Two years ago I decided to leave the agency world behind and begin a new chapter on the brand side. The decision wasn't easy, nor quickly made, but I'm glad I did it.
Starting out our careers on the agency side is what most creatives do. It can be a truly fantastic experience. Agency life is fast-paced. You learn from top-notch creatives and gain exposure to amazing brands. The highly transferable nature of your creative skills may take you to several countries. You probably work on blue chip clients at blue-blooded agencies. You win your share of the "chrome." You get to make an impact on the work.
Yet times are changing. The heyday of the agency world is seemingly over. We've all read the headlines, a litany of sins and reasons why the outlook appears so bleak. Declining budgets, agency mergers, splits and fiascos, the rise of social, the pace of digital—the list is endless. To add insult to injury, you're asked to make your video vertical.
As an agency creative, you've likely questioned how the industry got this way. You'd also be in good company wondering what you should do next. Should you stay the course? Do you go for that CCO network role? Does the buzz and excitement of winning a pitch still happen? And why the hell are timesheets so damn important anyway?
You then wonder, what about going client-side? Would the grass be greener? Saying that you were thinking of going client-side was once taboo. At best it would induce a condescending eye roll from your colleagues or be branded as a sell-out move. Deciding to swap the excitement of high-pressure agency life for a bigger salary with an inversely proportional creative standard—who would do that? There would be little to no creative opportunity.
Mirroring the changes in the industry are changes in the perceptions of going directly to a brand. After 20-plus years on the agency side, I decided to make the leap. Here's what I have found.
During my agency days I worked on multiple brands. The variety of challenges and opportunities were great, but I always felt stretched and it was hard to focus. Now on the other side, I create for one brand. Everything I do is centered on making one brand a success. This doesn't mean there aren't numerous moving parts or a lack of variety—quite the contrary. But there is a renewed sense of focus, and I get to do more of what I love to do.
On the agency side it was challenging to directly reach the ultimate decision-maker on much of the work, the CMO. Now I just send my CMO a text, do a video call, walk up to their desk. We talk, we brainstorm. Ideas and decisions flow more easily. Stuff gets done with fewer meetings and less red tape.
Influence and context
Inside an agency, the teams worked hard to build relationships and form true partnerships with the clients. We really, really tried to delve into the business, but there were always limits. Being on the brand side, I now know the context and have access to all the moving parts of the business that would be unprecedented on the agency side. I'm better positioned, by far, to cohesively drive the marketing and product experience.
Creatives always want their work to make an impact. You want what you design and deliver to matter. On the brand side, this is two-fold. You have the opportunity to develop outward-facing work to make your brand famous, much as an agency does. But you also get to develop creative that has an impact on your own operation, staff and the business itself. I'm more connected to the people I design for, and I'm focused on serving their needs, not inventing new ones. And I get to do this on a global scale.
I originally worried about the lack of variety in working on one brand. It turns out that
Sure, being on the brand side might not be for every creative. Like many companies such as Quantcast that value design across their organizations with varying levels of maturity and success, you still need to push for better work and visibility. While at an agency your place as a creative is deemed obvious, at brands you continually need to reassert design's ROI and creativity's value. But the challenge keeps you razor-sharp, pushes you to think ahead and makes your work more thoughtful.
Do I miss the agency world? Yes and no. I miss the wide variety of creative talent and thinking that you find in agencies. I don't miss filling in another infernal timesheet or using Lotus Notes. Then again, the variety of creative minds and talent is here on the brand side too. It comes in different forms, so you just have to look.
I'm happy to know that everything I learned in the agency world helped get me to where I am today so I can experience what's ahead. I'm proud of the work I did in my agency days, and I'm excited for the new creative challenges to come on the brand side.