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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Marketing career choice: Agency or client-side?



I was recently asked a question about the value of getting started in your marketing career on either the agency or client-side. It would be easy enough to brush aside with a “how long is a piece of string” (or in this case, “How varied is a career”) because everyone's journey is different. But it made me really ponder which way is best for someone starting their marketing career.

There are really only two final destinations: Either becoming a brand Chief Marketing Officer, or becoming a CEO of an agency/agency network. On the flowing river to CMO or agency CEO you can of course exit in big corporations in specialist roles (Head of Digital; Research/Insights; move into Sales, etc.) or embrace the operational aspects of the craft (becoming a Creative Director, Head of Media, etc.) as a goal.

Regardless of the answer, or goal, I strongly feel that marketers need to embrace Daniel Pink’s work on motivation (Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose) to first get a sense of themselves and what they want to achieve in a satisfying marketing career.

Autonomy

The level of autonomy is closely related to the level of trust you have within your organization and what the stakes are for your role. Autonomy is the need for people to become self-directed in their work. The problem here is that often client-side marketers can’t get out of the way of agencies creating their best work, and agencies are too deadline and brief driven to be truly self-directed.

In terms of career potential, at the beginning of your career there’s no real winner for autonomy. You’re going to be working hard over long hours when you’re starting out. It really comes down to the brand you work for and how they look at their marketing efforts. I’d personally say that at mid-level and senior-levels, there’s more autonomy on the client-side.

Mastery

For client-side marketers, mastery is ultimately about selling the company’s products while building it’s (positive) brand. It’s about truly understanding the “business of marketing” – setting a clear vision of how and why you’re engaging customers, getting the best from your agency and other partners and using marketing tools to sell lots and lots of products. Mastery of marketing is a mastery of business. It is about being the voice of the customer internally and relentlessly focusing on building advocacy with great products (at the right price), great services and genuine engagement. An emphasis on sales is usually seen here.

For agency-side marketers, all of the above applies but it is filtered through a client brief. Mastery comes from living and breathing creative and media solution that get your client’s products into the hands of its customers. Agency-side marketers are usually closer to operational marketing (advertising and media channels) than client-side marketers and this tends to create excellent opportunities to specialise.

Mastery of the marketing craft can be equally attained via going either the client-side or agency-side.

Purpose

Purpose is a little clearer. For me, brands have a much clearer purpose and understand their role in the world better. Many agencies have undeniably lost their way in recent years and are only now getting back to their core purpose of supporting their clients in creating amazing work that sells products. The important thing here is not what the purpose of the company is, but what your purpose is. If your personal purpose aligns with your job, great. And it’s even better if your job purpose aligns to the brand/products that you’re marketing. Purpose is an intensely personal thing and often people need time to figure out their purpose, or where they want to work based on this.

So aside from having autonomy, mastery and a clear purpose in either a client or agency-side role, what are the key things to keep in mind? Here's what I've learned so far (in no particular order) that might help you decide if either agency or client-side is right for you:

  • The best marketers have both agency and client side experience. 
  • Brand/client-side jobs are more valued and pay better in the long-run. Client-side marketing roles tend to allow you to develop more over time and have a direct path to the Boardroom in most organizations.
  • If you've spent more than 5 years’ agency-side, it's very hard to move to the client-side. It’s certainly not impossible though but the skills you need to succeed as a client-side marketer are less to do with operational marketing and more to do with securing budgets, managing non-marketing stakeholders and holding peer-level conversations with sales teams.
  • Agencies are generally more fun and you'll learn more about the "craft" of marketing (especially digital) being hands-on at an agency. But you'll miss out on the business side - you will be further away from budgets, setting sales targets and the "why" of what you're doing.
  • It's usually better to start out your career in marketing client-side. But you need to love the company and its products. Several industries, such as Luxury or FMCG are tough to crack into later in your career. For example, FMCG companies generally ask you to start from the bottom, so it's very difficult to get into if you've started from the agency world (unless you’re a specialist).
  • If you start client-side for a couple of years and work really closely with your agency in that time. Then flip over to the agency-side if you're not moving fast enough up the corporate ladder (or vice-versa). If you can then do one or more years’ agency-side, then you have a choice to make - choose agency or brand/client.
  • Go where the personal and professional development is. I’ve found that agencies tend to put a greater focus on developing marketing skills (they need to, to compete in the changing world of marketing).  
  • For your first few jobs, honestly, it doesn't matter if you go client or agency. In the first 5 or so years you can make a switch without much hassle. It's when you're 8 - 10 years into marketing that you become "stuck" in one side or the other. The most important thing is to do something truly memorable - a big campaign, a new tech platform, bringing in huge sales for your client or company (this last one is particularly important).
  • If you eventually want to be a Chief Marketing Officer, you probably need skills you don’t know about.
  • Regardless of being an agency or client-side marketer, you need to work on your personal brand. For example, by mentoring others, or sharing your insights via social media and speaking engagements. That puts you in a position where employers will chase you... and not the other way around.


There’s no right or wrong answer but the best marketers are well rounded people who’ve experienced both worlds first hand. If you’re starting out your career or going through a career change, my advice is to love the brand you want to work for. Passion also trumps experience. If you’re passionate about a brand, agency or even a hiring manager, take the leap. Everyone has a different and unique journey. 
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