Another person seems to think I have a clue what I'm talking about.
They emailed me asking for some thought on moving from agency to client side.
Below is the response.
This is based on my experiences and those of some people of know and respect. Don't take is as gospel truth. Take anything you deem useful, ignore the rest (most of it I'm sure)
"Ah client side, client side. Or the Dark Side as many agency folk like to call it.
It’s true that agency life does not always seem the most stable choice of employment, especially at the more junior end.
The closer you get to being a director, I guess the more stable it becomes, but no one is immune to this truth:
Even great shops - with a thriving new business funnel, a moral approach to looking after people and a general belief that looking after staff breeds success, not exploiting them – even these are only two or three phonecalls from Armageddon.
Some folks manage to get through their careers without redundancy, or getting fired.
Many do not.
In agency life, you always need to hope for the best and plan for the worst, because eventually what can go wrong, will go wrong.
In my own mediocre career I have experienced the following, mostly beyond my control:
The board of directors falling out, making the ones I joined for exiting, leaving a culture that was never going to be me.
The chief exec of my biggest client being ousted by the venture capitalists he’d sold to and the new broom doing some agency sweeping (they usually do).
The agency I worked in merged with another the group had bought, leading to a completely new management team who believed running a relatively small business with small, local clients somehow qualified them to work on national and global stuff with clients who knew what they were doing. It didn’t.
A political shift in Singapore radically changing the relationship my agency had with its global client.
My chief exec using a pitch on a global client to get himself a new job in LA and the inevitable shift in culture that comes with a new figure head.
The group I worked for moving it’s pan European account headquarters to another office.
The bean counters in New York looking at the figures and deciding they needed to lose some weight across the board, no matter what the profit from individual outposts.
My boss leaving to be replaced with another who I never saw eye to eye with.
And that’s just a few examples. So the client side can look very attractive to agency folk from time to time.
The more predictable hours.
The general stability that comes from being a client rather than vendor.
The chance to go in depth in stuff and actually make the decisions, rather than sell them.
The career progression, which can exist outside of marketing – to the board or other functions.
The sense that you don’t have to look over your shoulder when you hit 40, that you can work without fear into old age.
But before you make that leap, you need to consider what others I know have found when they’ve crossed over:
The hours can be more predictable, but so is the entire job. Many happily exchange a life more ordinary for stability, but you need to ask yourself, will you be bored by the formality and sameness?
Most people enjoy agencies because of the colourful environment, because they like to rub shoulders with interesting people. Even in the dullest shops, the people and culture are more informal and freewheeling than the average business. Be sure you want to let that go.
The average organisation is larger than an agency, group think and uniform culture tend to be the norm. How much are you prepared to fit in? Of course, some client organisations are not like this, but be sure you’ll be happy with the culture shock that will be the most likely result.
Yes, there is more depth. But most marketing departments are populated by folks who did marketing degrees. And most marketing degrees are worthless, based on economic dogma and received wisdom. Again, many clients are great and look at what really happens in the lives of their customers, not what the books say happens, but be prepared to toe the line and base your work on stuff you know is wrong.
And the same goes for making decisions. Agencies only have to deal with clients and if they’re lucky, chief execs. Marketing departments answer to the board, shareholders, the sales force, product development, the owner’s wife. You may find that you have less control than the agency.
Finally, client organisations get bought and sold, directors leave and business models re-structured. While they tend to adopt a more long term human resources policy, I’ve seen people being forced to relocate, whole departments rendered obsolete.
They are not as ‘stable’ as they used to be. My father worked for one of the biggest construction insurance brokers in the world, with years of history. He enjoyed nearly twenty five years of happy, stable work, before having to survive three buy outs as the sharp end of globalisation became a reality. It was only because he was so respected in his job he survived unscathed.
(I worked in a gym when I graduated for a bit. One of the members was a guy who used to work with my Dad before he was forced to take effective early retirement. He asked how my Dad was. I responded with the usual mocking description a twenty one year attaches to their parents when they know nothing of the world, thinking they know everything.
He frowned and told me to never, ever make fun of my Dad. Because my father was was one of the most respected people in the profession across the continent. I doubt anyone will ever display same kind of reverence I saw in this person's face)
It all comes down to what you want and what kind of person you are.
