Confessions of an Advertising Recruiter: 3 Myths About the Client Side

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I've been an external advertising recruiter, a "headhunter," for the past 10 years.

After I published "The Five Secrets I Learned as a Recruiter That I Wish I Knew as a Candidate," I was asked by several industry execs to spill my guts about the dirty little secrets inside the advertising industry -- from a recruiter's perspective.

Client FOMO
Over the years, when I've asked ad agency candidates about their "dream" job, at least half of them expressed a desire to move to the client side.

Why? For one, there tends to be a "grass is greener" perception about the client side. Call it "client envy." Here are three leading myths about the client versus the agency side.

The money is better
Many people are surprised -- I know I was -- to hear that salaries are higher in ad agencies for equivalent levels of experience.

Here's the math.

Salaries tend to be higher at agencies because more cash comes in as a base salary. But marketing departments tend to pay more generous and predictable performance bonuses than agencies. Also, more stock is disbursed on the client side, often with vesting periods of several years.

But, surprisingly, total compensation (defined as base salary, plus bonus in any form, plus medical, dental and disability benefits, including paid time off, plus long-term compensation, plus other perks) tends to be approximately equal for equivalent levels of experience on both sides.

Bonuses are a crapshoot
Not many employment agreements at agencies have a stated bonus amount. This is often true, even for some agencies at salaries above $250K. Sure, there are more explicit bonus distributions at the C-suite level -- often tied to performance -- but it's much more nebulous at the lower levels.

Agencies generally get twitchy when asked about the bonus plan, saying things like, "It depends on the total agency's performance, how well your office is doing, client satisfaction and your own soft measures."

By contrast, bonuses in larger marketing departments come with an exact calculation. You know where you stand on virtually every week of the year. And those bonuses tend to be more reliable. Many agencies make their bonuses magically disappear, often for years at a time (looking at you, WPP agencies.)

The lesson for agency candidates? Negotiate as much cash as you can in base salary and benefits; don't count on predictable bonuses.

The client side is more stable
There is a perception among agency employees that the client side is more stable for long-term employment, and affords a better work/life balance.

Sure, there may be some truth to having more predictable hours, depending where you work. There is also less risk of a major disruption from an account loss from a fickle client.

But marketing department positions are not turnover-proof. Look no further than the average tenure of a CMO over the past several years.

When I worked for agencies (FCB, BBDO and JWT), I always armored myself against potential account losses, anticipating a layoff. Fortunately for me, it never happened, and I worked several years on businesses that mowed through several CMOs and CEOs.

There are more tales to tell about work/life balance at agencies, networking and the impact of technology on recruiting. But that's for another confession.

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