One of the biggest decisions that marketing professionals will make in their career is whether they choose to pursue positions as part of an agency or in an “in-house” department. This decision on the surface may not seem significant as both options feature many of the same roles and specialties and can often overlap with seasoned professionals often moving between the two throughout their careers. However, what they represent in terms of differences in work/life balance, lifestyle, opportunities, compensation, and more can radically alter the employment experience that a marketing professional has.
Here are some of the common differences between agency and in-house marketing teams that professionals may experience.
Variety in work.
By far the most obvious and dramatic difference between the agency and in-house worlds is the diversity of the projects, industries, and products that you’ll engage with. By simple virtue of their associate models the agency position will typically offer a number of different client accounts across several industries while the in-house team will focus only on their department or company’s associated portfolio.
Most agencies have a few specialties in terms of the services offered or the industries served. It’s pretty common to find agencies that focus on clients in the legal services or health and medicine industries and as a result their client pool may lean heavily in one direction. However, compared to the in-house team the variety offered by the agency role will be undeniable. This is one of the main drivers behind many professional’s early decision to take an agency job. The more varied clients and projects can offer an excellent arena to hone skills and pick up new experiences.
In terms of variety, there’s also a significant difference in terms of how individual roles operate. in-house teams tend to be more specialized on a per player basis while agencies often have flexible roles that may be required to span a few different disciplines as needed. From a career standpoint it’s often accepted that agencies tend to offer a bigger sample of marketing experiences while in-house work will require more specialized depth.
Pace and workflow
On the other hand, this is an area where in-house teams tend to shine. The agency world is based heavily on structured statements of work (SOW) and fixed or variable deliverables, in some cases also billable hours. As a result, the work that an agency does can sometimes feel constrained or contorted by the confines of the contract and the client’s cooperation.
Comparatively, in-house teams tend to have more trust and a longer leash than their agency counterparts. Whereas an agency may be tasked with executing a specific campaign function in a limited period of time, the in-house team may have oversight over the entire product or campaign over several years.
From a control and scope perspective the in-house team will often have more room to work in long term strategy and pull in more resources and money to achieve loftier goals. Although each professional’s experience will vary based on their role and employer.
Lifestyle and balance
This is easily where in-house teams typically make their case. Pound for pound the in-house teams, especially in mid to large size companies will enjoy better benefits and work/life balance than the vast majority of agencies. Thanks to the weight and standards set by the other non-marketing portions of the business and the slower pace in-house marketing professionals tend to work less hours and enjoy a more balanced lifestyle.
Conversely, agencies are notorious for their grind style workflow with aggressive and sometimes brutal deadlines being a regular occurrence. The biggest challenge and complaint that agency professionals often express is the long hours and high stress that the agency model often brings. Due to many agency’s tight margins and the need to deliver on agreed upon deadlines the generally accepted lifestyle in many agencies is that everyone is “on call” to work as many hours as needed to ensure the deliverables meet their deadline and the campaign succeeds.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be high stress in-house jobs or that supremely chill agencies don’t exist. However as an industry benchmark these tend to be the prevailing experiences and feedback.
This is where agencies typically make their case and many young professionals tend to agree. Agencies tend to have a high turnover rate (see above for why) and as a result there is high potential for accelerated growth. It’s not uncommon for agency professionals to come in as a fresh analyst and find themselves leading the same team they started on in only a few years.
This is one of the most common reasons that professionals put up with the rigors of the agency lifestyle. By accepting more stress and grind early on the theory is that the agency world will help you cut your teeth and earn some stripes so you can transition to something bigger and better, sooner.
The opposite is true of the in-house world. Marketing professionals often cite in-house teams as being incredibly slow on the professional development side and internal promotion opportunities as few and far between. Many professionals view in-house positions as long haul opportunities and the employees who hold them tend to be settled locals with no intention of leaving anytime soon. As a result, the pace of upward momentum in many big marketing departments can be sluggish.
There are also some simple facts about how agencies and in-house terms are structured that should be considered as well. These differences are not inherently positive or negative but are rather just common variables that professionals may have preferences about or factor into their career decisions.
Agencies compared to their in-house counterparts tend to be flatter organizationally as a result of them being smaller overall companies. An in-house marketing department may represent 150 employees as part of a company with almost 1,000 total. Meanwhile, an agency may be 100 total employees including not only the marketing professionals but also all the administrative and operational teams as well. On the one hand, this difference means that agencies tend to feel more closely knit and offer more direct lines to leadership and decision makers but it also tends to create more independent operator roles. The bureaucratic and layered nature of larger companies with marketing departments tends to weave more managerial type roles into their structure and thus create more opportunities for professionals to acquire general business and management experience.
These same organizational trends also mean that in-house teams are more segregated from their colleagues and counterparts and have more hoops to jump through. This results in these teams often being more siloed and specialized than agency professionals. An in-house team may have an individual whose entire job is to create new PPC campaigns, another that does optimization on those campaigns, and a third that analyzes and reports on campaign performance. Meanwhile, in the agency world a single person may handle all of those tasks for a pool of clients.
While this is a very common and hotly debated topic the reality is that both the agency and in-house routes are viable ways to pursue a career in marketing and advertising. In fact, many professionals will pivot between the two multiple times throughout their career based on new and changing opportunities. What each person chooses to pursue tends to be more about immediate goals and preferences than any objective “best choice”.