Leap in to agency life

January 7th, 2018

Considering making the leap from in-house to agency? Unsure about what to expect? In this blog, I share some insights from my own experience of working in an agency, as well of those of others who have taken the plunge.

Having worked in-house, agency and now as an independent consultant, I’m often asked what it’s like to work in all three environments. The most common queries come from those in in-house roles, curious about agency life, yet unsure about what to expect.

So, I’ve listed some of the key things anyone thinking about taking the plunge into agency life needs to know, plus Katie Macaulay, Managing Director of AB and Lauren McMenemy, Director of The Content Type share their experiences of agency life…

Dare to be different

Creative freedom reigns supreme in an agency. You’ll be surrounded by people who understand that there is a creative process, that sometimes you need to suggest 10 dud ideas to spark the winning one.

“Let’s do it the way we’ve always done it” will never be uttered and you will always be challenged to channel your passion into new ideas and look for the latest inspiration.

Sometimes being creative will involve knowing how to scale down an idea into something palatable for a corporate client, that meets their requirements while still making an impact.

Juggling skills are essential

All internal communicators need to be able to juggle, but agency life takes it to a new level. You will have multiple clients, all with their own deadlines, stakeholders, budgets and demands and you need to manage them all at once.

It’s not always easy, but it’s never boring. The days will fly by as you position yourself as your client’s critical friend, making everything appear effortless and their challenges disappear.

There’s nowhere to hide

Agencies are often small, 30 or so people. It means that everyone needs to be good at what they do and perform to the highest level as there’s nowhere to hide. This means you can be confident you’ll be working with some of the most talented and passionate individuals in the industry, and you’ll be inspired to be the best version of yourself every day.

Become part of the family

Agency culture often manifests itself in a family atmosphere. There will be days you don’t agree with your colleagues, whether it’s over creative elements or the fact that you all have different projects vying for priority. But you will also know that that team of people have your back, they’ll celebrate with you, commiserate with you, laugh with you, stay late to help you meet a deadline and make you coffee when your call has overrun by two hours. And many will become friends for life.

Grow a thick skin

Creativity is a big part of agency life, and like any other form of art, writing and design is subjective. Clients won’t always like what you do, and other times they’ll love it. A thick skin is essential but it’s also worth remembering that the way a client responds won’t always be about you. They will be under immense pressure from stakeholders, and the ever-moving goalposts – as long as you can hand on heart say you did a good job that met a brief, don’t take criticism personally.

Broaden your scope of work

Nowhere else will you get such a range of experience. You’ll get to work across all industries on all sorts of projects. It’s exciting not knowing what might be coming down the pipeline. It’s also incredibly rewarding – agencies are often small, so you’ll be in the heart of the action delivering work that can make a real difference to employees. So, if you’re looking to build your experience, agency life could be just the thing to progress your career.


Don’t just take my word for it…

I also caught up with two IC colleagues to give you their personal insight of what agency life is like:

“If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and experiencing life agency-side in 2018, I urge you to give it a go. Your corporate experience, particularly being able to think like a client, will prove invaluable to your new agency colleagues. 

“For those who find corporate life rather slow, bureaucratic and hierarchal, you’ll love the pace, dynamism and collaborative spirit of agency life. AB, the agency I run, employs around 30 people who all love what they do. It’s incredibly motivational to work in an environment where everyone can – and does – give their best. And there is genuinely no office politics – there simply isn’t time!

“Agencies often give people more freedom to explore what interests them. At AB role profiles are never strait jackets. We urge people to pursue their interests, develop new skills and volunteer for opportunities that stretch them.

“Ultimately, our clients call the shots, but we are given a huge amount of creative freedom and responsibility. Our job is to think differently – to challenge, offer a fresh perspective and encourage our clients to take brave, bold decisions that really drive their organisations forward.”

Katie Macaulay is managing director of AB, the UK’s longest-established employee communications agency founded in 1964. She has worked in corporate communications for nearly 30 years in a variety of roles – as a client, independent freelance consultant and leading agency teams.

AB are currently recruiting for an account manager – if you’re curiosity  about agency life has been piqued by this blog, take a look at the job spec.


“When I moved from Australia to the UK, abandoning my newspaper career, I had no idea what I’d be doing. I ended up as a copywriter in a communications agency – following, I told myself, in my father’s ad agency footsteps. I was shell shocked, though, unsure of my post-newspaper career, and I soon escaped into the relative calm of digital roles in the public sector, re-learning my trade and figuring out how this stuff worked as the 21st century rolled on.

“After a few years in the NHS, though, I became restless. I longed for the creative freedom I had in previous lives, and I wanted more variety in my work. Pushed by NHS restructuring, I ended up back in an agency – for real this time, focussed and determined and much more sure of myself and my abilities. And I loved it. Moving from pure health work, I was suddenly immersed in the world of finance, of metals, of consumer goods, of charities. In the morning I’d be in-house with a client acting as an extension of their team; in the afternoon I’d be interviewing high achievers or putting together staff magazines. It was the perfect meld of editorial and creative freedom.

“Sure, it’s not all smooth sailing. You do get the odd “client from hell”, you do sometimes clash with colleagues over the direction of a piece of work. But you get that anywhere. What I loved most about working in agencies was the freedom from office politics, from corporate bullshit, from bargaining and constant compromise. In agencies, yes, you must compromise as the client is the one paying for your work at the end of the day, but if you’re lucky, you’ll be seen as a trusted advisor, a critical friend, and you’ll be able to hold that client’s hand and push them towards new and shiny ways of working. And maybe an award or two.

“I went back in-house again recently, and it really hit home for me: I am not meant for the corporate world. I love agency life so much that I set up my own.” 

Lauren McMenemy is a storyteller and founder of The Content Type.


Categories: agencyInternal communication

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“Helen’s passion for her profession shines through very clearly and she manages to combine her deep knowledge of internal communications with a mix of pragmatism and fresh thinking. She is a delight to work with and has a high level of integrity.”

Richard Fitzmaurice, TMF Group