Jeremy Carson is an Associate Creative Director, working in the advertising and design industries for over 15 years.
When I first entered the agency world, I felt like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. Surrounded by strange creatures, I discovered that each one had a different role, with wondrous powers. As a creative (young J-Conn), I needed to save my idea (Connelly’s baby brother) from the client (David Bowie, the Goblin King).
Agency structure and process is as confusing as an 80s movie about baby-kidnapping goblin puppets.
The different roles, positions, and responsibilities of the agency world take a bit of navigating. And along the way, some of those people will confuse you, some will help you, and some will straight up stand in your way. But that’s the way it works.
Oh, if you haven’t gotten the hint yet: there are going to be lots of Labyrinth references in this article. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you, though you’ll still get the gist of it.
Still, you should watch the movie. Maybe after you read this.
The Cast of Characters
(The Different Positions)
The agency structure is confusing, but once you get the hang of it, it will all make sense. And then you’ll hate it even more. But at least you’ll understand why you hate it.
So, there are some basic roles that every medium to large agency has (small agencies usually have people fulfill multiple roles):
- Creative - Jennifer Connelly as Sarah
- Strategy - The Wiseman
- Production - Sir Didymus
- Media - Ludo
- Project Management - The Four Door Guards
- Account - The Brick Keepers
- Client - David Bowie as Jareth, The Goblin King
At the core of the story and process is the idea (Toby, the baby brother).
(or 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly)
Maybe I’m a little biased, but I’m gonna put creative in the protagonist role. We may not be heroes, but we’re going to fight for our idea (the baby).
Along the way, creatives need to realize that we can’t do it on our own. We’re going to need the help of others who can come along the journey with us. The trick is figuring out how each one helps.
(or the Wiseman...the weird guy with the hat)
There was that weird dude with the hat. Ok, that seemingly senile old man really meant well, but holy geez was he cryptic.
And you’re going to think the strategy team (also called “planning”) is just as cryptic sometimes. You’re not going to be sure whether their advice is helpful or harmful. But trust me, there’s truth in there.
Strategy is the wisdom that makes creative make sense.
Their job is to figure out the connection between the audience and whatever the idea will be. Who is the audience? How should we speak to them? Where do they consume content? These are the kinds of questions they answer. And it all happens (or should happen) long before any creative touches the project.
(or Sir Didymus...that fox terrier knight)
That little guy was a noble soldier, ready to charge into battle at a moment’s notice. He was the front line and the last defense. Without him, there was no way that girl was going to save her brother from the Goblin King.
Production will be your soldiers. They’re problem solvers, relationship makers, talent finders.
Your idea isn’t made without production, so they should be your best friends.
They do pretty much everything from the birth of your idea: from finding directors, creators, developers, or anyone you need to bring it to life, to delivering that final piece to the masses. And everything in between.
(or Ludo...Ludo saaaaaad)
Just as Ludo is a giant beast that speaks a deceptively simple language of his own, media has their own jargon that seems simple enough, but is irritatingly perplexing. KPI, DSP, DMP, SSP...it’s dangerous quicksand of abbreviations.
And while Ludo can summon rock monsters to fight on his behalf, media has hundreds of vendors and partners they work with to bring the idea to life.
There are thousands of great ideas that nobody ever saw, because the media buy was wrong.
So again, you need them. Ludo was key to the success of the mission, and media is key to your success. They decide where your idea lives. Especially in today’s world of data-driven media buys merging with data-driven creative, keep these beasts on your side.
(or the Four Door Guards...with that riddle)
They’re the gatekeepers to the whole labyrinth structure. Sure, they do their best to keep everyone going the right way, but do you remember that riddle? Sometimes, the answers aren’t easy to get.
A crappy project manager will make your life suck. They’re kind of like the field goal kickers of the agency world: if they do their job, nobody notices, but if they mess up, everyone blames them.
But if your PM is good, then a project will be smooth as silk. They will help you figure out who has the answers, what needs to be done, or when deadlines are coming up. And if they’re really good, they’ll be able to solve problems like timing and resource management before they’re even a problem.
And you won’t have to answer any riddles.
(or the Brick Keepers...or brick flippers)
The account team (or client services...or idea management...or whatever the name-of-the-week is) knows the path from the agency to the client. But just like the brick keepers that would constantly change the path our heroine would lay out through the labyrinth, account can change direction of a project spontaneously.
It’s usually not their fault. Actually, they’re usually supposed to keep things on path. But since they’re the liaison between the client and the agency, sometimes feedback from the client alters the path. And then other times it’s information that nobody else is aware of. But ultimately, they are the ones that change the course when it needs to be changed.
(or David Bowie...the Goblin King)
If you watch the movie, you get the feeling that he’s not really a bad guy. And neither are the clients. But when the client starts dressing in skin-tight pants and breaks out in song during a meeting...save your judgement.
They are the top of the pineapple. They’ve got your idea sitting at their feet, like a kidnapped little baby. It’s not theirs, but it’s there. And it has power. The power of voodoo. (Seriously, watch the movie.)
Dance Magic, Dance
All roads of the labyrinth lead to the client.
The client makes the calls, sitting in the castle at the end of the twisting, winding path. So, whatever they say, is ultimately what goes. However, the exact path is determined by you and your cast of characters.
The only thing that will keep you sane in the overlapping processes of agency structure is forming a team that you trust. To do that, you need to understand that everyone has specialties that they do better than you.
You don’t have to navigate the labyrinth alone, but who will you take along the way with you.