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In-House vs. Agency: Where does your creative career's future lie?

October 5, 2015 | By Kelly Cooper Niles

young professional woman in thought at her desktop computer

As a creative in the marketing world—either in-house or at an agency—you've probably wondered if you'd be happier on the other side. It's a question that's critically important to your work and life satisfaction, but how can you know which one is right for you short of making a risky leap into the unknown? 

While there are several things that can impact happiness in the workplace, the work environment is a critical factor. The environment may include aspects such as pace of work, desk / work area setup, percentage of teamwork versus solo work, and the sociability of coworkers.

For digital and creative professionals, the majority of job opportunities lie in two, often polar-opposite environments: agency and in-house. Immersed in the staffing and digital marketing industries, our digital and creative recruiters and account managers are experts in predicting whether a candidate will thrive or falter in a position. Collected through (unofficial) qualitative research, i.e., thousands of conversations with digital and creative professionals and hiring managers, here is an insider’s view of workplace environments.

Are you made for in-house marketing?

  • Good for: Good communicators. Milwaukee Recruiter Arin Olson says his enterprise hiring managers try to get a sense of what type of environment the candidate is coming from. Olson says, “Are they used to working with five coworkers in an agency, or a 10+ team in an in-house environment?” 

    As part of a larger organization, digital marketing folks often get pulled into meetings with other departments.Cincinnati Account Manager Lori Jerome says, “Digital talent has to work with many different teams. Even a front-end developer interacts with the business; a real differentiator is a candidate’s ability to communicate with many different teams to execute.”
  • Bad for: Antsy artists. NYC Account Manager Amy Elfeld, who primarily works with financial services clients, says a lot of candidates with agency experience can be turned off by a more buttoned-up environment. There’s a cultural dissonance; she explains, “Agencies are more freeing. It’s not about skill sets at that point, it’s about cultural fit.”

Or will you thrive at an agency?

  • Good for: Gaining a range of experience. Agencies are great for getting a breadth of experience, especially in the design/UX space, Seattle Account Manager Robby Vetter says. However, the downside can be that you don’t get the depth of experiences or projects when it comes to marketing yourself as a candidate.
  • Bad for: Getting a specialist position. For generalists, agency work is awesome. But if you’re looking for a more focused role, where you can gain a depth rather than breadth of experience, agencies typically can’t afford you that luxury. “It’s good to have some agency experience—just not all agency,” Vetter says. “You’re going to be a generalist if you keep doing that.”

Now trending: Bringing the agency environment to in-house teams

Agencies are more fast-paced, but as in-house teams take on more responsibility and visibility into parts of the business, their pace is accelerating too. And that pace is becoming evident in their work environment. NYC Account Manager Jacob Reeves says of the trend, “Companies are bringing that digital agency quality in-house, through creation of internal innovation or creativity labs.”

And they’re trying to keep up with agencies to attract and retain the top creative talent they want. The way they’re going about it varies company to company, but Kansas City Account Manager Jonathon Sharlow has seen companies loosen dress codes, upgrade to MacBooks, double (or triple) screens and set up common places for developers to code rather than relegating them to cubes.

What to take away

When evaluating opportunities, be honest with yourself, which may involve a heavy dose of self-awareness. (Do I actually want to work at a start-up? Or am I just applying because it sounds cool, but I actually crave stability?) Self-awareness will help you in your job search by not wasting your time on exploring opportunities that aren’t a good fit. 

And when a job search is feeling more like a journey of self-discovery, know that you don’t have to do it on your own. An experienced recruiter can help you work through these challenges with the benefit of understanding both agency and in-house environments well. If you decide to jump ship from an agency to in-house (or vice versa), a recruiter can help you position your experiences and skill sets to match the hiring manager’s expectations.

Want more tips to improve your digital and creative job search?

Learn more about how working with a digital and creative services recruiter can help you in your job search.

As a writer in TEKsystems’ marketing department, Kelly Cooper Niles develops content for brochures, presentations, and more recently, videos and blogs. When she’s not brainstorming puns, Kelly enjoys playing tennis and being by or on the water.

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