Agency or in-house?. . .
When I decided to pursue a career in communications, everyone I spoke to gave me the same piece of advice: start off in an agency before considering an in-house role. That’s exactly what I did. I joined an agency and spent over six years learning the ropes before moving in-house.
It’s important to constantly challenge yourself, especially when you realise you are settling into your comfort zone. After eight years in various in-house roles, I disrupted my career to give myself a fresh start back at an agency. Perhaps subconsciously, I was craving the excitement of consulting and learning new things by connecting with Gen Z, which I believe is going to be a game-changing generation.
While there is a common perception among PR practitioners that an in-house role is the end goal, it’s not true. I believe you should have a vision of where your career is going, but you need to be adaptable. There is no longer a set path to follow. In today’s fast-evolving world, one must constantly learn and unlearn, try new things and, most importantly, fail fast to stay relevant.
It can be tricky to decide whether an agency or in-house role suits you at any stage of your career, and there are always two sides to a coin. Having been on both sides, here are my observations:
1. In-depth knowledge vs. Diverse experiences
Working in-house gives you the chance to focus on one brand or company. If you really believe in a company’s mission and product, this can be enticing. An in-house team can deep-dive into their company’s business strategy, go-to-market, products, innovation, culture and become a business partner in the true sense. This is also an influential role that gives you the power to make decisions. However, stakeholder management tends to take up most of your time. While this may be ideal for those who are certain on what industry they are passionate about, it might feel restrictive to others, who want more diverse experiences and to keep things fresh.
In contrast, the types of accounts that an agency handles are exceedingly varied – it can include B2B industrial, B2B tech, consumer, financial, healthcare to name a few. It offers a steeper learning curve and an outside-in view, which helps you connect the dots. In an agency, you are consulting for clients from diverse sectors, and you learn to scale your skills as you gain more experience. It also gives you the confidence to explore sectors you’ve never dabbled in before. I strongly believe that having a linear progression in your career or climbing the corporate ladder is no longer the only goal for young professionals. What’s important is having multi-faceted experiences, which is why agencies are so valued. Every client can offer you a different world of learning, if you thrive on juggling multiple commitments and responsibilities on a daily basis.
2. Impacting a business from the inside out vs. The opportunity to pursue new businesses
Working in-house requires you to devote all your time and energy to one brand. When I was working in an in-house role, I had the chance to be part of leadership meetings and take ownership in shaping the communications strategy. This is mainly because an in-house team can have a deeper understanding of the company’s business, and a stronger influence on stakeholders.
As a consultant in an agency, I can pursue new clients, which is an exciting process to be a part of. There is nothing more satisfying than winning a challenging pitch with your team. This way, life in an agency never gets stale. The quick turnaround time for pitches means we must develop multiple ideas that make up a campaign, which keeps us on our toes. The strategic and creative work changes depending on the client we’re pitching for, making it a great opportunity for those who crave variety.
3. Independence vs. Camaraderie
Working in-house requires independence and a certain level of expertise and maturity. Most companies have a lean in-house team, scattered across different markets. While this means that you get to work in a matrix with virtual, cross-cultural teams as well as bond with colleagues from other functions, you do miss spending time with a team.
Comparatively, an agency works like a big family. With a larger team, consultants can tap on a bigger pool of unique insights and ideas. This helps keep your thinking fresh and gives you a more objective view of the client’s PR efforts. Not to mention, it is way more fun and satisfying to experience the camaraderie in a team working towards a common goal.
Personally, I view in-house teams and agencies as being interlinked. Agencies can provide a valuable outside-in approach and unbiased perspective, as they aren’t viewing the world with the lens of the company, like an in-house team does. But being able to completely immerse yourself in one brand has incredible merit too.
Instead of deciding between a career in-house and a career at an agency, my advice to budding professionals is to aim to gain a diverse set of experiences. Whether it’s marketing, marcomms, digital or PR, we need to challenge ourselves to stay relevant. The lines between these different aspects of communications are blurring, but the final goal stays the same – to deliver business value and outcomes.
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