Agency versus In-house — Thoughts from the Front Lines
Advice on navigating the thrills and spills of both
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in-house and I’ve worked with, and for, agencies. Right now, I’m happily ensconced at a PPC and SEO agency in Bristol, enjoying agency life. Before that, I spent 18 months at a FTSE100 company. Jump back again and I ran my own business, with a couple of retained agency relationships as my main sources of income. And before that, I was the marketing department at a healthcare IT company.
It’s fair to say I’ve seen both sides of the coin. And I’ve experienced different sizes of business from both sides, too.
So what have I learned? And what advice can I give employees and employers?
The grass is always (never) greener
When I worked in-house, I noticed plenty of animosity towards agencies. Often it was because there wasn’t enough resource to do everything in-house, so we’d get an agency in to help out with a specific project. The issue was the fact that they’d generally get to do the exciting new project, while the in-house team was left with the less interesting everyday tasks.
Sometimes the agency would be called upon because there wasn’t the relevant skill available in-house. That was easier for people to understand — it’s entirely sensible. Except when the skill actually was available in-house, which it often was, hiding under a bushel somewhere. In those cases, the bad feeling was emphasised and morale would take a real hit.
It was often a cause of frustration that agencies were brought in because there was a perception that in-house teams weren’t creative enough. I’ve worked with some incredibly creative and talented people in-house, a number of whom moved on to work with agencies so they could feel that their abilities were no longer underestimated.
So here’s my advice to businesses— find out what skills you do have in-house before you start reaching out to external parties. Invest in and nurture those skills — they’ll save you money in the long run. If you want an engaged in-house team, let them pitch for the project alongside the agencies you’re considering. You might be surprised to discover a better idea in your midst.
But that’s just the in-house side. There are always frustrations on the agency side, too. When you’re not in the business, everything takes longer. You can’t get the assets you need right away because you have to wait for your contact to get back to you, whereas if you were in the same office, you could have got that done in a fraction of the time with a quick chat at their desk.
You have a great idea, but you need something from your client to make it work, and you know that they won’t have the time to do it. Or you don’t have the relationship with the right person at the client to get your non-standard idea heard — your contact is the gatekeeper and not always the decision-maker.
If you were in-house, you’d be able to float that slightly off-the-wall idea more easily, whereas as an outsider, you’ve got to navigate the who’s who of your client. Plus you have to be careful not to suggest something that implies you don’t understand the business well enough. And then you need to make sure your client can see that you’re working hard, which isn’t always easy when you’re not visible to them.
As far as advice for this one goes — regular face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable. Sure, we have infinite communications technologies at our fingertips, but showing your face and working on those relationships is vital. You don’t want to become a faceless entity, whose ideas can be discarded without discussion, or perceived as merely a financial drain not offering anything of value. Keep your client updated with action lists (completed actions are always preferable, of course), progress updates, and reports on results. But don’t forget to go and see them, even just to say hi, occasionally.
There are more similarities than differences
No matter whether you’re in-house or agency, you’ll still have to navigate a bevy of stakeholders with their own agendas. There will always be plenty of people with some level of input and opinion.
But you might find that those in-house stakeholders you have to deal with are easier to manage if you think of them like clients, or, from an agency side, when you think of your clients like colleagues. Changing your mindset can give you a new perspective on the relationship, and sometimes give you an advantage in communicating.
In both environments, you’ll have objectives and KPIs. In an agency, you might be providing monthly reports while in-house you’ve got quarterly reviews, but there’s not much in it. And while your in-house reviews might talk more about personality and performance than if you were external, ultimately your boss is just as interested in tangible successes from internal staff as agencies. The details may be different, but the fundamentals remain the same, no matter what side of the relationship you’re on.
Doing a good job might result in a good performance review or a client keeping you on, but the intent is the same.
Thinking of ‘the other side’ as a completely different environment isn’t accurate. Perceptions are often that in-house is a slower pace than agency life, but that’s pretty short-sighted. I’ve worked with extremely dynamic internal teams and relatively mundane agencies — it all depends on the tasks that you’re completing.
