client and agency depends on the individual relationship.

I've worked in situations where all the creative is done in-house but the external agency is used for monthly audits, external ad-hoc support during busy periods, and training. I've also worked in situations where only certain social channels were handed over to an agency, while others were kept in-house. Sometimes a company might recruit an agency because the workload is getting bigger, but not big enough to justify a new employee salary. There is a multitude of reasons why a company hires an external agency. (Tip: when you're in an interview ask if there's an external agency involved and what their role is to get a good idea of what you're walking into).

Extrovert vs Introvert

One of the best mentors I've ever had said to me "agency life is the extrovert life and in-house work is the introvert life". Unlike the statements I shared above, there has been some truth to this one. Some agencies have account managers who do all of the front-facing work for you, but if you're looking to 'move up the ladder' into a supervisory, management or director role - you'll have to meet the clients from time to time (and it won't always be pleasant conversations) and pitch to prospects. There are also some agencies that don't have account managers, so regular employees will be expected to meet clients and attend networking events. 

On the other side, I work in-house and the only people I speak to externally are those who work for the external marketing agency we use on certain projects.

Job Security

Agency marketers tend to move around a lot more - and when I asked my agency friends why this is headhunting was the most popular answer. It's really common for agencies to keep an eye on each other and sweep in on their employees with a better salary. But another reason that came up was boredom - agency marketers typically like variation and can get fed-up if the client roaster looks the same two years down the line.

There was, unfortunately, a negative reason for this movement of people that one of my agency friends brought up. He once got made redundant because the agency lost one of their biggest clients (plus the massive monthly invoice) and they had no choice but to let people go.

Progression

Since agency marketers are more likely to switch employment at a quicker pace, supervisor and management positions open up more often. A lot of agency marketers I know have progressed into senior management while still in their mid-twenties. While in-house marketers who want a promotion might have to decide if they want to wait patiently for someone else to hand in their notice, or for the company to grow enough that they can justify new supervisors.

Cool factor and company culture

When I graduated I wanted to work in one of the super-cool agencies in Glasgow because - wait for it - it fitted the hipster aesthetic I was going for at the time. I've thankfully outgrown this ridiculous thought process but I'm still slightly jealous of the agency environment. They're usually a bit more relaxed about employee dress-codes and have office happy hours - while I'm sat in my corporate office completely sober wearing heels.

Working hours

I'm yet to learn of an agency that opens up shop on bank holidays or doesn't shut off for Christmas. So if the idea of working Easter Monday makes your stomach churn or 9-5 hours work better with your young family, agency life could be for you.

If you work in-house, you might be required to work weirder hours so social media channels can stay covered. I personally work in travel and - shockingly enough - the Facebook inbox is busier at the weekend with most of the public off work, so someone from my team has to be in work answering these messages. As glamorous as a job in travel can be, it's not for anyone who cherishes their weekends and evenings. I also don't get bank holidays off.

Salaries

I've never held a full-time salaried position at an agency so I'm basing this on what I've heard through the grapevine. But salaries don't change much between in-house and agency and are more likely to be affected by the size of the company, your experience and ability, whether you work in a price-driven industry, and how generous senior management is.

All and all though, it's very difficult to know which side you belong on until you try them out. So as I said earlier, get some experience on both sides through internships and work experience to find out where you belong.

If you're a marketer, what side do you prefer? Let me know if I've missed anything.
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morag | mo adore
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