If you leave to join the dark side, be sure you’re happy that general stability is worth more formal working, less colour and a complex web of hoops to jump through.
If you decide to stay, try and adopt the following:
1. Keep an eye on changing tides. If you feel stuff is about to happen it usually is. Make sure you’re as secure as secure can be. There are always people who know everything and can’t resist sharing it with their friends, be one of those friends. When you know storm is coming, you’ll be better placed to move to avoid it, or make sure your house is strong enough to withstand the battering.
2. Never stay in a place if you feel you’re not moving forward. Especially as you get older. If you can’t do stuff younger folks can, if they know more than you, you’ll be replaced with cheaper people.
3. Get out if you feel you won’t get past your current position where you are. Agencies are like crime gangs. It is a very sharp pyramid, lots of people join for perceived glamour and the money you can make at the top. But just as many in gangs get killed, but accept the risk for the bling you get if you get to the top, agency folk accept the risk of unpredictability, but few get to the top. The rest get cast aside. Most get past account exec or junior planner, many get to account director or senior planner etc, but it you’re not nearing head of department by 45ish at the very, very latest, move somewhere that wants you to be one, or change industries. There are not many heads of department and no one wants a fifty year old account director. Which is a shame to be honest, the industry is getting better with the age thing, but still, you get promoted through merit or your face fitting. It’s not like many client side places where you still ‘get on’ by serving your time.
4. So move around. You don’t get pay rises and promotion though staying on in many places, you get it by moving. I think the average tenure in an agency is still around two years. It’s not good, but that’s how it is. Take a good look at how you’re doing every two years and consider if you’d be doing better, or be happier somewhere else.
5. Which means you need to be connected. Recruitment companies are not that great. Agencies don’t really like them, they don’t want to spend days doing interviews and they don’t want to pay eye watering commission. They want to hire people they know who they think are good. So always be networking.
6. When you get promoted, don’t spend the money. That’s easy for me to say as someone who doesn’t earn buttons anymore, but I remember what it was like as a low paid account exec in rented flat, struggling with bills. I couldn’t save, but I did my best to avoid debt I couldn’t afford after one or two hard lessons. When I did get any level of disposable income I began to save, eventually the additional money from a pay raise was never spent, it was put away. You need at least three month’s salary in the bank before you can think of being frivolous. It can take a while to get a new job if you’re let go, because agencies are notorious for taking ages to sort interviews and stuff. If you know you have that money to keep the wolves from the door, you’ll find the anxiety of one day being let go, gets much easier.
7. Look at where the industry is going and be ready for it. Platoons of people, very experienced in the old world of pure advertising, didn’t make it through the new digital world and the general move to integration. Those that made themselves good at the digital stuff, or got a handle on the dreaded big data did very well, or worked at generating good ideas, rather than good advertising. Get work to pay for formal training, or train yourself. To survive in the future, you need to be the future.
8. If your boss leaves, don’t wait and see what the new broom is like, put the feelers out just in case.
the chief exec leaves, the same as the above, but in triplicate. if there are shifts in your client's culture, of the relationships feels it's drifting and especially if their is a new broom, move faster.
10. So avoid working on one big client. Consultations on redundancy have to be seen to be neutral, but let’s be honest, unless you’re a hotshot (and I’m sure you are so ignore me) you’ll find that the ones working on the account are the ones to go when the client fires the agency. Don’t forget re-structures too, the agency can move your job to another location if the client says so. If you’re future is tied up with the client, you’re only as stable as the client. Especially with TUPE (in the UK anyway) where your agency doesn’t have to make you redundant, they can just force you to move to the new agency, who will restructure and make you redundant anyway.
So, as a father of two, I often wonder about the stability of client side. But I always wonder about culture and what I’m good at. Mind always open.
At the end of the day, it’s what suits your circumstances, your skills and your motivations. Wherever you end up, always think about what's coming, not just what's happening. Yoda onced criticised Luke Skywalkers for always looking to the future, never with his mind on where he was and what he was doin. "Adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things".
Sorry to disagree with the wisdom of a 900 year old Jedi master, but while it's true you need to stop and smell the roses while you still can, you need one eye on where you're going and what's coming when it comes to working in agencies and, in the unpredictable, self directed modern economy, client side too.