If it’s the pace that you’re concerned about, look for project-based roles, which can be found on both sides of the equation, look for a business (or agency) that are growing rather than maintaining. Start-ups can be as agile and responsive as agencies. Conversely, if your intent is a quieter life, you can still find agencies that would be glad to welcome you — look for those that specialise in day-to-day management and maintenance activities rather than big projects.
Switching isn’t a sign of disloyalty
In various interviews in the past, I’ve been asked how I’ll cope with the change from one ‘side’ to the other. It’s usually in-house roles that are concerned about whether or not I’ll want to defect back to the fast-paced, creative environment of an agency. But actually, there are some parallels that made it much easier for me to transition back and forth than you might expect.
There are benefits and downsides to both — just like there are in any job, anywhere. Agencies can be faster-paced and have plenty of variety, but they tend to come with tougher deadlines and bigger expectations. Every project is the number one priority for the client, so you’re juggling a lot of number one priorities at once. It’s also a lot easier to lose a client when you’re an agency than it is to lose a job when you’re in-house — and losing clients is a sure way to start worrying about losing your job anyway.
When you’re in-house, things might be a little less frenetic (depending on the project you’re working on — as I mentioned, I’ve certainly been involved in some intense projects on this side of the fence), but you’ve got ongoing relationships to maintain. You’re expected to be a subject-matter expert in a way that agencies aren’t expected to be.
Having been on both sides of the street, I can recognise the frustrations experienced by colleagues and by clients. I developed tools for one side that can be adapted to the other, giving me a bit of an advantage in navigating tough situations with tricky stakeholders or insane requirements. I also have tricks and skills learned from liaising with agencies from an in-house position that enables me to be a better asset now that I represent the agency side.
Don’t be afraid of someone who has moved from agency to in-house, or vice versa. You’ll find talented employees who’ve developed a lot of skills, used a lot of different resources, and have managed to create and adapt their ways of working. We’re chameleons, able to fit into our surroundings.
Some people are more suited to in-house, some are more at home in an agency. But there are others who are extremely comfortable in both environments and bring skills and talents from one to the other.
If you’re working in one environment and think you might be better suited to the other, try it out for a couple of years. We don’t live in a ‘job for life’ world anymore, moving around is expected. Just make sure you take the time to learn about life from the other perspective, and you can take that back over the road in your next role.
There’s also the ‘in-house agency’
This is something that is becoming a little more popular with larger businesses— the in-house agency. Businesses are creating their own, internal agencies, staffed with talented creatives, set slightly apart but still integrated into the business as a whole. It sounds like the perfect middle ground.
There are pros and cons to this, just as there are to any type of internal or agency role. I’ve worked in a content department that tried to style itself as an internal agency — the problem was, the rest of the business didn’t see it that way. Without buy-in from the entire business, this concept won’t get very far.
Depending on the size of the business, and the scale of creative projects, an in-house agency team could find itself in a feast or famine workload situation. While every role has peaks and troughs, there’s a risk of over-staffing for busy times, leaving quiet times costing too much money for the value the team brings in — or at least, that’s the perception. Of course, businesses that have agencies working constantly are likely to benefit from this approach. Make sure you have the workload to justify the expense of building such a team.
One of the main things to watch out for when creating this style of working is that your team doesn’t become insular and disconnected from colleagues. If the point is that they’re a discrete unit, it can be difficult to maintain the level of integration that is the point of bringing the agency in-house in the first place.
If your internal staff complain that agency staff gets all the perks, you obviously don’t want to replicate this when it comes to your in-house agency — they need to be part of the business and that means being treated like everyone else. But if they’re used to the perks of being in an agency, it can be hard to recruit and retain talent. You want an agency background and style — otherwise, your team is just an internal team rather than an internal agency — but you’re not offering an agency experience in ways that count. This can be a real balancing act and contributes to that isolation that can occur with in-house agencies.
In the right environment, this approach can work like a charm. In the wrong one, you lose the benefits of the middle ground and end up with no-man’s-land — all of the cons and none of the pros.