From University to Agency: 4 Things Students Should Know About Working in an Agency

December 1, 2019

Evan Pitchie

The hit series Mad Men depicts ad agencies as the most exciting line of work. The fancy meetings, the alcohol, the money—it seems like the ideal (work) life. In case you haven’t realized by now, that’s not how things really are. As marketing and creative arts students start thinking about their careers, a number of them will look to work in an agency. With that said, I decided to write this article to give interested students a realistic snapshot of the field in the hopes that I can help in deciding the best agency for you. These thoughts are based on my experience starting an agency and my interactions with people that work in agencies of all sizes.

1. Study the agency

Who are the clients that this agency deals with? What kind of mandates do they accept? How large is the agency? Knowing all these elements helps you better understand the agency. If the agency’s client list is concentrated around a certain industry, then expand your knowledge in that field; if their client list is spread across different industries, then aim to understand the agency's purpose. The types of mandates (brand identity, website development, PPC campaigns, etc.) they accept will give you an idea of what you will be working on; therefore, acquiring an understanding of these services before you join will help you better serve your clients. The size of the agency matters because it will determine things like leadership structure, client relations, and the relationship between the business development and creatives. In smaller agencies, departments work closer together than in larger agencies. Being aware of this will help you understand the most effective way of communicating between departments.

2. Relationship between the agency and the client

Some agencies operate in a way where you deliver what the client wants without any questions, others choose to challenge the client to determine if what the client asks for is really what they want and others engage in a mix of both. There is no right or wrong, there’s only what’s right for you (and the agency) based on your personal beliefs. Some clients believe strategy or research sessions are a waste of resources. Either because they’ve been burnt in the past or never received the value they expected. Other clients understand that an agency needs to get the full picture in order to deliver their best work and are willing to pay more. Be sure to inquire about this in your interview so that you know if you are expected to play it safe in order to generate the maximum amount of revenue or if you are encouraged to take risks and propose new ideas.  

3. Relationship between business development and creative departments

Continuing from the previous point, the relationship between the agency and the client will have a heavy impact on the relationship between the business development (BD) and creative departments. The BD team needs to bring in business in order to keep the lights on. The creative team needs to execute the mandate to make the client happy. A potential conflict that can arise is if the creative team has an idea that they believe is better, but the BD team does not believe the client will accept. Agencies that deliver what the client requests without question may tend to prioritize profits; therefore, the BD reps may exert more influence on what the creative department does because they have built the relationship with the client and will want to deliver on what was promised. Asking the interviewer how the agency deals with these sorts of conflicts will help you understand the internal culture and structure of the agency.

4. Challenging clients and projects

No matter which agency you decide to work at, you will encounter challenging clients or projects that don’t go according to plan. By “challenging clients” I am referring to clients that ask for more than what is agreed upon or seek to find problems with the work delivered to reduce the price. Knowing this inevitable fact, how the agency deals with these situations, and how they work to avoid them will determine the kind of experience you will have when you encounter this situation. Ask the interviewer about how the agency handles conflicts with clients to see if they align with your values.

If you really enjoy this industry, then seeing your clients use the work your agency created is incredibly rewarding. If you work in an agency that truly aims to solve your clients’ problems, then you will build a strong and healthy relationship with your clients. This feeling will drive and motivate you as you grow in the agency and work on larger mandates.