I'm Jeremy Carson, a Creative Director, and this is everything I wish I knew about the ad world. After working in the creative industry for over 17 years, I believe bringing data and creativity together lets us speak to people in a way we never could before, making it more relevant and personal.
One thing that I learned once I got into the industry was the insane amount of bias people have in advertising. Now, this specific bias I’m referring to is in regards to the different agencies out there, and how greatly the last one you put on your resume affects what people expect out of you as a creative.
It’s not a big surprise. Every agency has something they’re known for. But this is beyond the cool spot they made or the huge client they might have. It’s more about what skill set each place endows you with during your time there, as well as what you may have been trained to endure at each agency.
Again, nothing is bad or good about any of them, but these are the realities of the industry.
Traditional vs. Digital & Social Agencies
Not all agencies are the same. And it’s your job to figure out which ones you want to work at. When it comes to the type of work, most of the industry’s creative is broken into “traditional” or “digital.” In reality, all agencies have some overlap. Traditional agencies will have digital projects. Digital agencies will do print and experiential. But every place has their specialty. The thing to remember is that there’s not a right or wrong, pro or con to any of these. It’s more about what you like.
Traditional agencies focus more on television, radio, print, and outdoor experiential executions. Honestly, you’re not going to find any that work exclusively on these types of projects. But, there will definitely be more traditional-leaning agencies to choose from. Usually, these are the big agencies, the ones that have been around for decades. Their clients are usually huge (because that kind of work is expensive to produce and buy space for). Think car brands, banks, pharma, snack food, multi-billion-dollar types of companies.
These ones move slow, but have longer timelines on projects. They have deep pockets but lots of hierarchy to work through when it comes to creative. You can get creative and execute huge, impactful ideas. But, keep in mind that you’ll be fighting every step of the way to get your ideas produced. And as an entry-level creative, you’ll be more of a support team, rather than working on the big, flashy projects.
Digital & Social Agencies
In the past 25 years or so, digital and social agencies have been on the rise. They used to be smaller shops, focused exclusively on microsites, banners, and media partnerships. However, nowadays, these types of agencies are growing faster than the traditional ones. (Actually, most large holding companies, the ones who own all the agencies, have stated they’re not investing in non-digital-leaning agencies anymore. Because technology is already beating creative.)
You’ll find lots of agencies that focus purely on digital and social clients. They’re always hiring, because their strategy is move fast and adapt. Many of these clients work on huge brands, as well, but only a part of them. For example, Apple has a dozen agencies working on their advertising and marketing. Most of it is managed by one large agency, but their online ads, their social presence, paid social ads, their experiential work...those are all done by different agencies.
These types of agencies have been forced to be incredibly creative, focusing on modern executions and innovative technologies to make their impact, rather than throwing millions of dollars at a commercial. But that also means that there’s much less bureaucracy to deal with, when pushing through ideas.
This is where you want to go if you’re interested in tech and social. If you keep up with what Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter is doing, this is for you.
And as a junior creative, chances are, you’ll be working on work that’s actually produced, rather than being a grunt on a project.
This term “integrated agency” came about a little while ago. Sometimes it’s called a “360 agency” but essentially it means one that does everything: traditional, digital, social, experiential...everything.
The reality is, they’re usually giant shops that don’t want to lose the business that their massive client has, so they’ve either A) absorbed a smaller digital agency and become “integrated” or B) tried to teach their old-school creative staff to effectively advertise in the digital space (or vice versa), which is usually not very effective.
My advice: look for an agency that does what you specialize in or truly love. Most holding companies (the organizations that own massive networks of agencies) are gobbling up various specialized agencies and encouraging them to work together under a larger umbrella. The idea of “integrated agencies” are going bye-bye soon.
The Right Agency for You
Look, not everyone is interested in big budget commercials and the potentially dying medium of print advertising (no offense). So, if that’s you, and your portfolio reflects that, don’t apply to a more traditional-leaning agency. Your work will stick out like a sore thumb.
But, if you think the internet is a fad, don’t know what HTML is, and assume Snapchat is some weird ghost game...well, don’t expect any modern digital agency to hire you.
You should fit the agency as well as the agency fits you.
That’s why you need to be somewhat picky about which agency you want to work at. The name of the agencies you’ve worked with will speak to your ability at the agency looking at your work.
Think about the traditional vs. digital notes from earlier. If you have a bunch of digital agencies under your belt, you’re a dream for the next up-and-coming digital shop (or traditional agency that’s trying to play catch up). But most traditional agencies won’t bring you on, since the work you’ve done isn’t applicable in the same way.
It’s pretty simple: if an agency hires you, then you have their mark of approval. But sometimes that mark of approval for one discipline is a scarlet letter for another.
Oh, don’t let anyone tell you differently: size matters. But again, it’s all about what you like:
- Large agencies - These ones usually have the big money and clients, lean toward the traditional end of the spectrum (though, not for long, especially if they’re smart), and have lots of levels of hierarchy. However, nowadays there are more and more digital-specialized agencies that are massive. I mean, like 500+ people, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year. Huge.
- Small agencies - These are smaller, scrappier agencies. They don’t have to deal with bureaucracy and hierarchy. You’ll usually report directly to your creative director and will learn A LOT because you’ll have to do a lot. The budgets aren’t big, but the projects are plentiful. These can be anywhere from 10-person shops to almost 100 or so. Here, you’ll get experience wearing different hats, and getting things done you never thought possible before...somehow.
Working Hard or Hardly Working or I Want to Die?
With the bias that creatives have in the industry comes with an expectation of work...let’s call it “desensitization.” That means, how much you are willing to work during your time at that agency.
- Sweat Shops - If someone sees your work experience full of Chiat/Day, CPB, Droga5, or W+K, it will say a lot about you. In addition to probably only working there for a year max, you’ll be recognized as someone who is a boundary-pushing, long-hour-working creative. You’ll put in the time to make the greatest creative you’ve even come up with...and then you’ll want to die.
- Settle In - But, if you come from a more stable agency, one that holds onto their clients for years, decades sometimes (which is very, very rare in this industry), you’ll be expected to settle into the agency, learn about the client, and develop the brand. You’ll dive deep into the work you’re doing, but it will likely not take over your life.
- And The Rest - Then there’s the boutique agencies. The ones that fall outside of every norm or stereotype you can conjure. They don’t like the hubub of big clients, and don’t deal with it. It’s not as hectic of a lifestyle, but it’s not usually as lucrative, either. This makes for a much easier work/life balance.
What’s Your Choice?
It’s hard to say “No” to someone offering you a job, but keep in mind that you and the agency should make sense to each other. Otherwise, you’re simply a cog in a larger machine. Many people throw their hands in the air and say that’s the way everyone starts off in the industry. Sure, there’s truth in that.
Just remember that at a certain point in your career, when a cog breaks, it gets replaced. Try to become that special part that’s irreplaceable. Then you can choose where to fit.