5 Lessons learnt working agency and client-side
Updated: Mar 10
I've been very lucky, in the 11 years I've been working so far in the digital industry, I've experienced a lot and seen very different perspectives on ways of working, regulatory impacts and theories on "best practices" followed and then belittled shortly after.
In my roles so far I've quite literally alternated between client and agency working - offering me the opportunity to gain depth and breadth of industry, but also specific function and the different meanings a function can have depending on company, agency or industry.
Often I've found that the way to gain real insight into the different operations of clients and agencies is to see the reactions to regulatory changes. Regulatory changes offer a really interesting anecdote because you would expect them to impact agencies and clients exactly the same - if the whole industry is changed, surely everyone should feel that in balance? If the rule changes for one it changes for the other and the world has altered. Except sometimes (and I've witnessed it), an agency has a different dependency on the affected article - and that dependency might be the reason they are able to scale so well and deliver to a high number of clients.
I will never forget the day that (not provided) was announced by Google. I am aware enough to admit that I was a naive graduate at the time (I still am in a lot of ways today) and I mentioned it to my manager, Paul Foxton. Well, Paul was savvy and understood the business impact of digital and he immediately saw our insights flushing away before his eyes. Since that change it has shifted the way keyword insights are driven, the way SEOs perform daily tasks, the way paid marketing has become the cornerstone of some businesses today.
What are the lessons I have learnt (so far)?
Let's get one thing cleared up right away - I do not believe I am the finished article. I'm not even a finished article. I do think, however, that if I had known the below when I was trying to decide between working in agencies or client-side, it would have helped. And if I can help others to make that choice a little easier, then I'd like to.
Below I've listed 5 lessons I've learnt from working in two very different structures.
1. Expect change - anticipate it and be prepared to get involved
Changes happen everywhere. In clients it's often a "reshuffle" or a "re-org". Usually that means that a flaw has been found in the way the business is operating and a new way forward has been agreed. In reality, this can be a big or a small impact. It might be one team, it might be the department, it might be the whole organisation.
The key here for me was to ensure I offer enough value that multiple people might want to house me inside their team, offering clear advantage when deciding what types of work I want to do.
Change can take place in agencies too - the pitching and contracting process allows for churn of previous clients and intake of new ones. The key is to ensure connection to all key people and ensure you are remembered for good work by the clients you have and good collaboration by your agency team.
Agencies with a clear dependency on a few big clients should be viewed with a measure of caution - particularly if the operating model and accountancy is not open and transparent. Warning lights come to mind.
2. Everybody is faking it; and that's ok
This is omni-present, and I love it.
"Fake it until you make it" is one of my favourite phrases. It is a cheeky way to say "If you manifest hard and work your way into believing you are capable of delivering something, you will deliver it".
Across client-side and agency roles I have seen others (and done it myself, of course) in roles that are far beyond them when they have started. But through hard work and commitment they have progressed and delivered everything (and more) than they could have expected. I have experienced significant imposter syndrome - still do, on at least a monthly basis, but it's challenging my comfort zone and I push through to become better and learn more.
The key I've learnt is to ask people in a genuine, humble and thought-provoking way. Be keen and curious to learn. Instead of asking "What can I do to be better at X?", consider asking "How did you overcome your challenges with X and are there any Y strategies I could look into further?" - the leader you speak to will see that you are truly taking your own development in your hands.
A final important point on this - when you know someone is faking it and they get it wrong in some way, don't criticise. Offer them a hand up. It will benefit them, and you, further in the long run than knocking them down.
3. Connect with people - problems get solved that way
It doesn't matter whether you are the most technical, non-socially driven, robotic human in existence, in both client-side and agency businesses, you have to connect with people.
In business, our jobs are to help people. To solve a problem, which benefits the company (and preferably the consumer, but read that below). And people will help solve problems with people they like.
I was once involved in a big re-organisation of a company. With multiple markets converging to work more globally. And one of the SME's in a market approached me in a meeting to tell me that "if ABC becomes manager of XYZ at the end of the project, I'm leaving". I was shocked. We had all spent the meeting agreeing our vision for the future and how we thought the company would be benefitted by all working together etc. And now there was a direct conflict simply due to one individual being perceived in a certain way by someone else.
The strength and importance of human connection in the workplace cannot be underestimated.
4. Look under the hood - find out the real drivers
Related to my previous point about being prepared for change - "ensure I offer enough value that multiple people might want to house me inside their team", and the key to allow yourself to do that, is to know the drivers of the business or client.
If you know that your travel client requires the number of searches to go up (and then to include an additional filter) in order to drive a higher conversion rate; define your strategy to align to theirs. If you know that your client is focused on content in specific verticals to drive relevance and traffic; define your strategy to align to theirs.
For an individual within an organisation, or an agency helping multiple organisations, this ability will drive value and put you on the fast track for a successful career. If you are not involved in the drivers of business delivering objectives, find a way to help. Be creative, think differently and show you can deliver value.
5. Have a customer focus
In a couple of clients I've worked for, this hasn't been prioritised with the intensity I'd expect. In fact, it's been assumed that customers were satisfied by the nature of purchasing the product. To me, that's unacceptable.
It's often hard - especially in an agency, given the distance from the end customer and often removed nature of the relationship - to feel like you contribute to the customer experience, but you do. You absolutely do.
I've focused mostly on digital marketing and analytics in my career, delivering a lot of recommendations and insights to drive changes in campaigns or site optimisations to improve customer experience. However, if I had not delivered those, the customer:
May not have engaged with the brand if the campaign was not correct
May not have converted through the site if the optimisation was not correct
May have chosen a competitor and not returned to be a customer with my brand
Your skills are always relevant to the end customer - and I've found it is important to re-focus on that as often as possible.
As I wrote before, this isn't meant to be a rationale for others to take forward as their own, but something to act as a case study for what has happened for me and what might be seen to be important in the future too.
I'm interested to see how relevant this post is in a few years.