Should You Go Agency or Corporate?

It is very rare for a professional in the marketing/PR world to not switch from the agency to the corporate side at least once in their career. Having worked in both, there are definitely benefits to experiencing both sides. Now that I work in corporate, I understand why my brand teams would often push back on creative/ideas due to “legal concerns” or why they never seemed to get back to me in a timely manner. Agencies are fast-paced and everything on the corporate side happens slowly due to review processes and hierarchical decision rights. Fortunately, I think I have stronger relationships with my agencies because I have a better understanding of their roles than others and the value they can bring to the team.

As many across the country will be graduating in the next few weeks, I know they will ponder the question, “Should I go agency or corporate?” Remember, every organization is not created the same and you have to do your research about each one including talking to employees. Websites are shiny and pretty, but you want the actual truth when it comes to your future career. Below are some pros and cons for you to weigh as you debate about whether an agency or working the client side is right for you.

Culture vs. Environment

They, whoever they are, always say college is the time to find yourself. If you’ve found yourself to be carefree, creative, and someone who just goes with the flow, you might fit in better to the agency culture. If you like routines, structure, and consistency then working on the corporate side may be better for you. Agencies are often casual places filled with tattooed creatives and the really scrappy agencies usually have a bar hidden in the back. Most of corporate America is not casual and there are written and unwritten rules that you have to adhere to thrive and survive in an organization. Corporate politics are real and you have to decide whether you can fall in line or you will fall behind. When interviewing be sure to get a tour and ask to speak to team members so you can get a good vibe on the environment and culture.

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Breadth vs. Depth

In a corporate role you will gain a much deeper understanding of the business. You own your piece of the business and are involved in every aspect of the product creation, campaign planning, and execution. At an agency, you are only involved in planning and execution and sometimes execution. This is why agencies sometimes value professionals that have worked at a brand that is part of their portfolio. You can bring interesting and unique insights to the team. At agency you get a breadth of working on multiple clients or campaigns for a brand. On the client side you get the depth. For those that like versatility, the agency side may be best for you. For those that like to become an expert, the corporate side may be better. In your interview be sure to clarify what your role will be. Ask the interviewer whether you will be working on one piece of the business or a few.

Short Term vs. Long Term

Fresh out of college, you just want to be employed, no matter where it is. When deciding between agencies and corporate you have to consider the short term tradeoffs and long term payoffs. Entry level starting salary at any agency is not the greatest unless you have stellar internship experience and know someone in the company. With student loan debt being higher than ever among this generation, you may have to trade off short-term happiness working the client side in order to pay off your debt in the long term. As hard as it is, you should consider where you want to be in 5-10 years. The paths and management roles at agencies are very different than corporate roles. Once again, do your research and try to plan out the steps, jobs you need to get you there.

At this point in my career, I can’t say I prefer one to the other. I can say that having experienced both has made me a stronger marketing communications professional. As I said, whatever your initial decision is, know you will likely switch sides in 5-10 years or maybe a year and that’s okay. Let me know your thoughts about agency vs. corporate in the comments. Feel free to post your advice to recent graduates if you have switched sides in your career.

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3 Comments on “Should You Go Agency or Corporate?

  1. Leigh, thank you for posting this. As a 12 year veteran of the corporate world, I’m thinking of making the switch to agency – so your insights are timely and valuable.

  2. This is spot on! I recently made the move to corporate after working on the agency side. In my new role, I work with the creative agency for my group and I echo your sentiments regarding how helpful it is to understand both sides.

    Another difference I’ve noticed is that because agencies are smaller (and have less politics), you tend to get to take on more responsibility quickly. So if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do in marketing, starting on the agency side is a great way to, not only see multiple brands, but to get your feet wet in many aspects of marketing.

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