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Why the 3-Year-Itch Will Make You Quit Your Agency

6 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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Have you ever left a fast food hamburger out for a few days? Months? Years? This guy named David Whipple did. He found an untouched burger he forgot about for 14 years.

Over five thousand days later, guess what changed.

Nothing. The burger stayed exactly the same.

When you start out in advertising, you may think that the first place you work is where you should stay for the better part of your career. Oh, you sweet, sweet fool. Not only will that not be the only place you work for the next five years, but staying there too long could be the worst decision you could make.

It’s funny. In most of the corporate world, people find a job they like and grow roots there. Unless something happens, they’ll grow with that company. But, as creatives, it’s a little different for us...

It’s an unspoken rule that creatives jump around every 3 - 4 years. And there’s good reason.

A quick caveat: I’m being very absolute with this (and many of the other rules I’m revealing about the industry). But, there are always exceptions to the rules. In this case, there are some unicorns out there. You may get lucky and find a place that stimulates you creatively and shows you that you’re valued. Right now, I’ve found one, hidden within an agency. If you discover one, too, then enjoy it.

But for the other 99% of you, here are the top 5 reasons that will piss you off enough to leave:

1) Promotion

You wanna move up in the world, you’re probably gonna need to find a new agency. Interns want to become juniors. Juniors want to be Mid-level. Mid to senior. Senior to Associate. Associate to Creative Director. To infinity and beyond.

In this case, the 3-year itch is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Creatives are expected to bounce every few years, so they do. Then, agencies need to fill those positions with new blood. That leaves room for creatives to leave their current agencies, which creates more open positions at their agencies. Now, creatives look at that opportunity to negotiate a higher position than their last job. Agencies are totally open to that, because they can pay up-and-comers less than someone who has been at that level for a while already. Plus, newly-promoted people are more ambitious than those looking at lateral moves, which means these non-jaded folks will give agencies better bang for their buck.

Because of all these assumptions, it’s notoriously hard to get promoted within your current agency. The type of agencies built for this are rare and thus, people don’t normally leave. That leaves less likelihood for holes in the creative hierarchy, which means less of a chance there will be room for you to bump up your title.

So, if you’re looking to get new business cards, chances are you’ll look elsewhere.

But, there’s more than a title when it comes to your career...

2) Money

As the poet Coolio once said, “Money what make the world go round.”

With a promotion (usually) comes money. So, if you’re not getting a promotion, it’s going to be hard to get a monetary raise.

NOTE: I’ll wrote a couple articles about how to ask for a promotion and/or a raise. Amazingly, those two are not bound at the hip, so you’ll need to learn how to approach each one.

Until that article comes around, here’s the abridged version. You’ve been at your agency for a while and you feel your value as an employee has gone up. (Be sure that your value has actually increased and you’re not just falling prey to the “I’ve been here for a while, so gimme a raise” syndrome.) Anyway, you’ve asked for more money and they’ve either recognized how awesome you are or shot you down.

Don’t be surprised if it’s the latter. While most agencies will give you a little cost-of-living raise every year, the short story is, it’s much easier to request a larger starting salary at a new agency than ask for a substantial raise at your current one. And much more likely you’ll get it, too.

3) Creative Stagnation

Creatives get bored. It’s just that simple.

Most of the time, creative types hate staying on the same projects, the same brands, the same accounts day after week after month after year. We dislike monotony, feeling like we’re simply executing and not thinking.

It’s not always the agency’s fault. Remember, advertising is a business, and with that business comes the requirement for stability. Constantly shifting creative (simply for the sake of keeping employees interested and not for any strategic reason) is too risky.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re bored to fucking tears making yet another print ad, banner, or spot that feels the same as the last one you did.

Don’t discount that feeling. To be an effective creative, you need to feel creative. Your brain needs to be stimulated. Sure, you could find that by working on a different project, but If the agency you’re at has no desire to help fulfill that creative desire, then you shouldn’t think long about jumping ship.

The problem is, unlike figuring out the average salary someone at your level should be paid, there’s no chart saying how creative you should feel at your agency. It’s up to you.

4) A Bad Creative Fit

This could be simple: you love working in the digital world and you’re at a more traditional shop. Ok, you’re learning about yourself. Next time, you’ll be self-aware and know the right questions to ask about the agency before you even start. (More on that topic during another post.)

Learn what you can from every agency you work at. Then, if you don’t like it, find a new gig.

But, sometimes it’s a little more complicated. There are subtleties to agencies. Small differentiators and paths that the powers that be have decided to go down, guiding the work in a specific direction. For example: let’s say you’re a copywriter that loves puns. I mean LOOOOOVES puns. You work them into every script. Every headline. Hell, you even want to change the name of the agency to The Punnery. (Actually, that’s kind of awesome.)

However, the agency you’re at is all about drama. Advertising is a serious business to them, devoid of humor, laughter, and obviously, puns. So, every script you write, every line, it kills you a little inside. After a while, you find that your love of writing is turning into a chore. You’re using this talent to do something you hate. As a result, your work starts to suffer. Your attitude sours. You become more of a writing monkey than a creative.

Welp, looks like that’s a good reason to bail.

5) Co-workers

Creatives can I put this gently? We’re weird. We’ve usually got some kind of annoying trait that defines us, and it becomes emphasized because that’s what we draw our creative superpowers from.

Maybe you’re a mega tech nerd. Maybe you’re super loud and talkative. Maybe you love telling long, drawn out stories. Or you take weird photos of people. Or you’re super emotional. Or you really really really like sloths.

The point is, creatives are usually a difficult group to get mesh with, and you may straight up hate working with/for someone that you have to work with. Fun. Sometimes you can get that figured out by talking to HR or your creative director. Maybe you’ll get a new partner, or get transferred. Maybe.

But sometimes you may find that the type of people you’re working with are not your kind of people, and you’ll want out.

It’s Good for the Agency

Creative departments need to stay fresh. They need injections of perspective, thought, and innovation that creatives become immune to over long periods of time at the same place. And it’s because of all those reasons above. So, don’t feel bad when you start to get antsy because something on this list has triggered your flight reflex.

It’s Good for You

Your career needs that injection of creativity and variety as much as an agency does. As a creative, your portfolio is the most important thing, so you need to constantly keep it growing and evolving. Especially in today’s world, you need to learn new skills and technologies, growing your breadth of work and experience. Staying at one place brings the risk of getting stuck in a rut.

Don’t let your creativity become that hamburger. Don’t stop growing and evolving in your career. Don’t let lack of creative stimulation freeze you in time. All you’ll get is unchanging monotony and stagnation.

And for creatives, stagnation is career suicide.

Thanks for reading!

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