For the first eight years of my career I worked brand-side in a large company. This experience was full of long-term projects, one-brand focus and an abundance of resources. After getting used to this life, I transitioned to a smaller agency. This was the time my peers were becoming directors, while I went back to an associate-level position. Was it worth it?
What we’ll cover:
- Learn a lot, and fast
- Understand what grabs attention
- Prep for freelancing, if that’s your goal
- Building relationships overtime
- Let’s summarise
Our careers will evolve as brand/company/audience needs evolve. This means the position you have in ten years might not be invented or commonplace today. For example, the idea of end-to-end experience, or even UX by that matter, was not as recognised when I was in art school. We need to re-evaluate our career path every 2-3 years to shift and re-educate where appropriate. These were the exact reasons why I went to an agency mid-career.
Learn a lot, and fast
When going agency-side, my goal was to transition into a new role - strategy. This was leagues away from being a footwear designer. There is a lot to learn about strategy, from research to presentation and even the executional aspect. By going into an agency, I was able to try and perfect different strategy approaches, while applying them across various industries. Over the course of four years, I was able to gain experience in beauty, luxury, hospitality, sportswear, food & beverage and wellness, to name a few.
This type of variety is difficult to acquire brand-side, as your role usually includes becoming well-versed in one specific area of one specific brand/business. Going agency-side for a career transition was like getting a graduate degree. I felt like I was constantly learning and engaging with various case studies. The different perspectives and solutions were ones I could apply to any industry, as cross-pollination of ideas is key to creating new, yet familiar ideas.
Understand what grabs attention
In an agency, you are constantly pitching ideas and work, including internally, for a tender/pitch or within a project. Whether you are a creative or project manager, you start to understand what types of concepts and presentations catch attention, and which ones don’t. It’s a constant cycle of trial and error, iteration and refinement.
For example, the concept overview is the ‘big idea’, which can be everything from a marketing campaign to a retail platform. It is a catchy statement or title that encompasses the unique position your project will have. It should be easy, understandable, wow and ultimately shareable. Creating a ‘big idea’ is one of the most difficult aspects of a project. It might take days, numerous conversations and hundreds of options to find that wow, yet understandable concept.
I cannot tell you what a great exercise this is to do time and time again with different clients. It shapes your mind to see the focused, thought-provoking idea that can lead your team and your client to a new, interesting space. It is so ingrained in my mind that even as I am doing a UX/UI project, this concept of the ‘big idea’ is challenging me to better find and focus my work.
Prep for freelancing, if that’s your goal
For some, transitioning into freelancing is no problem. For others like myself, it can seem like a huge leap. Freelance is a goal of mine, but I am not one of the brave ones who can just jump into the unknown. When working at a smaller agency, you are able to see how to go through the steps of acquiring, working with and keeping clients. This includes pitching, clarifying scope and managing expectations as a project progresses.
Of course these types of learnings can be picked up from a YouTube video or blog post. However, the most helpful part about seeing this at an agency was understanding what was normal and what was not. This gave me more confidence to know when to pushback, and when to analyze what went wrong in our process. Though I was not a project or client manager myself, I asked questions about managing clients so I could both improve my work and do the same one day.
Building relationships overtime
There was one specific project that helped me understand the agency landscape. This was reworking our agency’s portfolio and case studies, where I did extensive research on our competitors as a start. What quickly became clear was that there were dozens of talented agencies with very similar specs. Many had similar taglines or missions of ‘transforming’ brands and their customers. So if positioning wasn’t a differentiator, then what was?
Relationships are key within business - and life. They are especially important in small agencies. The agency’s personality, including its design, communication, business and relationship style determined a successful collaboration. As a small agency, you become a team within your client’s company. Anyone can get the work done, I mean it’s not rocket science. The key is enjoying the process, and acquiring something valuable beyond deliverables. Perhaps a client learns something new, gets promoted or increases their confidence by working with your agency. That is not a PDF deliverable - that’s a result from a good relationship and personalities that go well together.
I get it, your colleagues are becoming heavy-weights and you made a mid-career change. A change that is also intense and does not have the comforts of working within a brand. My four years at an agency were formative in how I looked at working with clients and building creative concepts. If there is something you want to learn, and an agency provides that - then jump right in.
- This move mid-career can be difficult as others are working their way up into director positions
- Going to an agency is a great way to learn a lot and fast, especially if you are transitioning roles
- As you are constantly pitching ideas, you start to understand what catches others’ attention
- If freelancing is your goal, a small agency is a great way to see how it all works
- Agencies say the same things, but relationships are the key differentiator