In 2004 when I graduated, I went to work for an agency as a graphic designer. It was a non profit organisation working within a University. It had an agency outlook to it, bridging a gap between education, academia and the “real world” commercial.
When I say real world, clients got funding and used it to pay for our services. So not truly commercial, in fact you could argue it had an unfair advantage in the region, in terms the agencies affordability and competitiveness. However many agencies around that time blossomed and doing very well now. I’ve worked at many fantastic agencies since then, and had amazing opportunities to work with big clients. I’ve also worked client side for all kinds of companies. Universities like Birmingham City University, Wolverhampton Uni, massive institutions like The NHS and The BBC and large corporations like CMA-CGM (Global shipping line).
Here are my thoughts on some differences. Every company and agency are different, but thought why not try and discuss some of the aspects I spotted.
Agencies are notoriously fast paced, with quick project turnarounds and tight deadlines. This has been true of most of the agencies I’ve worked at, but I’ve alway enjoyed being busy. When I’m not busy I start getting itchy feet and if I feel my time isn’t being best utilised, then I start looking for opportunities or ways to challenge myself. I think the pace, working client side, varies hugely depending on the industry it is in. However even when things aren’t moving as fast as you want them to, there’s always opportunities available client side. Products can always be improved and processes can be introduced into the business.
I think there was a balance and payoff with creativity / comfortability. But that is down to the industry I worked in.
Now, with a start up culture and progressive thinking, client side can be every bit as creative as agency side, with the benefit of seeing through the entire project life cycle.
Working on multiple aspects of a product and having a long term vision is such a fantastic gift. I think the agencies that have grown and doing well have that same mentality. They avoid the cash in and get out mentality, instead opting to invest and have shared belief and passion for a product. The balance is doing this and still turning a profit. I’ve seen, all to often, agencies doing all they can for big clients, and loosing a lot.
I think these vary dramatically from company to company. I’ve enjoyed perks client side; pensions, private healthcare and life insurance, regular travel to Europe, trips to Africa, extensive training plans and regular career development. Agency side, perks quite often are ingrained in the agency culture. Flexible hours, free fruit and drink, video games rooms and snooker tables. However, many startups have these same methods to establish a “culture”.
Looking past these perks, I’ve seen a common trend. Clients side seem to want to invest in their staff, and they often do this with training and career development. Client side often look at the long term picture, and ideally want to train you and mould you to help them achieve that big picture. Some agencies don’t give the time to staff to train, and often training is specific to a certain project. Their long term goals are more fluid, and the big picture can be redrawn a multiple of times. Therefore staff are very much moulded into what the agency needs at a given time.
Working as an agency
In the past I’ve been keen to pull in freelancers to work on projects, cutting out client services staff, like account handlers, believing that they were adding a layer that was unnecessary for relatively small projects. The idea was to pass that saving on to the user, or allow us to invest more into the product, with bells and whistles etc. However I now know that for long term relationships between agencies and customers to happen, good client side account handlers are required, it helps with transparency and maintains expectations.
Over the past decade, a lot has changed in the digital market. Technology, project management approaches, the idea of continuous evolution (and deployment) of products and the mass wave of startups have brought in new opportunities. Clients are no longer the the slow moving giants of the past, and agencies are generally looking to build long term relationships, and potentially growing with their clients. I think this has created a renewed hunger, and has meant the gap between agencies and client sides is getting narrower.