Full disclosure. I have only ever done client-side and freelance work. And the split between those is quite telling as well. 90% of work I have done, in a professional sense, has been client-side, full time, in an office work. 10% has been freelance on a skills swap basis.
When I decided to move jobs I thought to myself that it was a perfect opportunity to explore a new digital marketing work environment and so this is quite a personal story of how and why I ended up (spoiler alert!) sticking with in-house.
Exploring these two options taught me a few things though. The differences between working client & agency side and the benefits and drawbacks of both. Read more to find out which side won based on my 5 key personal considerations…
1. Money – Client Side Win
It’s important yeah? Because I like to buy all the things.
Typically, I found client-side just pays more. I was offered roles at two fantastic agencies this year. Their cultures, mindsets and attitudes were everything I could have wanted from an employer and it was clear these were awesome places to come to work each day.
But both of the roles I was offered were much lower salaries and more junior solely because I had never worked in an agency. I felt I was qualified for the more senior roles in those agencies but even those were still around a couple of grand less than the client side jobs I was interviewing for so I had to make a really tough, but personal, decision and the money was very much a deciding factor.
If I’d taken either of the jobs I think I would have spent a few frustrating months getting through the basics again and at several grand less than the client side role I eventually chose. Had I been at a different stage of life, a 24 year old me would have absolutely chosen differently. But I’m 32, thinking about house buying, making little lives, buying proper make up etc etc and taking a significant pay cut and starting over professionally wasn’t a sensible option for me.
From experience, talking to others and a bit of research, salaries, traditionally, seem to be an issue with agency side work but I hear it’s improving and depends on the sector. Brighton seems to be the best place to work in an agency and get paid a decent salary.
What’s your experience of this?
2. Tools and Toys – Agency Win
God help me. I’ve always needed to go through about 3 people, write 2 proposals and then wait for a few weeks just to get a $15 a month keyword monitoring tool when working in-house.
Unless you have managers who recognise the importance of having usable and reliable tools and toys for digital marketing, which I rarely have had, then you will be fighting for them all the time.
I think this comes down to client side higher-ups sometimes just not ‘getting it’. In an agency, they speak ‘digital marketing’. If you say you need Screaming Frog so you can crawl a domain to find internal linking errors they know what you’re talking about, why you need it and how important it is. THEY JUST KNOW. You need it to do your job well, report accurately and make the right decisions.
Agencies in Brighton are competing against each other (natch) so I found they we MUCH more likely to use the very best toys in the playground and then give them to you so that you can make them look good. I asked at each interview, client and agency side, what tools I would get to use. It was a mix of glorious answers and blank stares.
I’ve lost count of the gmail accounts I have set up so I can keep using the free version of Accuranker. (Soz Accuranker).
3. Personal Projects and Professional Development – 70% Agency Win, 30% Client Side Win
This is a mixed bag and it sometimes depends on the client side company you work for.
For me, agencies won because it’s blats obvs that keeping their talented staff up to date and continually learning means they’re better at their jobs and produce better results for their clients. Better results = more money and business.
Any agency that does not have staff learning as a number 1 priority is, in my humble opinion, headed for avoidable hard times. Particularly so in digital marketing where everything changes on a near daily basis!
The very best agencies will always look to develop their staff and not only does this mean better results for them, but, it means happier more contented and excited professionals and lower staff turnover.
Alongside professional development there are opportunities for personal projects. I know a lot of respected agencies encourage personal projects or research and development time during the week. Staff won’t be billed out to 100% of their available time so they have time for learning.
Somewhat ironically though, is that client side could actually win out. Agency life is non-stop, demanding and relentless due to the difference between billable time and how long a task could actually take. I know there is frustration among the agency folk that sure, I work for a great agency that allows me personal projects and development but I have no goddamn time to actually do it!
From my experience, client-side has longer peaks and troughs in work demands day to day and if you’re keen to develop, learn and be better at your job then you can organise your time so that you can incorporate these things into the down periods and build the mad skills for putting them into practice in the busy times.
4. Variety Is the Spice of Work – 50/50 win
You’d think agency would win this outright but let me share a couple of points that occurred to me on the interview trail.
A lot of agencies these days specialise in a certain market. Fashion and Beauty, Travel, Corporate, Banking, or on types of business, ecommerce, charities etc. Sure there is a variety within each of these, particularly if you work in an agency that works with ecommerce businesses. But I found it hard to find an agency where I could be working on a travel brand one day and a charity the next because of the way some agencies organise who works on what type of brand. Rachel is our travel brands SEO, Mark is our lifestyle brands SEO for example.
Working client side has it’s obvious disadvantages in the area of variety BUT this is where my personal preference, my character and my career goals started to make a difference in my choice of path.
To me, working within a single brand and seeing it grow and flourish over the course of a year was really attractive. Being a part of that feels really special and you feel connected to the brand in a way I don’t think you do if you’re working on it from an external agency point of view. You feel the stakes more, you take the fails harder but you feel the wins with much more satisfaction and longevity.
If you want the best of both worlds, find a company to work for that has within it several brands or offshoots where you can get that variety but also become part of the brand. I work on 6 unique brands within a PLC. I’m physically sat with the staff in the same building, I have lunch and friday drinks with them and I feel connected to their successes and setbacks because they’re also my successes and setbacks and we get to share that.
5. Culture. No winners. No Losers.
I had to remind myself we’re pretty damned lucky in Brighton. Company culture is a ‘thing’ here and the more traditionally corporate companies, who hire their own digital staff, are beginning to pick this company culture ‘thing’ up, specifically in startups and brands started in the last 5 to 6 years.
Agencies have always had company culture nailed. I scroll through Twitter see Pi Datametrics, Propellernet or Add Mustard doing something hilarious weekly and think how great it would be to be a part of that kind of agency life.
I was looking for a company that had this kind of culture, so in interviews I made sure to interview right back at them! I asked:
- What does a normal working day/week look like?
- How do mornings start? Do people get their heads down or have a chat?
- How does the business encourage healthy lifestyles?
- How does the company give back to the community?
- How do you celebrate successes and deal with setbacks?
- Are people friends outside of work and go for drinks on a friday?
- What professional learning opportunities are there?
- What do YOU like about working here? (Thanks Allegra!)
Don’t be afraid to ask to see the office environment during a 2nd interview. Check out where people sit, the layout, where your place in this environment would be. It shows your interviewer that you’re mindful of of how important these things are and it helped me chose a company and role I felt happy accepting.
So, to conclude
The old days of client-side meaning one brand; one industry are over. As are the days of traditional ‘corporatey’ client-side company cultures. It just requires a more adventurous way of approaching potential employers and interview situations. In our city especially, this type of client side company is becoming very comparable to agency side working. It’s just a bit more of a hunt at the moment.
All of these points are important to consider before or during a new job hunt and I’ve learned that what wins out doesn’t always mean sacrificing something else important to your working life and that our opinions and decisions on these 5 points will change over the courses of our lives.
We live in a city where we’re actually quite spoiled for choice. In my dalliance with considering agency life as my next path, I learned to to be more in touch with my working style and what will make me happy to go to work, not always singing and dancing, but what things I could put up with, what I couldn’t put up with and what I was willing to work to change.