There was a time when ad agencies were cool and clients were boring and that was all there was too it. Well, in case you haven’t been inside an ad agency for a while (or you sit in one of the few offices left in North America with a door on it), things today are different. In many cases, even the complete opposite, as agency life continues to get weird and more clients take things in-house.
I’ll leave it to others to ponder the mysterious origins of this baffling new trend that most people in the trenches have seen coming for quite some time. I’ll also refrain from serving up a lame “there are pros and cons to each” message, which applies to, um, nearly everything in the known universe. No, this article is meant for ad peeps who’re simply wondering what life on the other side may be like. So if you’re an agency creative who knows there must be an easier way to convert your brainwaves into cash, read on.
It’s been two years since I made the jump. Here’s what I’ve learned.
It’s Exactly The Same
From getting assignments and concepting to assigning teams and presenting your ideas, the basics of what you do right now are no different. You’ll still be coming up with creative ways to get attention, communicate and solve business problems (i.e. sell more widgets) using various methods and media. Of course, some of the negatives are the same as well. Projects still die, budgets still get cut, direction can still change. But overall, I think you’ll find the basics are unchanged, if not a bit simpler. In that sense, it’s the ad biz in its purest form.
It’s Totally Different
This is the part most of you are afraid of. And true, there can be challenges. For one thing, you won’t be completely surrounded by the breed of creatives you’re used to—the ones who keep their portfolios updated, know the difference between a concept and an execution and have the creative instincts and speed that agency survival demands. People who “get it.” You’ll also encounter occasional resistance when you ask your client-side teammates to work in new (to them) ways. “Who is this guy and who is he to tell me how to do things?” Budgets probably won’t be as high, especially if most of your agency life was spent creating full campaigns for large clients. You’ll also be tasked with jobs that may have been beneath you or not worth your time before. (Assuming you were ever that precious about it. Or protected.) Not that you won’t make the most of these jobs (as every good creative does), just be aware that agency-style cherry-picking probably won’t happen here.
You’ll Still Win Awards
If there’s one thing award shows love even more than inviting people to exotic locales so they can sit inside and stare at ads, it’s entry fees. They’ll gladly take your money whether you initials are DDB or IBM. So relax. If the work is good, you’ll win, just as before.
You’ll Grow Personally
This is the part you won’t see coming and maybe didn’t even realize you were missing. Probably because it just isn’t a thing in the instant karma, who’s-hot/who’s-not world of most agency Creative Departments. But now that you’re in a different environment, you’ll notice yourself using and honing skills agency life doesn’t require. Like patience. Empathy. Listening. If you’re a leader, you’ll find you actually have time to be one in more than name only. To emulate the good ones you remember from days gone by. Or to become the one you always wanted but never had. To measure your worth by your team’s accomplishments instead of merely your own. To let others learn by doing, instead of doing it all yourself out of fear for your own position. In short, you get to grow up.
Your Talent Will Be Appreciated
One of the reasons many agencies aren’t fun places for creatives anymore is that most Creative Departments are spoiled by choice, with creatives falling all over themselves competing for projects like so many puffed-up suitors chasing after the same potential love interest. While it’s always done in the name of healthy competition, the reality is more akin to unhealthy insecurity. Since client-side Creative Departments are smaller, taking talent for granted just doesn’t happen. The attitude isn’t “You’re lucky to be here.” It’s “We’re lucky to have you.” Imagine that.
There’s Less Paranoia. And Even Fewer Planners.
Another nice thing about working for the client is that you’re no longer worried about losing the client. Sure, you could still lose your job if the economy tanks or the company gets bought or whatever else is out of your control. But you don’t have that agency paranoia anymore, or the bad vibes and unhealthy environment that comes with it. There are also no extra internal departments between the creatives and the project at hand. No varnish to scrape off the brief before you can see the raw wood underneath. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me that’s a much more satisfying way to work.
As noted, Adland’s latest identity crisis has been well-documented. For most creatives, too many layers and too many players have turned a formerly fun and satisfying way to make a decent living into a tedious, unproductive bore with zero job security that somehow still requires that you come in over the weekend. Good times. Faced with all of that, exploring new ways of working isn’t just a no-brainer. It’s exactly the kind of creative solution our freaky little ad minds are primed to seek out and latch onto. Besides, be they traditional or internal, having more agencies in the world simply means more places to ply your trade. In a era of industry-killing apps, this is a very good thing indeed.
Obviously, there are some who’ll never consider going “client-side” or “in-house” no matter how things go. But I have a feeling this too will change, as the lines blur, the old labels become irrelevant and the people fixated on them suddenly find they’re the only ones still using them. It reminds me of the once-distinct difference between Big Agency and Boutique Agency. Big meant bad, Boutique meant good. Until the day the Big Agencies caught on, poached all the boutique talent, bought up all the boutiques themselves and co-opted their approach and attitude so entirely that the old distinctions no longer applied.
My advice? Keep an open mind and be glad you can now be as creative with your career as you are with your portfolio. The 80s, 90s and aughts are over. There’s plenty of good work to be done over at the client’s place. You might even get an office with a door.