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Why Your Path to a Big Agency Might Be Through a Small One

4 min read

I'm a Creative Director, working in the advertising and design industries for over 15 years.
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What's the right way to start your agency career?

Well, advertising is kinda like prison.

(At least from what I know through movies and comic books.)

They say when you go to prison, you should find the biggest, baddest mother out there and kick his ass.

Or, earn respect along the way. Slowly establish yourself as you work your way up the ranks.

You have the same choice in advertising.


One of the questions I'm asked most often is, "How do I start at a big agency?" Usually my response is, "Are you sure you want to?"

Aside from making sure that you fit the agency as well as the agency fits you (like I wrote about here), there are two totally different approaches to building your career:

  • Big and Bold
  • Slow and Steady

Neither is better than the other. They both have their pros and cons. Let's see if you want to knock out the big guy, or become the untouchable veteran.



Big and Bold

Babe Ruth was always about the big swing. In 1923, he broke the record for most home runs in a season. His attitude was go as big as he could, every single time.

In advertising, if you make that same decision, it means trying to get a job at the biggest, most reputable agency you can, as soon as you can.

But the Babe also broke another record that season: most strikeouts. Swinging for the fences means that you are going to face a lot of failure. A lot of pain.

Great Resume

If you can land an internship or junior position at that type of agency, your resume will look great. It's damn impressive to see the name of an agency people admire attached to a prospective hiree. It makes it a lot easier to get a job anywhere else.

Big Projects

Big agency means big clients means big projects. You'll get early experience at working on projects that land at the top 1% of advertising. It's a lot of fun working on clients everyone knows.

Shit Work

However, entry level on a big client usually means you're just support staff. Sure, you'll be able to say you worked on Sony. But you really just did that one email newsletter for the huge campaign everyone saw.

Limited Experience

One of the good and bad things about a big agency is that there are a lot of specialists. Production artists, designers, art directors, copywriters, strategists, producers, account, project management. They all play their part, and usually nothing more. So, you'll learn how to do your job, and that's all.

Burnout

Big, uber-creative agencies are notorious for burning out their teams quickly. One-year stints are commonplace. You work on a project or two. Sacrifice nights and weekends. Then, you move on, because you hated your life. But by god, that project turns out amazing.

Hard To Get

Here's the thing: a lot of people are trying to get the big agency job. You're probably going to get rejected a lot. You're gonna strike out. But that's the risk when you swing big.

Slow and Steady

Pete Rose has the most career hits of all time: 4,256. Babe Ruth isn't even on the Top 40.

Sure, it took him 23 years to do it, but nobody has come within nearly 1000 hits of him since 1978. That record, that respect, was earned over time. And it's made him untouchable.

Starting at a small agency, then building your way up to whatever your career goal is, can give you that same feeling.

Learn It All

Small agencies usually mean smaller departments. It means you become more involved in every part of the process. It's not unheard of for art directors to write a line or two. For creative teams to work directly on production work. You'll learn every aspect of the business, because somebody has to! This is, by far, the biggest benefit to starting small: you will learn far more.

More Clients

The big agencies usually have one big client they latch onto, while keeps the lights on. Smaller agencies tend to have several smaller clients that you'll work on. That gives you a wide range of brands you'll have experience with.

More Projects

That also means you'll have more variety in your portfolio. And you'll actually make the stuff you put in your book. Starting small is a great way to actually be involved in the process.

Small Beans

At first, you're probably not going to do work that everyone hears about. The projects are small, and so is the notoriety.

Small Paycheck

Hey, it is a job, after all. Money is important. But usually smaller agencies have trouble paying market value, or at least as high as a larger agency would.

Requires Patience

The goal isn't to stay small. It's to build your way up. But it requires a lot more patience along the way. You'll need to work for the long goal, not the short-term.



Which Works For You?

Like I've said before: there's no correct answer. You need to feel out what your style is. Young or old. Art or copy.

But here's what I think...

If you have the stamina and less life responsibilities: go big. If you can land the gig, you'll hate the first several years of your career, but it'll set you up for the future.

If you value your work/life balance and have the patience: go slow. You'll learn a lot along the way and become a more valuable creative.

Either way, it's a rough road.

But you're crazy enough to take it.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson on LinkedIn Email